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Authors: Will Jordan

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Black List

BOOK: Black List
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Black List
Table of Contents
Black List
Will Jordan
Prologue
Istanbul – 10 May 2009

This can’t be happening.

This isn’t me. This isn’t who I am.

Strange the things that flash through your mind when you know you’re about to die. I’d always hoped to utter something profound or poetic in my final moments, some great insight born from a long and fruitful life. But that wouldn’t be the truth.

The truth is that I’m not old, wise or fruitful. I work a boring job, live in a modest house, pay my taxes on time and have semi-skimmed milk on my cereal in the morning. I don’t take risks, and I don’t go looking for trouble.

In most ways I’m a thoroughly average guy. Safe, dull, anonymous. The kind you pass on the street a dozen times a day and don’t remember a heartbeat longer than you see them. And until a week ago, that was how I imagined it would always be.

I suppose everyone’s luck runs out sooner or later…

*

Sweating, heart pounding, Alex surveyed the yawning gap stretching before him, the terrible drop below and the cluttered rooftop that was now his only way out. Fifteen feet of open air lay between him and salvation. Fifteen feet that might as well have been fifteen miles. Below, maybe seventy feet down, a narrow service alley ran between the modern office blocks.

It would be a rough fall if he jumped, and there was a fair chance he’d break bones or even fail entirely and rag-doll all the way down to the street below.

But it had to be worth a try.

He backed up a pace, trying to draw on the mental and physical reserves he’d need to make the jump, to put aside the danger and just go for it.

He couldn’t do it, he realized straight away. He couldn’t do it in London several days earlier, and he couldn’t do it now. Even now with his life hanging by a thread, he just didn’t have it in him.

A rapid series of muted thumps followed by the crunch of shattered wood behind warned him that his makeshift barricade had just been blasted apart.

‘Freeze!’

And just like that, it was over. His one chance to escape, to justify the faith that had been shown in him, to prove he wasn’t completely useless; it all vanished in that moment.

‘Turn around!’

Letting out a breath, Alex reached up for the little USB memory stick hanging around his neck, and turned slowly to face his adversary.

Just as he’d expected, the man standing a few yards away was dressed in casual clothes that belied his deadly purpose. Jeans, hiking boots that had no doubt served him well on the frantic chase up the stairwell, and a loose blue shirt that didn’t quite hide the bulky body armour underneath.

He was breathing a little harder, and a faint sheen of sweat coated his forehead. That gave Alex some small measure of satisfaction, as if he had somehow scored a point by making his opponent work for the kill.

And killing was certainly what was on this man’s mind now. His weapon was trained on Alex’s head, his finger tight on the trigger.

‘Give me the memory stick,’ he instructed, his voice cold and commanding. He might have had to work a little harder than usual to catch his prey, but he was firmly in control of the situation now.

Yanking the memory stick free from his neck, Alex suddenly thrust it out behind him, dangling it over the gap by its plain canvas necklace. Such an innocuous little piece of technology 

 the kind of cheap storage device used by everyone from office workers to teenage music fans. But appearances could be deceptive. The information stored within its digital pathways, carefully coded and encrypted, was what really mattered.

That was what he had travelled five thousand miles around the world for. That was what he had risked his life for. That was what he was about to die for.

‘You shoot me, I drop this, the police recover it,’ he warned. ‘They’ll find the Black List. Everything you were sent to cover up. It’s all on you.’

His soon-to-be killer smiled. The fierce, predatory smile of one used to taking lives without mercy or hesitation. ‘The police? You think we can’t get to
them
?’ he taunted. ‘We can get to anyone. So do yourself a favour. Lay it down on the ground and back away, and we both walk. That’s it.’

Alex might have laughed if he hadn’t been so crushed by his failure. No matter what he did, no matter how compliant and cooperative he was, only one of them was walking away from this, and it wasn’t him.

Alex was just another target to this man. Just another loose end to be taken care of. A stupid, clueless civilian who had only made it this far because he’d had someone far smarter and more capable watching his back. Someone who might well have given her life to buy him time to escape.

You fucked up, an accusatory voice in his mind told him. Just like everything else in life, you fucked this up. You might as well give him what he wants. Just back down and give up like you always do.

Then Alex did something; something even he didn’t expect until it happened.

‘No,’ he said, his voice surprisingly calm given the frantic pounding of his heart. ‘Not this time.’

Taking a step back, he mounted the low parapet encircling the perimeter of the building’s roof. A gaping, terrifying chasm lay beneath him. An armed man intent on ending his life stood before him.

And all around, lit by the orange glow of uncountable lights that glimmered off the dark waters of the Bosphorus Strait, was the ancient city of Istanbul.

Not a bad place to end up, Alex thought as he took a step back into the abyss.

Part One – Conception

In 1983, the hacker group known as ‘the 414’ break into more than sixty computer systems, ranging from Los Alamos National Laboratory to Manhattan’s Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. It is the first widely reported incident of computer hacking.

Chapter 1
London – Ten days earlier

It was a Friday evening, and Trafalgar Square was bustling with tourists, theatre-goers heading for nearby Piccadilly Circus, and stressed-looking office workers starting the long journey home after a tough week. Cars, taxis and buses jostled for position on the crowded roads that encircled the square, with bikes and mopeds zipping in between the slower-moving traffic, often accompanied by angry horn blasts.

It was a balmy, hazy sort of evening typical of late spring in the nation’s capital, with only a faint warming breeze sighing along the busy streets. Overhead, the sun was beginning its long descent through wispy clouds that marred the otherwise pristine blue sky.

Taking a sip of his espresso, Alex Yates surveyed the expansive square with casual interest, his eyes hidden behind a pair of dark sunglasses as he took it all in. Over by the ornate fountains that flanked the square, a group of slick-looking stock traders from the nearby City were heading northwards, probably to one of the trendy wine bars in Soho. They were all swagger and expensive clothes and forced joviality, each trying to convince his comrades that the global financial crisis was just another minor storm, easily weathered before the return to more prosperous times.

Not far from this display of desperate optimism, a harassed-looking middle-aged man with wiry grey hair and an unfashionably cut suit scurried towards the stairs leading underground to Charing Cross station. A hard-working man, probably a civil servant or low-level bureaucrat who had frittered away his life in some dingy office cubicle, prematurely aged by stress and rules and deadlines.

As he went, he brushed past a blonde woman walking slowly away from the National Portrait Gallery. Tall, statuesque and wearing expensive jeans, a black fitted shirt and a stylish brown leather jacket, she was the epitome of effortless sophistication. Her features were strikingly good looking with a foreign air to them, yet there was a hardness about her that made him look a little closer.

Perhaps sensing his restless gaze on her, as attractive women often seemed to do, she glanced his way, and just for a moment their eyes met. Even from the other side of the square, Alex was caught off guard by the pair of icy blue eyes that seemed to bore right through him. No doubt she was wondering if he was a potential stalker.

Knowing that the last thing he needed was to draw attention to himself, Alex looked away, turning his attention back to the newspaper resting on his table. People-watching was a dangerous habit to fall into anyway, particularly for someone like him. Every detail of what he was seeing now would be imprinted on his memory forever, no doubt to intrude on his already crowded thoughts days or weeks from now.

He glanced at his watch. It was five past six. His friend was late for their meeting, and while it was too soon to be concerned about such a minor delay, he nonetheless found himself growing uneasy. Everything about this hastily arranged rendezvous made him nervous.

He resisted the urge to look at his watch again, knowing that less than twenty seconds had passed since his last check. Meeting in such a public place was both unnecessary and risky, and the lack of protection left him feeling exposed and vulnerable.

And yet here he was anyway, sitting at a coffee shop on the south side of the square, nursing his second espresso, which was doing his agitated mind no favours, waiting for a man he hadn’t seen in over two years.

Why he’d agreed to the meeting in the first place, he couldn’t rightly say. The last time he’d worked with Arran Sinclair, he’d ended up with a twelve-month prison sentence and a life-destroying criminal record for his troubles. If the two of them were even seen together by anyone with access to the Criminal Records Bureau database, it could bring him a renewed attention that he certainly didn’t need.

But despite it all, Sinclair was a friend. Perhaps more than that, he was a reminder of a time when Alex’s future had held a lot more promise than it did now. A time when he’d believed he had it in him to do great things with his life.

A foolish belief perhaps, but at the time it had felt real enough.

At that moment, a shadow fell across his table, startling him from his reverie.

‘How’s it going, mate?’ a Scottish voice, warm and jovial and familiar, asked him. ‘Long time no see.’

Glancing up from his coffee, Alex found himself staring into the face of a man he’d once considered a close friend. Tall and slender yet deceptively strong and athletic, and possessing the pale hawkish eyes of a man who saw everything and missed nothing, Arran Sinclair cut a striking figure that left an impression on virtually everyone who met him.

Alex had known him for nearly ten years, and he’d scarcely aged a day since. His features were still lean and ruggedly handsome, his light blonde hair still worn long and defiantly unkempt, his six-foot-four-inch frame clad in simple jeans, a casual shirt and a comfortable-looking leather jacket.

Just seeing him like that was like stepping back in time, and Alex actually had to pause for a moment as a flood of memories came rushing back.

‘Arran,’ he said after a moment, rising from his chair to greet his old friend. Even standing at full height, he was several inches shorter than Sinclair, forcing him to look up to the man as they shook hands. ‘It’s good to see you again.’

‘And you. It’s been too long.’ He paused for a moment, as if wanting to say more but unsure how to phrase it. Instead he glanced at a spare chair at the table. ‘Mind if I sit down?’

‘Go for it.’ Alex lowered himself back into his seat as Sinclair removed his jacket and settled down opposite. Neither man said anything for a few seconds, and the tension that had been hanging in the air suddenly became all too apparent. Now that they were face to face again, Alex found himself strangely at a loss for words.

‘You’re looking well,’ he said, not even sure why he’d said it.

Suddenly Sinclair’s face lit up in a once-familiar grin, and to Alex’s surprise he laughed in amusement. ‘Why do I suddenly feel like I’m on a really shit blind date?’ he asked, still chortling.

Alex couldn’t help but grin as well, the tension between them suddenly dissipating. ‘If you were the best they could find, I’d want my money back.’

Their conversation was interrupted briefly when a waitress came over to take Sinclair’s order. Typical of him, he ordered a tall latte with two extra shots of espresso.

‘Some things never change, I see,’ Alex remarked as the young woman hurried off to fetch his order. In all the years Alex had known him, he couldn’t recall Sinclair ever ordering anything different.

‘I know what I like.’ His friend shrugged dismissively. ‘Anyway, what the hell are you up to these days? You certainly weren’t an easy man to find, even for me.’

Alex wasn’t surprised by that. His address had changed twice since they’d parted company. ‘Keeping busy,’ he evaded. ‘On that subject though, how
did
you find me?’

At this, Sinclair made an apologetic face. ‘I had to go through Jill,’ he said, bracing himself for an angry response. ‘I’m sorry, mate, but you weren’t online anymore. I didn’t know who else to talk to.’

Alex felt himself wince inwardly. Jill, another reminder of his former life that he knew he’d never see again. Bright, enthusiastic, ambitious and hard-working. Not even thirty years old and already an associate partner with a respected legal firm. The kind of person who knew exactly where she was going in life and how to get there.

The kind of person he’d once been.

To her credit, she’d stuck with him longer than he’d expected. She’d been with him throughout the court case, had waited patiently while he served his prison term and even tried to rekindle their relationship when he was finally paroled. However, it hadn’t taken long for them to realize things would never go back to the way they were. Too much had changed, for both of them.

It had almost been a relief when she’d finally admitted defeat and called it off. At least now he didn’t have to endure the humiliation of her patient support, her words of encouragement every time he applied for another menial job only to be rejected. Their lives were heading in different directions now, and for her sake he was glad she was rid of him.

‘It’s all right,’ Alex said, his jaw tight as he forced the words out. ‘I’m sure she filled you in on the gory details.’

‘More or less.’ Sinclair was perceptive enough to know he’d hit a sore spot. ‘She… mentioned you were working for an electrical retailer now. Selling TVs, that kind of thing.’

There was no point in even pretending otherwise. Alex looked his old friend in the eye. ‘There weren’t a lot of job opportunities for people with my kind of record,’ he remarked pointedly. ‘I had to take what I could find.’

Sinclair closed his eyes for a moment, seeing his remark for what it was. ‘I’m sorry, Alex. I know that doesn’t add up to much, but I really mean it. I can only imagine how hard it must have been…’

He trailed off as the waitress returned with his drink, though his expression made it obvious he was eager to say more. Alex however was glad of the reprieve. He neither needed nor wanted Sinclair’s gratitude, or worse, his sympathy.

‘I was caught, you weren’t,’ Alex said simply. ‘There was no point dragging you all down with me. Anyway, I know you’d have done the same for me.’

At this, his friend nodded slowly, saying nothing. He seemed relieved somehow at Alex’s words, as if he’d been carrying the burden around with him for a long time.

‘So what’s this all about, Arran?’ Alex asked, leaning forward and looking him in the eye. Swapping life stories was all well and good, but what he wanted now were answers. ‘You contact me out of nowhere after all this time, I’m guessing it’s not to talk about my career.’

That was enough to bring Sinclair back to the present. Meeting Alex’s searching gaze, he took a sip of his steaming drink. And then, just like that, he said it.

‘I’m reforming Valhalla, Alex. And I want you in.’

Alex was grateful he wasn’t taking a drink of his own at that moment, otherwise he might have choked on it. Valhalla 7, the group of highly skilled hackers that both of them had helped to create, and which had long since disbanded, was being reunited. The mere mention of the name was enough to make his heart leap.

He looked at his friend in disbelief. ‘Are you serious?’

Sinclair said nothing. There was no need. His calm, almost nonchalant demeanour stood in marked contrast to the gravity of the situation. Based on his body language, anyone observing them would think little of their conversation, but Alex knew all too well how serious this was.

‘Mate, maybe you missed the part about me being convicted for computer hacking and going to prison for twelve months, or the terms of my parole. If I even go near anything more complicated than a smart phone, I’m fucked.’

His friend nodded, no doubt well prepared for such an objection. ‘I know how this must sound,’ he admitted. ‘I know this is probably the last thing you’re interested in doing now. But before you walk away, just hear me out.’

Alex leaned back in his chair, surveying him for a long moment. He gave no words of encouragement, but neither did he object.

‘When Valhalla broke up, I started working freelance,’ Sinclair explained. ‘Picked up a few long-term clients. One in particular came very highly recommended. I’ve been working for her for the past year or so, doing smaller jobs.’

Alex raised an eyebrow. ‘Her?’

He saw a flicker of a smile. ‘Didn’t even find out it was a woman until recently. All our communication was through anonymous email addresses. Anyway, a few days ago she approaches me about a new job. A big one. The kind of white-hat job we always imagined pulling, but never did.’

Alex frowned at this. ‘Government?’

Sinclair’s smile broadened. ‘Better.’

Reaching into his jacket pocket, he passed a folded piece of paper across the table to Alex. Intrigued, he unfolded the piece of paper and quickly read the brief outline of the job requirements, then read it again to make sure he’d understood correctly. He had.

He looked up at Sinclair in disbelief. ‘You’re having a laugh, right?’

He shook his head.

‘This is ridiculous. You’re talking about…’ He forced himself to keep his voice down, suddenly very conscious of the public venue for their meeting. ‘… hacking the fucking CIA?’

Sinclair couldn’t hide his grin now. This was the kind of thing he lived for.

‘Have you got a cell reserved at Guantanamo Bay?’ Alex asked cynically.

But Sinclair was far from daunted by his pessimism. ‘Think about it, Alex; their firewalls have never been breached by anyone, ever. No other group has even come close.’

‘And for good reason,’ Alex agreed. ‘It can’t be done.’

‘Any system can be beaten,’ Sinclair countered, speaking as if he was quoting someone else. ‘All you need is skill, planning and patience.’

‘Who told you that?’


You
did, eight years ago.’ Sinclair tilted his head a little. ‘I’m surprised you don’t remember, considering…’

Or perhaps he’d chosen to forget. It sounded like the kind of cocky bullshit he used to spout in a different life, before the court case and the prison sentence and the grim reality that things would never be the same again.

‘Anyway, you were right all those years ago,’ Sinclair went on. ‘Skill and patience we can take care of ourselves. As for the luck part, our client might just be able to help us out.’

‘What do you mean?’ Alex prompted, perplexed by his cryptic hint.

‘Put it this way 

 she’s got connections. I can’t go into any details at this stage, but believe me when I say most other hacker groups in the world would kill to get their hands on what she’s given us. We have an advantage that nobody else ever has.’ He leaned forward, his elbows resting on the edge of the table. ‘Now, imagine for one minute that we actually did it. Imagine we cracked their firewall and got inside. It could literally change the world. All those conspiracy theories about the government spying on their own people, kidnapping innocent people, torturing them, staging assassinations and coups all over the world… We’d have the proof at our fingertips. Can you imagine what that would mean? Can you imagine the difference we could make?’

BOOK: Black List
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