Damien Lieb was very drunk. That was always the problem with meeting the contact known as Potemkin, the Russian insisted on trying to drink you under the table. That, of course, limited who they could send in to deal with him: Ali was their wheelman and teetotal; Taylor and Watkins were both of more use stone cold sober with their judgement completely unimpaired; and Stan’s liver wouldn’t be up to that sort of shenanigans for months yet. Despite his inability to keep up with the Russian, and swearing each time that he’d never do it again, Lieb was always the man for the job.
Despite that, Potemkin’s information had always been worth the hangover. As Watkins helped him towards the pickup point while Taylor ran defensive perimeter, Lieb hoped that this time would be the same, and that he wouldn’t throw up in the car again.
Naturally, he did.
This time though, Stan had come prepared with a bucket, one that had a lid. That was definitely better than last time.
Fortunately for everyone he’d been able to pass the thumb drive Potemkin had handed him to Stan before the nausea kicked in. By the time he was retching, Stan was on the secure mobile confirming the pickup to their controller. “We’ve got the merchandise and we’re moving to the next phase. No, no issues so far.” Stan ended the call and put the phone away.
Five turns, six blocks and seven minutes later, Ali grimly announced, “We’ve got a tail.”
Stan looked in the wing mirror on his side of the car. “Which one?”
“I don’t know if you can see it,” answered Ali. “It’s the newish dark Lada three cars back.”
Taylor glanced casually over his shoulder. “Can you lose it?”
“Not as easily as if we were in some other places, but I should be able to do it.” Ali glanced in his rear vision mirror. “Thing is, it’s only been there for the last two turns. Their being there now only makes sense if they swapped with someone I didn’t pick up or if we’ve been tagged.”
“The car’s not tagged,” said Stan firmly. “I checked it just before you three got back from the bar.”
“And I’m as certain as I can be that we weren’t being followed when we first pulled out,” added Ali. Then he added, “Hang on, this could get a little hairy.”
After three alleys, a u-turn and with at least two traffic accidents in their wake, Watkins commented, “That was your idea of ‘a little hairy’? What do you consider dangerous?”
Ali responded with, “Why do you think I always insist on seat belts?” Five minutes of sedate, non-attention seeking driving later he glanced in the rear view mirror, and commented, “Another one,” before adding a few choice words in an Arabic dialect. “How do they keep finding us?”
“If it’s not the car,” said Taylor, “then it’s got to be something on one of us.”
Stan pulled a device out of the gym bag between his feet and turned it on. He waved the receptor as far around the interior of the car as he could reach and looked at the readouts. “The only thing I’m picking up from inside the car is our phones,” he said slowly.
“I thought these new models are supposed to be unhackable,” said Watkins.
“Unhackable isn’t the same as untraceable,” answered Lieb, with as much dignity as a drunk man holding a used sick bucket could muster. “And I can’t tell you more than that because not only am I drunk, but our IT Div hasn’t let us operational IT types play around with the new phones.” He grasped his bucket more tightly to himself for a moment and swallowed manfully. “I do know who would know though.”
“IT Div,” suggested Stan.
“No,” Lieb made small negatory movements with his hands that didn’t need him to unclasp the bucket. “Rose. Pretty, little Rose who lives with Taylor is a system administrator in an IT Division. IT Divisions run Voice Services so they handle all the phones.”
“She works for Finance, not for our lot,” pointed out Taylor.
“Same difference in this case,” replied Lieb and burped. “These new phones are on a government-wide contract so every Department and Agency has exactly the same thing.” He almost threw up again but he suspected there was nothing left to come up. “At least she will have been allowed to see the full specs, unlike me.”
“I’m surprised,” said Taylor.
“It’s a work in progress,” explained Lieb, “and it’s not like there’s anyone in our IT Div who might want to make beautiful baby computer nerds with me, so that shortcut’s out. Do you think Rose would go out with me?”
“Not if you ask her when you’re in this state,” Taylor told him crushingly, just before he pressed speed dial on his phone. The other end picked up in three rings. “Rose?”
“Taylor! Hi, I thought you were off working. Hang on, you’re calling from Salt Mountain City in Tajikistan?” The others were close enough that they could hear her even though she wasn’t on loud speaker.
Taylor interrupted her. “How do you know where I’m calling from?”
“You’ve got one of the Livia 758e phones from the new all-of-government contract, right?”
Taylor glanced at his phone’s casing and answered, “Yes. So?”
“I’ve got my personal phone forwarded to my desk phone while I’m at work and I have admin access to the Department’s phone system. That means I can see where the government phone that’s calling me is. If I toggle my settings, I could get your GPS coordinates, or your street address and I can even track you after the call’s finished.” Rose added, “Not that I would want to, of course.”
“Appreciated,” Taylor acknowledged. “So, how do we turn it off from our end?”
“You can’t. It’s a contract specified feature and it’s hardwired into the phone – it has its own chip.” Rose went on, “I’m not sure if that’s about being able to tell what public servants are up to or about tracking stolen phones. You could take the battery out,” she added, “but you’d need a workshop, some very specific tools and to not mind violating the warranty.”
“I’ve only got the third,” said Taylor, “but I really need not to be tracked.”
“Oh. The only thing I can think of,” Rose sounded uncertain, “is that the system only lets an admin or a manager track one phone at a time. If someone else using a Livia 758e was to call them, then the tracking would switch to the new phone.”
Taylor looked around the car and at least two of the others nodded. “Thanks, we can work with that. See you when we get back. Gotta go now,” Taylor finished and hung up.
“Right,” Watkins pulled out his phone. “Time to deal with my travel expenses.” He dialled a number, “Hey, Mughal, I just remembered what I did with those receipts. Yeah. I gave them to our controller. That’s right, and he just spoke to us so if you call him now, you should get him at his desk. I’ll give you his number, got a pen?” Watkins proceeded to recite their controller’s mobile number then finished the call. Once he’d hung up he said, “So, anyone else want to play?”
Hayley Forkin, Rose’s older sister, was eating a laksa after finishing her night job. Most of the wait staff from her night job at the dessert bar were there and planning to move on to the late night pub on the corner when they finished eating but Hayley had to be at morning job by seven, so she was going home to sleep. At the moment she was tired and simply glad that theirs was the quiet table in the restaurant. It had been all very well for her to make light of her rent to Rose but really, the prospect of it rising frightened her because if she couldn’t stay there then she had nowhere else to go. What she needed was a flatmate but she hadn’t been able to find someone suitable yet.
She did not enjoy it in the least when the beefy, blond man from the table behind them fell onto her when he stood up to go and pay. She particularly didn’t enjoy him pushing her into her bowl of soup when he did so, ruining her dinner, her work shirt and her evening in one fell swoop. He was immediately, and drunkenly, apologetic but trying to towel off her front with his handkerchief wasn’t effective and felt rather gratuitous. Her work mates were rescuing their meals and possessions, the waitress was fetching a towel and Hayley was trying to shrug off the drunken blond’s help when one of his friends said, “Pegg, enough. You’re making her even more uncomfortable. Go pay our bill, her bill and buy her another one of what she had to take home. I’m sure she’d rather go and get clean than be pawed by you.”
“I wouldn’t have put it quite that way,” said Hayley.
“Then you’re far too nice,” answered her rescuer. He looked rather nice himself, in an olive skinned, dark haired, boy-next-door sort of way. His oval face was best described as pleasant and the slightly scrappy beard looked as if it was meant to make his chin looked more defined. He was wearing a long-sleeved skivvy and the strap of a leather satchel was slung across his chest while he was carrying a light jacket that it looked like he’d been about to put on. “Would you like to borrow my jacket to keep you warm? That soup on your shirt’s going to cool down pretty quickly.”
The blond man was over at the till talking to the cashier and their other two friends, both male, were looking on, amused. “That’s kind of you,” Hayley replied, “but how would I get it back to you?”
“I could walk you home and you could hand it back to me at your front door.” He smiled a very nice, warm smile and stuck out his hand, “I’m Marco Condotti, by the way.”
She took his hand and shook, “Hayley Forkin and I do live close enough to walk.”
“Great, we’ll leave as soon as your replacement food turns up. I’ll just let my friends know what we’re doing.” He smiled again. “You should do the same.”
Afterwards, Condotti climbed into the car that was waiting for him in a parking space off Cambridge Street. Pegg was in the front passenger seat, not-as-blond-as-Pegg Vanderhoff was driving and Carmine was in the back seat behind Vanderhoff.
“That didn’t take as long as I expected,” commented Pegg, who seemed much less drunk than he had earlier.
“I only walked her to her door,” answered Condotti as he did up his seat belt.
“What’s the point in that then?” The bigger man was plainly confused.
“But I’m seeing her for lunch tomorrow,” went on Condotti smoothly. “I’m not aiming for a one night stand here or to be her boyfriend – I plan on being the flat mate in the second bedroom. With the right choice of electronic-heavy hobby, I could replace or upgrade the entire surveillance suite if I had to without arousing any suspicions at all.”
Carmine grinned in his back corner, “Sweet.”
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