Tuesday, June 28, 2016

"Diamond in the Rough, Part 3" - a Winters/Casey case file.

I've not done as well as I would have liked, keeping with my 'one new blog post every week' New Years resolution. But even though it's been a month coming, here's the final installment in "Diamond in the Rough"!

If you haven't checked them out, Diamond in the Rough parts One and Two are necessary reading for this installment. Be sure to check them out!


"Michael Powers and Bahir Al-Alakari," Casey repeated as she frantically filled out the report of what Horatio Younger had told us.

I would have volunteered to help her write the report, but I still had no idea how to use most of the new electronic gadgetry that ruled life in 2076. I was barely able to operate my cell phone. Which, lucky me, had been enough. Minutes after we'd left the interrogation room with Younger I'd placed a call to Homeland Security and told them the situation with Scour.

If what Younger told us was true, Scour had the potential to do far greater things than removing nude selfies from the internet. With the ability to permanently delete nearly anything from the internet, Scour was nearly priceless. But something told me that at least one of the developers had already placed a price on it, and for all we knew it could be headed for the hands of the highest bidder at that moment.

Any government could become an oppressive regime, when those in power had the ability to silence the common people. An already oppressive regime could become a totalitarian state virtually overnight.

So part of this case was now officially above our pay grade. But the nearest Homeland Security office was halfway across town, and the afternoon traffic rush would slow them down getting to the precinct. Until they coordinated their efforts and sent an agent over to work with us, NYPD had jurisdiction.

Homeland Security was already in the process of putting some of their top people from the cyber crimes division on locating the remaining Scour app, as well as locating the hardware that had been used to create it. As far as we knew, Scour only had the power to delete any form of media. There was no guarantee that the app itself wasn't leaving some kind of data trail, and that was apparently the angle they were going to work.

As for me and Casey, we had two suspects to find.

Once we had their names, it didn't take long for me and Casey to find workplaces, finger prints, DMV records, and even birth certificates of our two suspects. Or, at least, it didn't take long for us to find the information on Bahir Al-Akari.

As far as out databases were concerned, Michael Powers didn't exist.

"Did we just figure out which of our app developers has Scour?" I asked, looking at the Screen onto which Casey was, again, typing 'Michael Powers'. Once again, the database found no information.

"Seems like the first thing you'd do, isn't it?" Casey asked, sliding her finger across the screen and returning to her report, which she typed frantically as we walked. "Crime is a hell of a lot easier to commit if the police don't even have a name on you." The screen was nearly transparent, so it didn't hamper her speed in the least.

"Saves us the trouble of deciding which one we need to go after first," I replied as the two of us stepped out of the precinct. The afternoon air had a nip in it. The GPS in my phone would lead the Homeland Security agents to our location. so we had no qualms about starting our search without them. We also had no qualms about using the very same technology to pinpoint the exact location of the last phone known to be in Al-Akari's possession.

So we hopped a cab to Central Park.

Central Park is around one-and-one-third square miles in the middle of New York City. That doesn't sound too large, but when it's crisscrossed with jogging paths, playgrounds, and densely wooded patches, it could be very easy to disappear. Not to mention that, for all we knew, Al-Akari had ditched his phone after his app excursions had gone south, and they'd been picked up at a pawn shop.

Still, it was the only lead we had.

A hundred yards from the ping-point of the cell, Casey and I split up. It was in the southeast portion of the park, along one of the more isolated running trails. I crossed a long field, damp grass crunching beneath my shoes, passing a few slides and a jungle gym and some sets of monkey bars, to get to the sidewalk on the other side of the ping. As I walked I casually looked across the field to the jogging path, which ran along the woods to the south. Some benches were positioned along the edge of the track, and I could see a few people sitting there. I couldn't tell from the distance which of them were closest to the ping, or if any of them were using a phone.

I reached the sidewalk and started walked toward the benches. In the distance, maybe a hundred yards ahead, I could see Casey approaching from the opposite direction. I adjusted my speed so we could reach the benches at the same moment, and walked as nonchalantly as possible with my hands in my pockets. Casey and I each closed half our distance to the ping in the next minute or so, placing us around fifty yards apart. I could now clearly see three benches. One of them, the one closest to Casey, was unoccupied. The bench closest to me was occupied by a couple, who were sitting sickeningly close to one another and smiling at images that flashed by on a phone.

The center bench was occupied by a single person. He was scrolling casually on a cell phone, occasionally taking in the park before looking back to his device. He was not quite middle-aged, but no longer a 'young man', either. He had dark hair that had started to slightly recede, and round-rimmed glasses that looked like they belonged on an old portrait of John Lennon.

Casey had noticed him, too.

She didn't exactly quicken her pace, but her strides became more leonine, more controlled. Though she was still moving at the same pace she'd been earlier, I got the distinct impression that she'd be on this guy like a hunting cat, should he decide to bolt.

The sky was already darkening on the western edge of the park. The sun had disappeared behind the trees around an hour earlier, coating the park in navy blue shadows. Yellow illumination from street lamps made my shadow stand out like a cookie cutter as I stepped in front of the middle bench and casually sat beside the lone man.

I was sitting just close enough to be uncomfortable. The man looked at me briefly out of the corner of his eye, frowned, and then began scooting away from me. He was too slow; before he'd secured more space for himself, Casey had slipped into the remaining space on the bench.

"Good evening, Mr. Al-Akari," Casey said, nodded cordially to him.

I couldn't see his face because he was turned to her, but when he replied with, "What?", I could hear the surprise in his voice.

"What's the breaking and entering count now, Officer Casey?" I added, causing him to spin to me. "Six? Plus trespassing, criminal mischief, destruction of property, and one case of arson? You're building quite a repertoire."

"Excuse me?" The man replied. "Is this some kind of joke?"

The gears in my head flew into motion, almost faster than I could process the thoughts. I abruptly froze and held my breath. Adrenaline surged through my veins, making me hyper aware. And I realized that I hadn't heard a single laugh from the happy couple behind me; not one term of endearment or word of affection.

"Maybe," I muttered before leaping from the bench and turning over my shoulder.

The woman, who'd been sharing the phone with her man moments before, was now laying on the ground. The strange thing was, she was still in the exact same position she'd been while snuggled on the bench. She still laughed and pointed into space, as though sharing a moment on loop with her significant other who was no longer there. Nearby lay the phone she had been sharing, and only when I looked extremely closely did I notice the shimmer of the phone's rear-facing camera.

The woman was a hologram.

And the young man who'd been sitting on the bench with her, whom I hadn't even bothered to look at long enough to form a description better than 'young man', was sprinting madly toward the ever-darkening woods to the south.

I took off after him so quickly I would have sworn my coat cracked like a bullwhip in my wake. But the guy I now assumed was Bahir Al-Akari had a large head start on me, and appeared to have at least five years of youth on me, maybe ten. If he made it to the woods, he was as good as gone.

So, without breaking stride, I snatched a medium-sized stick from the ground, maybe as thick as my index and middle fingers placed side-by-side. It looked like it had been abandoned by someone playing fetch with their dog earlier in the day.

I raised it over my hand, heaved it at Al-Akari like a hatchet, and hollerd, "Fetch!"

The stick whizzed wide of the young man's head by at least three feet, but it got my point across. He turned and glanced over his shoulder at me for only a split-second, but it was long enough for me to close the gap between us by at least a foot.

It also diverted his attention from the woods, allowing one of the Homeland Security agents who'd been skulking just at the edge of the shadows to tackle him around the ankles.

Al-Akari briefly went airborne, his arms and legs flying wildly, until he landed hard on his side on the dew-covered grass. The rest of his momentum was spent as he slid to a stop, allowing me to catch up. The Homeland Security Agent who was still standing had already whipped out a pair of handcuffs, and I helped him roll Al-Akari onto his back and cuff his hands behind him.

"Toby Winters, NYPD, nice to meet you," I huffed to the guy in the tan coat next to me. Give me a break; I'm not a sprinter.

"Kenton Chalmers, Homeland Security" the bald, muscle-bound guy replied. He hauled Al-Akari to his feet just as Casey trotted to a stop nearby. She wasn't so much as breathing heavy, and I was already nursing a wicked side stitch. Some things in life aren't fair.

"I want to make a deal," Al-Akari was already spouting as Chalmers and his partner, to whom I hadn't yet been introduced, started guiding the young man back toward the park. "I want a lawyer, and I want to make a deal."

"No time for deals," Casey spouted. "The District Attorney won't be in her office until tomorrow morning, and we need your partner tonight. He's already erased himself from the police databases. For all we know he's got the Russians and the Chinese and the North Koreans on video convo, and is waiting for the highest bidder to fill his PayPal account with enough money to set him up for the rest of his life. Besides, if you wanted to make a deal, you should have tried before breaking into a half-dozen homes."

"Look, I'm sorry!" Al-Akari spouted as the Homeland Security agents guided him toward the entrance to the park. "But I couldn't go to the police. I had no other choice!"

Though there's normally not a lot of foot traffic in Central Park after dark, we'd gained the attention of more than a handful of nearby people. They were starting to stare. "What're you talking about?" I asked, my tone hushed.

"After we developed the app, after we figured out what it could really do, he stole the only device with the prototype app and my computer, which we used to develop it. I tried to find him, but every time I'd track him down, he'd slip away again. He kept deleting his credit card transactions and cell records, so there was no way to pin him down."

"Well, since Michael Powers has also disappeared from the Police database, I guess you're going to have to take the whole fall yourself," Casey put it quietly. "Especially if that's all you've got to offer the D.A. in terms of a striking a deal."

Al-Akari stopped dead in his tracks, causing the Homeland Security agents who were guiding him to stumble. "Who the hell is Michael Powers?" He said, face wrought with confusion.

Casey blinked. "Your partner. The person who developed the app and ran the Flipkicker page with you."

Al-Akari's expression went from confused, to shocked, to outraged in as many seconds. "Let me guess: one of the ignorant sheep he lured into the Flipkicker scam gave you that name, didn't he?"

I stammered for a moment. How could he have known we'd gotten the information from Younger?

"Damn it, I knew I shouldn't have let him run the Flipkicker page!" Al-Alkari berated himself. The Homeland Security agents weren't even trying to move him at this point. They were just as enthralled by the tale as Casey and I.

"No wonder we couldn't find any criminal record on Michael Powers," I hissed. "It's really easy to hide your past if you don't exist."

"Out with it," Chalmers gruffed. "We're losing valuable time."

"His name isn't Michael Powers," Al-Akari said, as if he was explaining something incredibly obvious. "He must have changed his name on the Flipkicker page when he first created it." It looked like he tried to throw his hands into the air, but they were of course cuffed behind his back. "Which means he was planning this from the beginning. Bahir, you stupid, son of a..."

"What's his name?" Casey cried, grasping the front of the young man's shirt.

"Frederick Watson," Al-Akari replied, disdain dripping from the words. "And I have no idea where he could be. For all we know, he's on a plane to Moscow or Beijing or Pyongyang right now."

My spine straightened. "Wait," I interrupted. "Frederick Watson. The same Frederick Watson who's currently sitting in lock-up right now?"

It was Al-Akari's turn to look flabbergasted. "What? You caught him? How?"

"Frederick Watson isn't your partner," Casey parried. She indicated with her hand that we should keep walking, so Chalmers and his partner shoved Al-Akari into motion again. "He's another one of the poor people you and Powers cheated out of money to get Scour off the ground. He's one of the people whose apartments you broke into. But I think arson was a little over the top, don't you?"

"Arson?" Al-Akari asked, stumbling. "I didn't set anything on fire! Look, I broke into those five houses, but only because I thought he might have given something to one of the Flipkicker backers! I never set anything on fire."

"You need to count again," Casey shot back. "There were six break-ins."

The gears in my head did that 'turning faster than I can speak' thing again, and I had to stop and place my palm on my forehead to focus. "Unless he only did five of them."

Everyone stopped and looked at me, so I opened my mouth and hoped my line of thinking would make sense to someone other than me. "Think about it," I began. "If you're Watson, and you're actually planning this whole thing from the start, where is the most obvious place to hide, while still making sure you're getting as much as possible from your Flipkicker? As one of the backers of the project. Especially if you're the one designing the Flipkicker page. You put a false name on the page so none of the other contributors know you're involved, but you use your real name as a contributor so you can still reap some benefit from the project if your plan goes south. You make off with the app and the computer it was created on, then you remove your own name from the list of contributors. Your name can't be implicated because it's not attached to the project at all. The police can't even find you, because they don't know how to distinguish you from the other seven million people in the city. You hide in plain sight."

"But why even bother with the fake name, if hiding in plain sight is that easy?" Casey inquired.

"Watson was creative, but he's a shitty coder and hacker," Al-Akari interjected. "There's no way he'd be skilled enough to erase his real name from the police database, even with the aid of Scour.

"Then why the hell was he meeting with Horatio Younger in Diamond Brothers coffee?" Casey went on. "Doesn't meeting publicly with someone directly related to the very situation you're trying to escape from seem counterproductive?"

"He had to," I went on. My brain was still moving in hyperspeed. "Remember what Younger said? The victims all stayed in contact via Flipkicker's message boards. He established himself as a member of this community, and to keep from looking suspicious he had to keep up the act. It must have been Younger's idea to meet."

"Which is why Watson was so hesitant to talk to us without a lawyer," Casey grumbled. "And how he knew the investors' homes were being broken into. To not arouse suspicion, he vandalized his own apartment. But he went too far with the fire. It made him stand out among the crowd even more."

"Son of a bitch," I swore. "It's his fault I've had to sleep in that crappy motel."

"It's pretty flimsy," Chalmers said, nudging Al-Akari forward. The young man continued to walk. Chalmers turned his broad head on his even broader neck to me. "Do you think it will hold up in court?"

"It depends," Casey replied. Looking back to Al-Akari, she asked, "Are you still looking to cut a deal? I'm willing to bet the D.A. would return to her office if Homeland Security asked her really nicely."

Al-Akari's eyes lit up. "I'm an open book," he said.

Casey nodded. "Good."

Watson still maintained his innocence, even when Al-Akari's story seemed to corroborate everything that had happened with with the Flipkicker investors. Watson's phone, which had the sole Scour app, and Al-Akari's laptop were confiscated by Homeland Security, on the grounds that the app "Compromised the security of America and her citizenry." While that might have been true, when the story went public there was a social media firestorm about the nature of censorship and if government had the power to take an app, which was an expression of the first amendment. Homeland Security and the Department of Defense argued that when someone uses their freedom of expression to put others' freedom of expression at risk, it constitutes a forfeit of their right. It didn't put many news pundit's fears to rest, but the case was going to trial in a few months. It would be up to a jury to decide.

A week later, I sat at my desk, vertical to Casey's, flipping through several slides on my phone. Casey was putting the finishing touches on her report, which would be integral in the prosecution's case against Watson.

"You know, in my day, cell phones were mostly used to put dog noses and dog ears on selfies," I said. "That, and getting politicians in trouble."

"The latter is still true," Casey replied, eyes on her Screen. "And, of course, for finding embarrassing pictures of your coworkers from when they were in college."

"Good thing I graduated college seventy-five years ago," I mused. "The internet was still in its infancy. Nothing from that far back could still exist." A lonely, cold stone suddenly settled its way into my stomach. "And, you know, that I don't remember anything about my life from that time."

In the corner of my eye I noticed Casey raise her eyes from her Screen. I didn't make eye contact with her. Casey was a good cop, a good partner, and a great friend. But I didn't want her sympathy. We'd been down the road of 'We'll figure it out one day,' before, and I didn't much relish another trip down it today.

"I mean, even an embarrassing picture would still be a picture," I went on, trying to brush off the topic. "I don't know what these people are complaining about, having their embarrassing pictures and Tweets on the internet forever."

"You might feel different if we found a picture of you wearing a t-shirt that said, 'Bill Clinton didn't inhale, and neither do I,' written on it," Casey joked.

I lifted my eyes to her. "Is that a real thing?" I asked. "Because if it is, I must have it. Like, right now."

Casey shook her head and smiled. Her features remained compassionate. "We'll figure it out one day, Toby," she said.

I ignored her sentiment, and the chilly feeling in my stomach, as I flipped some apps on my phone. "I'm looking for that shirt this second. If it doesn't exist, I'm having someone make it."

Casey, whom was used to my attempts to deflect any emotional responses, simply nodded and turned her attention back to her report.

"Casey," I said, and in my peripheral vision I saw her stop typing. "Thanks."

She simply nodded and resumed her report. The prosecutor and district attorney had requested it by the end of the week to have ample time to prepare for the trial, and it wasn't like her to keep them waiting.

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