Her motorcycle waited for her on the side street next to the ballpark. Lara took off her baseball cap and packed it along with her glove in the seat compartment, shoved her helmet on, and climbed onto the bike. Revving the engine for a few minutes, she plugged in the location of Sully’s townhouse into the GPS on her dashboard and inched away from the curb.
Giving the bike throttle, she raced down South Capitol at high speed, which usually sent a thrill up her spine. This time, a hardened sense of determination came over her. She’d never been involved with a criminal investigation before, but she was not about to let the bastard responsible for killing her friend get away with it.
Fifteen minutes later, she pulled her bike into the narrow alley behind Sully’s townhouse. Recently painted and renovated, it looked so inviting. He’d purchased the fixer-upper before the area became some of the hottest real estate in town, and it was now worth upwards of $900K. Guilt pricked at Lara for having been jealous of his good fortune.
What good is all that now?
She hoped the keys she took from Sully would open the back door. Neighbors might notice her coming through the front, and the last thing she needed was some old lady calling the cops.
Lara dismounted her bike in a nook behind Sully’s fenced yard and hung her black helmet on the handlebar. The alley was dark, quiet, and empty. In the distance, the rhythmic wail of a police siren echoed through the night air.
As she walked toward the gate, Lara wrinkled her nose at the sharp odor of rotting garbage mixed with a hint of motor oil. Pairs of green garbage and blue recycling bins lined the alley, set out in time for pick-up the next day. Sully’s bins were notably absent.
He must have forgotten to put them out.
As Lara unlatched the gate, her foot accidentally kicked a hard object laying on the brick-paved surface of the alley. She grimaced as a glass beer bottle tumbled down the slope, making loud rattling sounds as it went.
So much for stealth.
She ducked into the backyard and closed the gate quietly, hoping no one heard the bottle. Inside the fence, Sully’s refuse containers laid sideways on the overgrown grass, and garbage was strewn about the backyard.
Someone was here, looking through Sully’s trash. But what were they looking for? As she searched through several sticky items on the ground, a crinkling sound came from the green bin at the far end of the yard. When it quivered, Lara jumped.
She instinctively reached for her gun before remembering again that it remained locked away in her safe at home. On high alert, she inched closer to the bin. Just before she reached the can, an orange-striped cat bolted from behind the trash. Lara’s body tensed. The cat made a beeline for the mulberry tree next to the balcony and scampered into the leaf cover above. Lara let out a shaky breath. Scaredy-cat.
Her heart pounding, Lara stepped lightly around the garbage remnants to avoid getting anything on her shoes. Sully’s brick townhouse had three floors plus a basement. The new light gray paint matched the charcoal cast iron railings of the first and second-floor balconies. Lara strode up the stairs to the first-floor entrance, keys in hand. The door was opened a crack.
This is a bad idea.
She pushed the door with the tip of her shoe wishing she had her pistol.
Well, it’s not exactly breaking and entering if the door is unlocked.
She wasn’t above bending the rules. Sometimes there was a difference between right and wrong and what was legal or illegal. She’d learned the hard way that the two didn’t always mesh up. When it came to breaking the law, she relied on her own moral compass to guide her in making the right decision.
As she stepped inside, Lara gasped. The townhouse was in shambles, everything overturned. Whoever broke into Sully’s house had searched everywhere and left nothing untouched. Food covered the floor. Cupboards stood wide open, and dishes were spread all over the counter. Lara wondered if the intruder had found whatever they were looking for.
But did they find Sully’s safe room?
Sully’s specialty as a private investigator involved helping the police hunt and catch the worst of the worst. After a case in which he’d helped authorities apprehend a jihadist cell planning a bomb attack on the D.C. subway, he’d received several death threats from the organization’s leadership, making him understandably paranoid.
When Sully renovated the townhouse a few years ago, he made sure to install a fortified safe room, complete with its own weapons cache, office space, bathroom, and sleeping area. Sully hired Lara to install the surveillance electronics, and Vik to hard-wire the room for high-speed internet access and to program the system. From the monitors in his safe room, Sully could monitor his entire townhouse and its exterior perimeter. Whenever he felt off about a job, Sully would use the space as his main office.
Lara walked into the library, a large room with oak hardwood floors and antique trim at the back of the townhouse, just off of the kitchen. Lined with wall-to-wall oak bookshelves, Sully’s library contained everything from the classics of American literature to computer programming instruction manuals and even a few self-help books.
There were books scattered near the entrance of the library, but the intruder hadn’t spent too much time there. Most of the books were left untouched.
Lara breathed a sigh of relief. They must not have known about the safe room. Maybe I can find a few clues to figure out what Sully got himself into… what got him killed.
Facing the center bookshelves on the back wall, she scanned the shelves, meticulously alphabetized, for the book IRobot, a collection of short stories by Isaac Asimov. She knew the general location but still had to search several rows.
There it is.
If someone knew about Sully’s penchant for order, the book would look oddly out of place stuck in the middle of Asimov’s Foundation science fiction series. Tilting the book spine toward the ceiling, she felt underneath for the hidden button. When her fingers found it, she pressed hard. The button clicked and two bookshelves creaked as they swung outward, exposing a steel door with an electronic combination keypad. Hopefully, Sully hadn’t changed the combo since the last time she had upgraded the surveillance equipment.
Lara entered the code from memory and to her relief, the door lock released. Once she entered the safe room, she pulled the steel door shut and pressed the lock button on the wall. From inside the safe room, she could hear the faint sound of the bookshelves creak once more as they hid the door.
Constructed of reinforced concrete and lined with corrugated steel walls, the interior of the safe room was rather austere. Sully designed it to ensure safety and survival rather than comfort. There were three rooms—Sully’s office and command center, a small bathroom, and a storage space, which contained a bunk bed for sleeping, supplies, and a weapons cache.
Lara could tell Sully had left the safe room in a hurry. On the desk next to his computer, there was an unfinished cup of coffee, a half-eaten bologna sandwich, and an empty plastic container.
A bank of high-res monitors lined the wall behind his computer. From here, she could see every room in Sully’s townhouse including the front and back porches. Lara sat in the leather office chair and brushed her fingers across the touchscreen to wake the computer.
The login screen appeared, and a red light shone on the desktop in front of her, revealing a holographic keyboard. Lara typed in the username and password she’d used to set up Sully’s system. After a few seconds, the screen display appeared and showed a strange web browser. It read “Tor” in the upper left-hand corner with an onion icon in place of the letter “o.” Across the top of the website, she read “This browser is configured to use Tor.” Lara moved the cursor over the search bar.
She’d heard that name before. Maybe Vik? She needed to know more.
His phone rang three times before he picked up. “Hey, boss. Cops are still here, but not much has changed.”
“Still have eyes on that remote?”
“Don’t worry, I’ve got it handled. Did you find anything?” Vik asked.
“Maybe… could you tell me what Tor is again?”
“The browser for the Dark Web,” Vik said. “I told you about that several months ago.”
“You know I wasn’t paying attention, Vik.” She could hear him take a deep breath. “Can you tell me about the Dark Web again? Please?”
“Okay. You need to picture a giant iceberg floating in the ocean. What you see above the surface of the water is the worldwide web which is visible to everyone and indexed by search engines. This portion is only a tiny fragment of the entire network. The Deep Web–”
“I thought you called it the Dark Web before…”
Vik sighed audibly. “No, first I’m talking about the Deep Web to help you understand how everything is connected. It’s what makes up the majority of the Internet and lies beneath the ocean’s surface. The Deep Web refers to any encrypted website with restricted access.”
Lara wrinkled her brow and squinted, trying to understand. “But I don’t have Tor, and I access my banking site all the time.”
Vik responded to her question with a sigh. “Most of the sites on the Deep Web are accessible using a web browser, including your bank account, health records, and anything password protected,” he said. “Buried within the Deep Web is the Dark Web. It is a collection of websites that are not indexed by conventional search engines but accessible through Tor onion routing.”
“Onion routing?” Lara scratched her forehead.
“Messages sent using Tor have several layers of encryption, like the layers of an onion. The encrypted message is transmitted through a series of nodes in the network called onion routers.”
“Kind of like Internet servers?” Lara asked.
“Yes. When users sign up for Tor, their computers can become part of the Dark Web network as volunteer nodes for data transmission. Tor traffic bounces around the network of computers owned by Tor users to disguise the physical location and identity of the real user. When a message is sent, each of the routers peel away a layer of the encryption until the message is decrypted at its final destination. The sender remains anonymous because each node only knows the locations of the nodes immediately preceding and following itself. A large share of the websites on the Dark Web are shady and sell drugs, guns, hacking services, or other illegal wares.”
“What would Sully want with shady websites?” Lara asked.
“I don’t know, boss, but a cop is waving at me. I have to go.”
The phone went silent.
What were you doing on the Dark Web Sully?
Lara stared aimlessly at the monitors. As a private detective, she avoided engaging with the deep, dark underworld. Most of the time, she didn’t have to. Whereas Sully thrived in hunting down dangerous criminals, Lara preferred to work straightforward surveillance jobs, which included everything from locating and removing unwanted forms of electronic surveillance to installing covert eavesdropping devices for law enforcement agencies. Everything was legal—or at least legalish—but many of her clients had big names and would pay even bigger money for discretion.
She tried to find Sully’s browsing history, but she couldn’t uncover anything beyond the search bar. She guessed Tor didn’t have a browsing history. After all, that would defeat the whole point of anonymity.
She’d have to ask Vik about it later. Only Sully would be able to tell her what he had searched for, and he wasn’t talking anymore. Lara sat for a few minutes, trying to figure out what to do next.
I should check the video surveillance tapes.
Lara smacked her forehead, irritated she didn’t think about it immediately. If she searched the video footage, she could see what Sully had been up to before he died. Clicking on the control room app on Sully’s desktop, Lara loaded up the video archive and selected the most recent video file for the library. After a few seconds, the file opened to reveal only static gray and black dots with white noise in the background.
Lara pressed reverse and watched the timer race backwards. Several days went by without any images—more static. Someone must have tampered with the video system. Just as she slowed to a stop, an image of Sully appeared on the screen. Lara reduced the speed of the rewind to go back a few more frames and then pressed play.
Sully exited his safe room carrying a small cardboard box. He walked back and forth in his library as if looking for a hiding spot. He appeared disoriented and unsteady. Then he looked up into the surveillance camera as if remembering he was being recorded. His bloodshot eyes filled with dread.
Was he drunk? Sick? What is going on?
Lara watched as he stumbled from the living room into the front hall. Determined to know where Sully had gone with the box, she searched the video archives for footage from the other cameras. But all the footage turned up static, not one clear image from the timeframe she needed to see.
Drumming her fingers on the keyboard, Lara stared at the nearly empty desk and thought of the many occasions she’d seen Sully have a stack of his active case files next to his computer.
His desk is too tidy.
She looked down at the computer touchscreen. A tiny piece of white paper peeking out from underneath its base caught her attention. It had been well camouflaged against the shiny, white surface of the desk. She slid the paper out. The word “KillerBot” scrawled across it.
Was this your screen name or something else?
“Watson?” Lara spoke into her smartphone. Her screen lit up with the image of a man with a thick beard and mustache.
“Yes, Ms. Kingsley? How may I be of assistance to you this evening?” Watson replied in a singsong English accent. She’d named her AI voice assistant after Sherlock Holmes’ famous sidekick and customized him to sound overly polite and cooperative. It made it easier for her to work with a computer; otherwise she’d start arguing, speaking too fast, and then lose her patience with the muddled response. She still didn’t trust AI with any complex queries.
Lara took a picture of the paper with her smartphone. “I found this piece of paper in Sully’s safe room. What does it mean?” Lara said and waited for an answer.
“That’s quite an odd query, Ms. Kingsley.” Watson paused for several seconds. “Based on my comparative analysis of the writing in the photo and your files on the cloud, the handwriting sample belongs to Mr. Phil Sullivan, a PI and your best friend.”
Belonged. Lara swallowed hard and suppressed an intense surge of emotion.
“The literal meaning of the word killerbot is a small robot designed to kill people, which are illegal in the U.S.” Watson continued. “However, in this context, I believe the word is most likely a pseudonym for communicating over the Dark Web. Unfortunately, you have disabled my ability to search the Dark Web. With your authorization, I can change the settings now and look further.”
That’s what I thought. “No, that’s okay. Thanks, Watson.”
“My pleasure.” The smartphone screen went dark.
Lara left the piece of paper on the desk for the cops to find. She’d have Vik search the Dark Web for any references to the word when she returned to her office. Lara combed the rest of the area but found the desk drawers and the tall filing cabinet empty.
Sully was obsessed with keeping detailed records. Where are all the case files he kept here? He typically used written logs to record his prolific notes. If she could get her hands on his most recent journal, she might be able to find out who wanted him dead.
Someone must have cleaned them both out. But who?
Obviously, the house had been tossed, but the intruder didn’t make it into the safe room. Had there been a second intruder, or had Sully cleaned the files out himself? That thought kept repeating in her mind. If he had cleaned out his records, it could only mean one thing.
You felt your safe room was compromised. But where did you put your records?
As she peeked over the edge of the top file drawer, a tiny glint in the back corner of the drawer caught her eye. She grabbed the foot stool from underneath the desk and placed it next to the cabinet. Even with the stool, she needed to stand on her tiptoes to reach all the way to the back corner.
Lara reached inside and found a small metal box held in place by a magnet. Carefully, she slid the box toward her with the tip of her finger until she could grasp it. She slid the top off to find a key engraved with the number D110. She looked around the office for a lock that the key might open, but it didn’t match any of the keyholes in the office. Lara tucked it away in her pocket.
She put the foot stool away. As she headed toward the door, she spotted a business card stuck under the corner of the filing cabinet. Getting down on her hands and knees, she slipped the card out with her fingernails. It named a Dr. Anton Stepanov at DARPA as Director of Robotics Research. Between the card and the forged ID, there was a good chance the renowned defense agency had something to do with all this. She made a note on her smartphone to pay Dr. Stepanov a visit.
In the storage room, the sleeping area appeared to be untouched with blankets neatly folded on the bottom bunk. Next to the bed stood an oak cabinet with glass doors holding Sully’s weapons cache. The pristine glass bore no marks of any kind—no smudges, fingerprints, or scratches. She tried opening the door, but it was locked, and the key in her pocket didn’t match.
Lara opened the metal lockers stationed up against the wall. They were fully stocked with bottled water, canned food, other non-perishable items, and medical supplies. The shelving unit next to the lockers contained a small hot plate, pots and pans, tools, a hand-crank radio, and board games. A fold-up table and two chairs stood in the corner.
Lara walked into the bathroom to find the toilet seat left up.
The bathroom was spotless and the shower dry, leaving her no clues about Sully’s last few days. She glanced at the toilet again. Nature was calling. She shrugged, put the seat down, and answered the call.
When you gotta go…
She grabbed a handful of toilet paper and pondered her next move. Then something light tickled her forehead and crawled up into her hair.
She reached up, expecting to swat away a fly. Lara sat up a bit straighter to see into the mirror on the wall across from her and yelped. She nearly fell off the toilet. Something like a large bug moved in a circle on her head. She jumped up from the toilet, pulled up her pants, and ran into the office. Lara frantically danced around, trying to shake it off. Instinctual terror shot through her veins as she imagined it crawling down her back. She dug her fingers into her hair, shaking it out and patting it down. The bug was no longer there. In a frenzy, she searched her clothes and every inch of the room to see if the bug had fallen on the floor. It was nowhere to be found.
Cautiously, she inched back into the bathroom. Behind the toilet, she caught a glimpse of the huge metallic golden-colored beetle. Its wings buzzed as it inched slowly toward her and stopped at her feet. She got the impression it was staring up at her.
Well, now that’s odd.
Trembling—but insanely curious—she bent down to get a better look. She’d never seen a beetle like this one. She had never seen a beetle so large. But it was also stunningly beautiful, for a bug. The golden beetle had hints of green, brown, and red on its iridescent body.
But something else struck her as out of the ordinary. Nearly camouflaged by its color, the beetle wore a tiny backpack with circuits and wires.
She couldn’t believe her eyes. On top of the green circuit board was a small disk with a tiny aperture. The miniature camera was smaller than her pinky fingernail. Her heart skipped a beat.
Someone’s watching me.
Remembering the plastic container, she ran back to the desk and returned to the bathroom. Getting down on her knees, Lara held the container and the lid in her sweaty hands.
Now comes the tricky part.
Lara’s hands shook, but she used the lid to lift the body of the beetle upwards just enough to flick it into the container. Then she pressed the lid down tightly to seal it shut and breathed a sigh of relief.
In spite of her military training, Lara reacted to bugs with intense fear, something she blamed on a traumatic experience during her childhood. At five-years-old, Lara had been sitting on her mother’s lap when a beetle crawled down her forehead to rest on the end of her tiny nose. Ever since, she suffered from a bad case of entomophobia—something her team in Afghanistan had way too much fun with.
You’re not getting out of there anytime soon.
Her phone vibrated in her pocket.
“Hey Vik, Tor doesn’t have a browser history, right?”
She gave herself a mental high-five. “Awesome, I–”
“Boss, the cops really want to talk to you. They’re demanding that you come down to the station right away.”
“Yeah, uh…” A shadow crossed one of the monitors, drawing Lara’s attention. Within seconds, several dark forms appeared on the screen for the front porch. “Vik, I’ve got company. Tell them I’ll get there as soon as I can.”
Five armed men wearing familiar navy blue jackets with yellow FBI lettering were on the front landing.
Now, what are they doing here?
Stay Tuned for Chapter 5…
The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.