A five-minute clip on the evening news turned Allison Trent into a full-blown criminal. She had wiggled across the line many times before, but she’d never done anything so bold or blatant. Within a couple of years she had accumulated more than eighty million dollars. On paper that would have made her a titan. In reality she was as poor as a church mouse.
The motivation to commit the first crime came to Allison quite unexpectedly as she was sitting on an overstuffed sofa in a coffee shop close to the Boston College campus. She was working on a class project that was due the next day and was so completely focused on the computer sitting on her lap that she was oblivious of the activity around her, not even hearing the news broadcast coming from the television that was suspended from the wall opposite her—that is, until the words “terrible injustice” broke through her concentration and drew her eyes up to the screen. The young male reporter seemed genuinely sympathetic as he read his story from the teleprompter. The subject was a local nursing home called Sunset Gardens, one of twenty homes for the elderly located across the East Coast owned and operated by a corporation out of Philadelphia. The corporate home offices, he explained, kept a database with vital information pertaining to every single one of their clients. They were vigilant in protecting privacy, had all the bells and whistles installed to keep personal data ironclad against bugs and viruses, and had paid a hefty salary to a tech company whose only job was to monitor the system. None of that mattered, though. Their system had been hacked, and the identities of all the residents in all twenty facilities were stolen with one keystroke. And because First National was designated as the official bank for all Sunset Gardens homes and their residents, within minutes its accounts were wiped out as well.
The reporter went on to point out that a large number of the residents had no family to help them, and while the money in First National was FDIC insured, it could take the authorities a good long while to sort through the facts and reimburse every account.
What were the residents supposed to do until then? Allison wondered.
A sense of outrage was growing inside her as she listened to the catastrophic details of the crime, but the tragedy hit home when the reporter played a clip of his interview with one of the elderly residents. Her name was Ella O’Connor. He knelt beside Ella’s wheelchair and held her veiny hand as he asked her what the news meant to her.
Ella’s watery eyes stared at the reporter for a moment as though she was trying to understand the question. “I don’t know,” she said. And then a look of despair crossed her face. “I hope they don’t make me leave.”
Ella was all alone, afraid, and feeling helpless. Allison knew exactly how that felt. Her heart went out to Ella and all the other poor souls. Some of them would die before it was all sorted out, and in their golden years dealing with such stress and fear would be traumatic. What had happened to them was beyond cruel.
An interview with the president of the Sunset Gardens Corporation was played next. With a shrug in his voice, he said, “The authorities told me it was most likely the Russians behind the hacking. Or possibly the Chinese. The truth is, we may never know.”
His defeated “Oh well, what can you do?” attitude infuriated Allison. She knew the FBI had experts trying to locate the hackers and shut them down, but it was apparent they hadn’t had any luck so far. The invasion of secure systems was becoming epidemic. Just the week before, the news agencies had announced that the Pentagon had been hacked. The FBI was certain the Russians were behind the theft of employee information then as well, but proving it was a huge challenge.
What could she do? Something . . . maybe. It wouldn’t hurt to try to find the Sunset Gardens hackers, would it?
Was it her ego or her arrogance that made her think she might succeed? She had always had the ability to solve complex problems. Even at an early age, her thought processes were out of the box. She had been just eight years old when her uncanny ability was first noticed. Her older sister, Charlotte, had bought a five-hundred-piece jigsaw puzzle at a yard sale and placed all the tiny pieces on the floor in their room. When Allison came home from school, Charlotte asked her if she wanted to help put the puzzle together. Allison knelt on the floor and stared at the scattered pieces for no more than a minute or two while her brain studied them. Not only could she tell Charlotte what the picture was, but she knew where the pieces fit. It was as though she was watching each part of the puzzle connect to the next. After separating the tiny cardboard tiles into six piles, she went to work. Charlotte watched in amazement. In less than five minutes, Allison had the perimeter of the square picture put together, and within another twenty, the entire puzzle was completed. Allison didn’t think she had accomplished anything unusual, but Charlotte was clearly impressed. She told Allison that most people didn’t look at things the way she did.
The nursing home story broke just as Christmas break was coming up. Allison had been a sophomore at Boston College at the time and planned to spend the holiday alone. Charlotte and her husband, Oliver, had moved to Seattle a couple of years ago. They had offered to buy a plane ticket for her to come, but knowing they were saving up to buy a house, Allison declined their generosity. Allison did have three other relatives, but she would rather have slept on the street than spent the holiday with them.
Allison and Charlotte had been very young when Aunt Jane and Uncle Russell became their legal guardians. The couple had one son, Will, who was two years older than Allison, and the atmosphere of their home was neither warm nor welcoming. An air of constant friction permeated the place, usually stemming from something Will had done. He never showed any signs of ambition or responsibility, and he hung around with a group of creepy misfits. The only talent he seemed to have was a knack for getting into trouble—or mischief, as Uncle Russell called his skirmishes with the police.
To Allison, her aunt and uncle and cousin were her poor excuse for relatives. Charlotte was her only family. When they were children, their aunt had often threatened to split them up if they didn’t obey and keep quiet, and the possibility of never seeing her sister again had terrified Allison. She’d felt so helpless. She would have done anything to keep that from happening. Her fear, plus her sense of obligation to them for taking Charlotte and her into their home when they had nowhere else to go, had kept her compliant. However, now that she was an adult and had moved away from their house, she felt a new sense of freedom.
Since Allison was spending the holiday vacation alone, she decided to use the time off to focus her full attention on the hackers. She was confident the vast forces at the FBI would find the culprits eventually, but she wasn’t going to leave the task to them. It could take too long.
She didn’t get very far in her search during the break, yet she didn’t give up. Every moment of spare time she could steal between her classes was spent on her hunt. She was well aware of the chance she was taking, and she knew how careful she had to be. Breaking into protected sites was against the law, and yet she wasn’t deterred. She couldn’t get the elderly victims out of her mind. Finding their money was becoming an obsession.
A breakthrough came when she gained access to the bank’s servers and tracked the thieves’ withdrawals to various bank accounts that had been set up in a number of European countries. As she suspected, those had been closed within seconds of the deposits, and the money was routed to other accounts. Ultimately she traced the funds to a consolidated account in Ukraine, and from there it was dispersed once again into smaller bank accounts. With each discovery, she became more and more certain the attack was not carried out by a cyber syndicate, but rather by a small group of hackers or maybe even a lone wolf, someone who had devised an elaborate plan to find a vulnerable target and drain the funds before anyone could detect the theft. Step by step, she unraveled the knots.
After a month of searching she hadn’t found the source, but she could feel she was closing in. A long weekend was coming up and she was excited to have the extra time. The minute her classes ended on Friday afternoon, she hurried to her house off campus to resume her quest. Changing into her favorite fleece sweats and fuzzy slippers, she propped pillows against the bed’s headboard and leaned back, her laptop on her outstretched legs. Around three in the morning, just as she was about to call it quits for the night, she found the last link . . . and presto, she had them.
Her discovery surprised her. The theft wasn’t carried out by the Russians or the Chinese after all. All of the routing and rerouting through foreign banks turned out to be just a clever way of diverting attention. The real source was actually on the West Coast of the United States. The hackers were two seniors and one grad student at Stanford University. Their carefully hidden accounts—all containing some form of their initials, CHF, for their first names, Charles, Harold, and Franklin—had a total of thirty-eight million dollars. Certainly not chump change by any hacker’s standards.
Allison was euphoric for a good fifteen minutes before worry set in. The way the three men moved money around was a concern. That thirty-eight million could have been gone by morning, and she would have had to spend God knew how long tracking it down again.
She knew what she needed to do. She just didn’t know if she had the courage to do it. If she messed up, she could get thirty years in prison, she thought, even as she realized she couldn’t and wouldn’t let those three greedy lowlifes take what didn’t belong to them.
“Screw it,” she whispered. “Let’s see how you like feeling helpless.”
She could imagine how angry they were going to be when they realized they had been hacked, and thinking about it made her smile.
The first thing she did was steal the money. All thirty-eight million. She put it in a secure account she made certain they would never be able to find, then set about gathering the proof to nail them. She carefully retraced each step they’d taken, including each routing number, each transfer number, and each account number. Once that was done and the proof was indisputable, she sent the evidence and the thirty-eight million to the FBI. She, of course, made certain the e-mail she was about to send couldn’t be traced back to her.
“This is for you, Ella,” she said as she triple-checked her work, then typed the e-mail address for the FBI cyber task force and hit SEND.
Her message for the FBI was to the point. “You’re welcome.”