The Creative Peak

New inspired writing from an independent publisher

Weaving a Tangled Web

Terry Melvin

A Mystery Thriller

Accusations! They dominate Daz Faulkner’s life. He also has talent and is driven to succeed. Daz is planning to get to the top in the computer industry, but faces immediate problems because he is down on his luck and financial hardships are beginning to bite. The constant bickering with his long-term girlfriend means the relationship is going nowhere. He is desperate for some quick money to turn his life around. But how can he get some when everything seems stacked up against him? He knows there is no turning back, he must press on, but dare he risk running close to the law. Then three new intriguing women come into his life, but are they what they seem to be? Daz struggles to deal with their competing demands. He is forced into some murky deals. The web of intrigue and deception deepens, especially as the police always seem to looking over his shoulder. Can he get his life back on track and rebuild his relationship?

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Chapter One

The spider squeezed itself free from the rotten cement and crawled slowly across the cracked tile. It stopped at a gap between four tiles. It waited. Nothing happened. In the long and distant past the tiles had been white, but age had turned them a dirty grey. For years they had never been cleaned, which gave them a sticky, dank lustre. The spider carried on its journey up the wall. At this rate it would take an hour to reach the ceiling. I was wrong. It suddenly found the energy that I no longer had. Five minutes later it stopped halfway up the wall. I crushed it with my fist.

I can’t believe I’m here! My plans? What happened? What went wrong? I was going so well. The world was at my feet. I’d always wanted to travel and my dreams were fulfilled, but then I finished up here. Everyone knew of my skills, and because of them, so many people wanted to meet me. It was my talent that gave me the edge. I was the best. I still am the best in the world. Everyone knows that.

Another spider ran across the floor. I can’t stand them. I’ll get it. The pain shot through my bare foot as I stamped. But I missed. My second stamp sent it the way of the first one. I looked up in disbelief at what I was doing. I stared at the ceiling and my mind crowded in. Those words echoed in my ears again and again. It was always those same words, they will haunt me for the rest of my life. I never believed he would say them. It was so cold and clinical. He just looked at me with those still and unerring eyes. He had no emotion and there was no facial movement. He just said twenty-five. All my senses went, I’d only heard the twenty-five and then the real world just faded away, as I lost consciousness. When I woke up only the number twenty-five was imprinted on my brain, I couldn’t remember anything else that had happened. The faces stared at me as I lay on the floor and they asked about my head. It wasn’t the damage on the outside, it was the twenty-five inside my head that hurt. My head still hurts. It never stops hurting.

It’s hell in here, I won’t last many more months. You hear about suicides all the time. I took them to be weak people, but I’m strong. I’m strong. The tears must stop. They must stop. I’m a grown man, I can’t cry like this. Will it be a rope? No. I’d struggle. My wrists, yes that’ll be better, then I can just let my life seep away. I must stop crying. I must be strong. I must fight. Twenty-five years. I’ll never cope. I want my life back, but if I can’t, then I’ll need courage. It’ll be easy to dupe everyone here, but the courage will need to come from within.

The sudden movement of the door made me twitch with fright. It was the same big boots as before. The door creaked as it opened and the dull heavy footsteps came in. I turned and looked at the thickset man. The usual scowl was on his face. He was staring at me, so I looked away. Even if this is all too much for me, I am still ashamed of crying. His deep voice filled the tiny room. ‘You’ll get used to it. It’s early days yet. You’ll survive.’

‘Never! It’s so bloody inhumane. All I ever see is your face, there’s nothing else in my whole life.’ I was going to say more, but I suddenly stopped, realising I might had said too much? I shouldn’t really rile him. I looked back at him. The scowl had disappeared.

‘You’re not the first to complain about my looks.’ The brief smile was replaced with the returned scowl.

‘But it’s so lonely.’

‘That’s the way it will stay for a while. We have to keep all the perverts, druggies and terrorists locked away from the rest of the bunch.’

‘I’m no pervert.’

‘Doesn’t matter to me, I deal with them all. Behave yourself and we’ll get on fine. Play me up and I’ll get really nasty. It’s your choice.’

‘But you are virtually the only person I see.’

‘Not much of a choice then, is it? You’ll have to behave yourself.’ I turned my back on him. He was rude and deliberately said things to rile me. Why did he have to have such power over me? ‘Look at you, blubbering away and you’re probably thinking about topping yourself.’

‘I’m not.’ I knew that I had to defend myself, I’m OK, it’s only you who gets to me.’

‘Take my advice.’

‘Why should I?’ I turned away from him.

‘You’re a young man. What are you early thirties?’ I let him go on. ‘Keep yourself clean in here. You’ll be out in about fifteen.’

‘Fifteen years. It’s too bloody long. I’m innocent.’

‘You’d have to admit it in the end, if you want the court to reduce you to a minimum term.’

‘I’ll never admit it,’ I said as I turned to face him feeling that I was getting in control of my emotions.

‘Face reality kid, if you don’t, you’ll be in here, until long after I retire.’ The scowl broke again, ‘still you’ve got fifteen years to change your mind.’

‘Piss off!’

‘I didn’t come in to pass the time of day. Your solicitor’s here and wants to see you.’

‘I didn’t ask to see him. Did he ask for me? Who is it?’

‘Nothing’s ever bloody simple with you. He said he wanted to see Prisoner Faulkner. So come on.’

‘He’s useless, otherwise I wouldn’t be in here.’ I turned my back and walked towards the corner.

‘Choice is yours, but I’m not standing here all bloody day with the door open.’

‘Did he say what he wanted?

‘Don’t be stupid. It’s confidential; they’re not going to tell us are they? All solicitors treat us like shit.’

Was there any point in going to have another fruitless conversation with him? But… It might be good news. ‘I’m coming,’ I said as I turned and walked past him out of the door. I went straight into the interview room and sat down at the table. I looked through the glass screen that stretched across the end of the room. I saw the emotionless face looking with contempt at the pair of us.

‘Hello, Darren, how’s it going?’

‘How the bloody hell do you think? I’ve been locked up for six months, because you don’t do your job.’ I could see him shuffle in his chair. He took some papers from his case and put them in front of him. He didn’t look up at me.

Finally he said, ‘You asked to see me. But I see you’ve forgotten again. What do you want? That is apart from being abusive as usual.’

‘I’m innocent. Get me out of here.’ He ignored me and continued to read his papers. ‘I can’t stand it any more!’ but there was no reaction from him. ‘Bloody look at me!’ I shouted as I kicked my chair away. The frustration had got to me. I tore at his papers. I grabbed the end of the table and tipped it over, ‘For Christ’s sake, bloody listen to me.’ Two warders immediately came into the room. The one who had come to get me from the cell sneered as he said, ‘Last chance. Pick up the table. Last chance or you’ll be on a charge.’ I had no option, so I picked up the table and they both left the room.

The solicitor had turned white. He was standing in the corner, clutching his brief case. ‘Sorry,’ I said, as I sat down again.

‘Look, Darren, it takes time to lodge an appeal. We haven’t got grounds at the moment. You’ve got to give me more to go on. Something, however small, that I can go and investigate. I need something new.’

I bowed my head. ‘I keep trying to think of something. But I’ve told you hundreds of time, there’s nothing else.’

‘Darren, look at me.’ I slowly raised my head and looked into his face for the first time. ‘I can’t help without, something extra. Call me when you’ve thought of something.’

I could see in his face that he was genuine so I muttered, ‘I’m sorry about earlier. I’ll try to think of something. Is there no other way?’

‘No, we need new evidence. The prosecution believes it to be a watertight case.’

I put my head on the desk. I was trying to hide the tears from him. I heard the papers being put back into the briefcase. His hand gently rested on my shoulder, ‘Try and keep your spirits up.’ The door opened and the warder came back in. The solicitor then left.

I lifted my head. ‘Do I look like a major criminal?’ but he didn’t answer and the sullen face was still there. I made the effort to stand up and then slowly walked back to my cell with him. The warder took his time in answering me, ‘If you passed anyone on this wing in the street, they would look like a normal person. But they’ve done some terrible things to society. So it’s perfectly right...’ and he said no more.

‘What is perfectly right?’

‘To lock up the perverts, terrorists and druggies, who try to destroy society.’

‘Do you really think that I really fit into your list? My case was different.’

‘Get in.’

The door slammed behind me. I was completely alone in the world. No one believed me and no one will listen to me. Even my own solicitor thinks I’m guilty. I just can’t face twelve years or more in here. Where did it all go wrong? Where did it all start? I lay down on the bed. I let my mind drift back about five years. Suddenly I realised the event. It was that insignificant letter. But it was that letter that had started it all. I remembered it clearly. I was sitting at the desk in the tatty old bed-sit attic. Tracey was still in bed at the other end of the room.

Chapter Two

I’ve just got time to do these letters before I go to work. What’s this? I don’t recognise the postmark. The envelope opened easily. I could see that it was a short letter as I unfolded the single sheet. What the hell is this? I could feel my stomach tense as I got angry. I re-read the short sentence out loud, ‘You are in breach of your hire purchase agreement and therefore we are putting in hand, the process of recovering the goods.’ I screwed up the paper and threw it across the room. My arm caught the cup, ‘Ahhhh.’ The hot coffee spilled down my leg. I swiped at the cup and saw it bounce across the floor. The pain subsided but my temper didn’t. They can’t do this. So I’ve missed a few payments. It’s not the end of the world. I must have my computer so they can’t take it away from me. It’s not right. I need it. Don’t these people realise unless I have my computer I won’t be able to pay them any money.

‘What’s all the noise about?’ said Tracey as she got out of bed at the other end of the attic.

‘The bastards have sent me a letter saying they’re going to repossess my computer.’

‘Oh, is that all.’

‘This is bloody serious.’

‘Yeah, and so have all the other demands been. At least they’re getting less, and it’s only a letter, it’s not the bailiffs.’

‘It’s not right, I’m trying bloody hard.’

‘Yeah, but I’m out of work and you’ve still got debts from Uni. Added to that, it costs a fortune to rent this crumby attic.’ I looked at my girlfriend. She was standing in the middle of the room in a tee-shirt and knickers. Her hair was a mess. In the harsh light I could see she was putting on a lot of weight. She was fed up because of the struggle of having no money. It was getting to her. She looked half asleep.

‘What are you looking at?’

‘Only you darling,’ I said as I smiled, but she didn’t look pleased. I said, ‘There’s a letter here from the Job Centre.’

‘Throw it in the bin,’ said Tracey without turning round.

‘At least wait while I open it.’

‘Why should I?’ she said as she reluctantly turned round to face me. She had been going back to bed.

‘It might help you get a job.’

‘Oh Daz, I know I’m bloody useless. I’ve no skills, I can’t do anything.’

‘Tracey,’ I said in a gentle voice, ‘don’t give up hope.’

Tracey sidled across the room towards me and smiled. I loved that smile. I put out my hand. She came and perched on my knee. She kissed me on the forehead. We’d been in love since we were kids, and had been together ever since, but the lack of money was putting a strain on both of us, but I didn’t want to nag her.

‘I’ll open the letter,’ I said as she got comfortable on my knee.

‘No, don’t bother it’ll be a waste of time.’

‘You’ve got to be positive Trace,’ but I could see the tears welling up in her eyes. I put my arm round her and squeezed. She didn’t respond. ‘I thought you were going to make it on the hairdressing course.’ I waited. Tracey sniffed.

‘I was the only one they chucked out. They said it was cruel to be kind, as I would never make a hairdresser, and that I wouldn’t pass at the end of the course.’ Tracey began to cry.

‘What’s wrong with that? At least they were honest.’

‘It’s that bloody phrase. “Cruel to be kind”. It’s what they say before they put a dog down.’

‘Come on Trace, didn’t you say to me the other day you’d thought about starting a different course?’

‘Yes, I saw one for beauticians.’

‘That sounds good, why don’t you want to do it?’

‘Daz get real. If they chuck me off a hairdresser’s course, why won’t they do the same on that?’ I felt Tracey move on my lap. She slid round on my lap and turned her back. ‘I really do want to help. We’ve been through thick and thin together, but I’m useless,’ she said.

I could feel her body tense. I stroked her bare thigh, but I knew the tears had started. ‘Come on, we’ll come through this. I’ve got a good job now. You’re right, we’re much better off. It’s just that bloody pompous letter that annoyed me, but I’ll sort it out.’ I looked round the dingy attic, which was in a run down part of Sheffield. The plaster was falling off the wall. The windows were filthy. I was trying to convince Tracey and myself that this was better. ‘Come on, pet.’ Tracey turned her head towards me. The tears were streaming down her face. I kissed her.

‘Thanks, you’re a good man, Daz.’ She stood up and walked back towards the bed. Her quiet and gentle voice said, ‘Can you tell Alicia I won’t be able to see her for lunch. You will see her at work, won’t you?’

‘Yes,’ I said, ‘why can’t you make it?’

‘I’ve no money. I’d have thought that was obvious.’

I picked up my wallet and took out £20. ‘Here.’

‘You can’t go on supporting me like this. I just keep taking money from you.’

‘We’re in this together. Here you are, have a good lunch with Alicia.’

‘Don’t you need it to help pay for the computer.’

‘No, I’m going to sort that out in a minute.’

Tracey came back and took the money. She looked around the room. ‘I’ll give it a good clean,when I get back.’

‘Yeah, that’ll be good,’ I also looked at the dingy room. Things just had to get better. I was determined to make it happen. ‘Cheer up Trace, I’ve got tickets for the Man U game.’

‘Against Sheffield United?’

‘Yeah, it will be good to see them at Bramall Lane.’

‘That’ll be good. You’ll enjoy seeing your team again won’t you?’

‘Yes,’ I said, ‘it’s not been easy missing so many games, because I can’t afford a ticket.’

Tracey went back to the bed. I sighed. It was such an uphill battle. I slipped a brochure out from under the pile of papers on the makeshift desk. Now this is what I really want. I looked at the sleek lines of the Mercedes S class. It’ll have to be the 5 litre one as well.

But first, I had to sort out the payments for the computer. The letter from the Job Centre was still there. I went to throw it into the bin. I changed my mind and opened it.

Dear Ms Mercer, Please can you attend for an interview with an advisor, who has a potential vacancy for you. This appointment is at 0900.

‘Trace, Trace!’

I heard movement from the other room. ‘What is it?’

‘The letter says you got an interview for a job with an advisor. I’ll read the letter out to you, Tracey.

‘It’ll be a waste of time; I said to throw it in the bin. It won’t be anything I can do. The advisor will agree and won’t put me forward for it.’ Tracey came across the room and took the letter. She screwed it up and threw it in the bin.

‘Come on, Trace, you’ve at least got to try.’ She stopped as she went to go back to bed again.

‘I’ve been there so many times. You wait for hours and nothing. It’s a waste of time. I really can’t do anything.’ She threw herself on the bed and sobbed. I sighed. It was such a pity to see her like this. I loved her so much, but the lack of money was coming between us. We were having more and more arguments. It can’t continue for much longer like this.

I looked at the mess of papers in front of me. Where was the one from the finance company? I looked, but couldn’t see it. Then I remembered I’d thrown it across the room. I went over to the corner, picked it up and smoothed it out. I reread it. I hadn’t noticed the second part before. I sighed. Not only are they going to re-possess, but they’re also going to ensure I was credit blacklisted. I’m just getting somewhere with my job, with some decent money coming in, although it all goes on debts at the moment. And now this happens. I know nothing about this bunch of financial sharks. I wonder who they are?

It didn’t take me very long to find their web site. I’d better email them and apologise. I’ll say that I’m going to send them some money. Their site is typical. All friendly, but the high interest rates and the threats are in the small print. I re-read the letter. It said they had already marked my account as a defaulter and, as this was the final stage, action would now be taken. Perhaps it’s too late? How do I find out whether they have marked my account, or if the letter is just a threat?

I could give them a ring, but it’ll be so bloody hard not to lose my temper with them. I really need to be charming to whoever answers the phone. I fiddled for a couple of minutes with my mobile phone. There’s another way. I wonder how secure their web-site is? If I can get in to their system I can find out exactly what they have done. That way I will be certain. Getting in to their system probably won’t work, as they are a financial company so they will have tight security. Also. I’ve got to go to work and don’t want to be late.

I knew that trying to hack a site wasn’t a good idea and I hadn’t done it since my Uni days. I spent the next five minutes exploring the site. That’s brilliant. I’m in. There’s virtually no defence. Now, all I needed to find was the remote log-in for staff. A couple more steps and I should be there. Yes! Yes! I’m past the security measures. It looks straightforward. It’s a database. My little plan has just given me an administrator’s log-in.

The screen prompt Enter Name came up as I entered the database system.

Let see what happens when I type…

>Faulkner

Please select the account

>Keith Faulkner

>Michael Faulkner

>Darren Faulkner

That’s mine. I highlighted “Darren Faulkner” and flicked the left mouse button. All my account details came up in front of me. That’s good; the defaulter flag is not set, so I stopped typing. The next step will be theft. I could change the level in my account. I can’t be traced. I don’t know what to do. Should I do it just this once. Perhaps? No. I need to find out more about the company first. If they’re really a group of sharks, then I’ll go back and alter my account. I’m not having them blacklisting me.

Let’s see if one of my old chat rooms has any information. I’d better not go in under my own name. I leaned back in the chair. Let’s think this through. I mustn’t be traced. Let me think. I scribbled a few notes on a piece of paper. It gradually evolved into a plan. I glanced at my watch it was time to go to work. I made a few more notes. Yes, that’s it, I’ve thought of how I can do it. This will only take a few minutes.

I went back on to the computer and linked directly through to the Internet. I typed in a few commands. Yes, this one looks good. He’s a silly person. Fancy leaving an unguarded PC connected to a broadband connection. Don’t people realise they are always on. I’ll make use of this computer and the account to log on to the chat room. Let me have a quick look round the hard disk and see who I am.

Looks like I’m Gareth Evans. Many thanks Gareth. I’ll only be using you for a short while. It didn’t take very long to get into the chat room. I started off in listening mode. Some chat about hacking into one of the banks. I changed to chat mode. I’ll need to start with something general.

>Hi, the Blueski virus didn’t get very far last week, are there variants on the way?

Only one person replied.

>Don’t know. It seemed a waste of time. It was too easy to stop. An amateur.

I thought I’d change tack.

>What do we know about Makeit Loans?

>Sharks! I had problems when they repo’d my machine.

>Did you do anything?

>Tried a quick Denial of Service to take out their website, but didn’t work. They seem well set.

But they can’t resist me, I thought. It was a piece of cake to get into their site. I looked at the name of the person who had tried. It was “Webbuster”. That’s not original and I would guess he’s not very good. Still they’ve obviously been pinching computers back before.

> Are you going to hit them?

> Just finding out about them.

> Have they been giving you hassle?

> Something like that.

>They blacklisted me last year. It’s a bugger. They’re thorough. Everywhere I go the lack of credit comes up.

> Thanks for the info.

> Best of luck, give them one from me.

This is a waste of time I thought. I’m not going to get anything here. I need to go back on to Makeit’s site.

>Hi, Gareth, do you want some help?

Someone had just joined the group. Whoever it was didn’t have a name. They were completely anonymous.

> Not really, I was just finding out some background. But I’m signing out now.

> Don’t go yet.

> Why not?

> I think I might be able to help you, let’s chat a while.

> What do you know about them?

> I’ve looked at them before. They’re very keen to blacklist people.

> That’s what Webbuster said.

> I monitored the attack that Webbuster did.

> And?

> I thought you might like the details?

I really couldn’t be bothered with Webbuster’s idle chatter, but this person looked a lot more interesting. Why would he be monitoring an attack? Also why anonymity and not some trendy name?

>Are you still there Gareth? Let’s chat in a private room.

> Can I join?

This was a message from Webbuster.

> No. I want a private conversation with Gareth.

> Gareth, I’ll send you a direct IP address.

Before I could say no my screen blinked. An IP address appeared in the middle of the screen. There was nothing else. That was impressive. Anonymous is good. I changed the chat room software to point at the new address. I typed:

> Hi.

> Hi, I thought we’d be better off without that jerk, Webbuster. He’s a waste of space.

> I agree.

> I assume you are spoofing and you’re not really Gareth Evans.

> You’ve been checking me out. I didn’t mention Evans.

> You must know that the machine you’re on is completely open, but you’ve hidden the link back to your real machine.

> Yes.

> What’s your signature?

This was getting tricky. Whoever this is, they are good. I better not give too much away.

> White Gloves

> Very gentlemanly. Sounds very suave and smooth.

> You’re still anon in this chat room.

> My signature is Indian Queen.

> I have never chatted with you before, although I’ve seen the results of some of your hits.

> Thanks. I keep a low profile in open rooms.

> Are you female?

> Yes, White Gloves, I am. I’m not a gay queen.

> Why Indian Queen?

> That’ll have to remain a secret for the moment.

It was time to bring this conversation to an end.

> Good to chat but I’ve got to go now.

>What about Makeit Loans? Now you know that I’m Indian Queen, do you want some help hitting them?

> What’s in it for you?

> A little friendly help to another surfer. Nothing more.

> I’ll bear it in mind, but I’ve not decided to do anything yet. I was just finding out.

> OK, bye for now.

> Good bye Indian Queen.

I wonder if she really is the Indian Queen. I’ve been trying to defend the company systems against her for the last few years. She hits big sites regularly. It was rumoured that the FBI were hot on her trail. I wonder whether that’s true. I sat back in my chair. It’s really not a good idea to go down this road. If anything got traced back, then I’d lose my job. No one would ever want me as a Corporate IT Manager again. My complete career would be down the drain. Hacking in for a few hundred quid isn’t worth it. I’d better follow the proper routes. I’ll give them a ring.

‘Hello, this is Darren Faulkner, I received a letter from you about…..’

‘Account number please.’

I scrambled for the letter.

‘863852’

‘Thank you. I’m waiting for your details and recent contacts to come up on the screen.’

‘I’d thought I’d give you a ring to explain and then I’ll put some money straight in the post.’

‘I’ve your details now. In the letter we sent you we have identified you as a defaulter.’

‘That’s a bit harsh, I just want to agree the way forward with you. I will send some money straight away.’

‘The process has started. It is too late. Your account will be frozen today and proceedings put in place.’

‘Hang on, I’m trying to explain.’

‘You will then be blacklisted Mr Faulkner. It is too late. Good morning.’

The phone went dead.

‘Bastards.’ I drew in a deep breath. We’ll see about that, but I’ve got to make sure I cover all of my tracks.

I’ll spoof Gareth Evans again. That’s it. I’m in again and now to get into my account. I heard Tracy get out of bed, but I didn’t turn round.

‘You’re not hacking that finance site are you?’

‘Nothing like that,’ I said but not very confidently.

‘Daz you’ll risk everything, if you get caught. Please don’t do it.’

‘I thought you were going back to bed.’

‘No I thought about what you said, I’m going down the job centre.’ I turned round. Tracey was dressed, it made such a difference.

‘You look smart, new make-up?’

‘Yes.’ She didn’t look happy. Was she going to have another go at me? No. She looked at me and managed a weak smile. ‘Please don’t do anything stupid, Daz. You like your job. You wouldn’t want to lose it would you?’

‘I promise nothing stupid.’

‘See you later.’ She came over and gave me a kiss and then left. I got straight back into my account. Changing the figures was easy. Should I clear it completely? No I’ll bring it up to date. I’ll get a better idea of what has happened, if there’s any follow up. That’s it! I cleared the under payments and removed the recent letters that they had sent me. It looks like a normal up-to-date account. I picked up the phone and dialled Makeit’s number again. I’ll hang-up if I recognise the same voice

‘Makeit Loans, account number please.’

‘863852’

‘Thank you. I’m waiting for your details and recent contacts to come up on the screen.’

I waited.

‘Can I ask the nature of your enquiry?’

‘I just wanted to check where I stood and how many payments were left.’ There was silence for a while.

‘That’s strange.’ My heart sank. I tried to control my voice.

‘What is?’

‘Did you call us about twenty minutes ago?’ I could feel my heart pounding. She’d spotted something wrong. I had to think quick. They must have a time log on the account.

‘Yes, but my mobile dropped the call and I didn’t hear what the lady said.’

‘That’s OK then. I just wanted to check someone wasn’t trying to breach our security. Your account is in accordance with the agreement and you have twelve payments to make. Makeit Loans would like to thank you for doing business with us. Goodbye.’

‘Goodbye.’

That was a relief. It had worked. I’ll just make sure. I was still logged in. Now should I do some others? I’ll make some other subtle changes to the accounts for other people. I needed to distribute the changes. It will make it harder to track it back to my account. I sat back pleased. Most organisations wouldn’t even notice some slight changes to the figures. If it ever comes to light it’ll be put down as a software bug. They are very lucky that I’m not serious and intent on destroying them. I’ve only changed a few grand, when I could have wiped them out completely. They really shouldn’t leave ports open.

My mobile began to ring. It made me jump. I pressed the answer key. ‘Hi,’ said the voice at the other end of the line, ‘it’s Alicia.’

‘Hi, Alicia, Trace’s looking forward to seeing you at lunch.’

‘Yeah, that’ll be good. Are you coming into the office this morning as there’s an emergency staff meeting?’

‘Yes, just got delayed a bit, I’ll be there in about twenty minutes, See you.’

‘Bye.’

I cycled into the centre of Sheffield, padlocked my bike in the staff car park, and went in the back door. I’m not sure it was a good idea to hack in and change my account, it was now worrying me. I tried to cover my tracks, but it’s so easy just to leave a little sign and any security consultant worth their salt could trace it back to me. I thought long and hard as I went up alone in the lift. It was a daft thing to do. Not only would I lose my job, but also I would get charged with theft and get a criminal record. They are sending hackers to jail these days.

‘Morning, Alicia, here I am,’ I said as I walked onto the IT floor. She was an Admin clerk and her job was to generally control the flow of people into the department. ‘Hi, Daz, there’s man waiting for you in your office.’

‘I’ve no appointments, who is it?’

‘Couldn’t really say, Al Michigan brought him down, and pointed at your office.’

‘Didn’t Al tell you who he was?’

‘No, and the man just said it was private and that he’d wait until you arrived.’

‘Private?’

Alicia said, ‘You’ve obviously got something dodgy in your private life, he looks like a crook.’ I broke out in a cold sweat. I seriously regretted what I’d done. As I walked down through the open plan office I tried to make reason get a grip. Even if anyone finds out what I’ve done it will take months of investigation. Why would a stranger suddenly appear? It’s private. Why didn’t Al ring me and explain who it is? I walked slowly down between the desks.

There is no way anyone could know so soon. Suddenly it hit me, Yes, there is. There is one immediate way they would know everything. I looked through the glass wall of my office. The man was looking directly at me. I stopped and pretended interest in some papers on a desk. There was one way, I could be found out. I never checked to see if there was live monitoring of the links. If there was, then they could trace back the internet packets.

I reasoned with myself. Why would they be monitoring live. It’s very costly. The penny suddenly dropped. Yes, of course, the attack by Webbuster. I should have been more careful. There’s nothing to do, but to face it. Reason tells me it’s not related. Let me see who it is. I went into the office in a positive frame of mind.

‘Good morning. Can I help?’

‘Yes, I’m sure you can.’ I stepped forward and shook hands. He wasn’t a businessman or a salesman, because his business card would be out and he would be telling me who he was. He sat down in the chair in front of my desk.

‘If Al Michigan showed you in here and left you, he knows who you are, but I’m afraid I don’t think we’ve met.’

‘No, we haven’t. You obviously pick up information through your grapevine, I noticed you’ve only just arrived, but you know that Mr Michigan showed me in.’

‘OK, I’ll start. I’m Darren Faulkner, IT Corporate Manager for Manhattan Steel Trading. And this is my office. You’re a guest of Al’s which is why, I presume, you are here.’ I could suddenly see he was uncomfortable. He suddenly stood up.

‘I’m Detective Inspector Bob Smith, from the Yorkshire Police.’ My heart sank. I felt weak. I caught hold of the arm of my chair and gently lowered myself into it. I hope he hadn’t noticed. I didn’t look at him. I took a deep breath and then looked up. I knew my voice would be shaky, but there was no alternative.

‘What can I do for you?’

‘Are you OK? you’ve gone a little pale.’

‘Yes fine, it is touch of flu, I think, now what did you say you wanted?’

‘Your boss...’

‘You mean, Al Michigan?’

‘Yes, that’s right. He said that you would do us a favour.’ The relief swept over me.

‘I’ll get some coffees and then you can explain how I can help you, although I’m not sure in what respect.’ It took me a couple of minutes to go to the machine outside my office. It gave me time to compose myself. I resolved that it was the last hacking, I would ever do. I picked up the second coffee and went back in.

‘You looked like I’d come to arrest you,’ it was obviously said as a joke, as his dour face broke into half a smile.

‘Well it was a bit of a surprise, when you announced yourself as a police inspector, but I wasn’t expecting to be arrested,’ I smiled back.

‘No, I’m sure.’ The first sip of coffee gave me back my steadiness.

‘Well inspector, what can I do for you?’

‘Please call me Bob.’ I nodded. ‘To be honest I’m out of my depth and Al’s been very helpful in suggesting you might be able to do something to assist us.’

‘Al being helpful, now there’s a twist, what have you got on him?’ But there was no smile and no recognition of the humour.

‘He had a break in at his house. We caught the burglars and he got back all his property.’

‘Yes, I can see that would impress him.’

‘So on the case I’m working on at the moment, we’re trying to track down some international trafficking. We did a couple of early morning raids and picked up some computer equipment.’ It was all becoming clearer to me.

‘Haven’t you got a forensic computing team?’

‘Yes, but they are over worked. By the time they look at this, all the value will be lost. It was then that I remembered Al’s offer. So I gave him a ring.’

‘Your raid was this morning?’

‘Yes, and we’ve got this hard disk. It’s from an old computer, but do you know how to deal with them? We know it’s important, or should I say, was important. We put it in our old machine, but there doesn’t appear to be any thing on it.’

Within five minutes I had set up the disk drive as part of my machine.

Bob said, ‘I’m new to computers, and to be honest, I’m completely out of my depth, even with the simplest word processing.’ My machine had booted up and I tried to list the files on the disk.

‘They’ve deleted all the files,’ I said.

‘They were doing that as we went in. Oh well, it was worth a try. It was why they were looking so pleased with themselves.’

‘All’s not lost.’

‘Isn’t it?’

‘I’m just bringing up a memory dump.’

‘Any luck?’

‘Yes, it’s all here. The delete command only ever removes the first part of the file name. The data stays on the disk, until it’s over written.’

‘Makes no sense to me, but is it good news?’

‘It looks like the data is intact. Do you want a print out?’

‘What’s on the disc?’

‘It looks like a list of names, addresses and dates. It’s a small database.’

‘How many names?’

‘I would guess about two hundred.’

‘That’s brilliant!’

‘One name seems to be here several times.’

‘What is it?’

‘Nic Markos.’

‘That’s really good news.’

I looked up though the glass wall of my office and saw Alicia coming towards us. She hesitated, but I waved for her to come in. ‘That’s brilliant,’ said Bob, as I handed him the printout from the side table.

‘Any time I can be of any help, please let me know.’

‘Well, if I could really push my luck.’

‘Go on,’ I said, ‘is there more?’

‘There are several computers.’

‘How many?’

‘Four, I think, and they will have hard disks etc. Is there any chance of you having a look at them in the next day or so.’

‘Don’t they have to be controlled as evidence?’

‘No it’s not that type of enquiry, we’re just looking for information at this stage.’

‘If you want to drop them off at my flat I’ll have a look at them this evening. Alicia will give you the address.’ I looked up at her as she stood there waiting. The mention of her name raised a smile on her face. She had been at school with Tracey and they had stayed best friends ever since. I studied her more carefully. She was tall with a good figure. I looked at her face as she passed a message to Bob. She couldn’t be described as pretty. A snub nose and long face meant that I’d never really fancied her. Her most striking feature was her long wavy brown hair, which she was always flicking away. ‘I’m looking forward to lunch with Tracey,’ she said, ‘I’ve got some juicy scandal, about someone from school.’ I smiled, but he remained expressionless.

Bob said to me, ‘Thanks for you help, I can give you some of the background. I don’t know whether that will help.’

‘Let me have a look at the kit first and I’ll get back to you, if I need to know anything.’

‘Give me a ring when you’ve done, and I’ll take you out for a well-earned beer. ’

Alicia said, ‘Sorry to interrupt, but the emergency staff meeting is going to start shortly.’

‘It’s OK, I’m going. Many thanks for your help Darren, I’ll be in contact. Goodbye.’ I stepped forward, shook hands and closed the door behind him.

‘Do we know what the meeting is about?’ I said to Alicia.

‘No, it is all hush hush.’

‘I reckon it is going to be good news.’ I said.

‘What type of news?’

‘It will be about the expansion plans.’ Alicia and I left the office and began to walk to the large conference room.

‘I don’t think I understand, I got really confused with the company at the induction.’

‘How long have you been here now?’

‘Three weeks.’

‘This office in Sheffield is the first foray in Europe for Manhattan Steel Trading. Al Michigan comes from the parent company in the US.’

‘So what’s the expansion?’

‘I think that they are going to announce that Sheffield is to be the European Headquarters. We will be opening other offices in the European cities and making links with specialist steel producers.’

‘That sounds good.’

‘Alicia, can you picture it on my office door, Darren Faulkner, European IT Manager. Or…’

‘Or what? What’s the smile for?’

‘What about, Darren Faulkner, European IT Director.’ I emphasised the last word.

‘Do you think that is possible?’

‘Perhaps not straight away, but with luck it won’t be long. In the short term, it might mean some extra cash.’

‘Yeah, we could all do with that, getting the job here just about saved me from the breadline.’

We’d now reached the main Conference room.

‘Come on,’ I said, ‘let’s sit at the front.’

‘There’s a couple of seats, we’re just in time,’ said Alicia. The room of about two hundred people gradually quietened as Al Michigan came in. He had three people with him. He stepped forward to where I was sat.

‘Did you manage to help the police?’

‘Yes, Al, they seemed pleased.’

‘Good work.’

‘Thanks.’ He then went back to the table at the front and rejoined the others.

I whispered to Alicia, ‘The big guns are out today, I recognise two of them. They are board directors from the US.’ I quickly flicked on my mobile, and brought up the current share price of Manhattan Steel Trading on Wall Street. It had shown a rapid rise in the stock price this morning. I turned it off and settled back in my seat to listen to the news.

Al Michigan stood up and banged the table. The room went completely quiet. ‘Thank you for coming this morning at such short notice.’ I concentrated hard on him as I didn’t want to miss any of it.

‘The Chairman of Manhattan Steel Trading is currently making a simultaneous announcement to the Wall Street investors. I have called this meeting to give you the first hand details of the Chairman’s announcement.’ He stopped to take a sip of water.

‘Manhattan Steel Trading opened its Sheffield office approximately three years ago as its first step in its expansion into Europe. For those of you who are not acquainted with the background of the company, it is a traditional American company, established in Cincinnati in the 1920s and funded from New York. Up to three years ago, it had solely traded in specialist steel stock in the USA.

‘The Board have recently evaluated the performance of the Sheffield branch.’ I wasn’t sure why they would do that, but perhaps they had their reasons. Al continued, ‘As many of you will know from rumours that have circulated, we have been actively investigating using Sheffield as a launch pad for the move into mainland Europe and the heart of the Euro zone.’ I could see everyone nodding in agreement. The rumours had to be true as there was so much substance in them.

‘The Board has considered, at length, the performance of the Sheffield branch and the evaluation of the possible expansion plans.’ Al paused and looked around the room. ‘I have to convey the news that the Chairman is currently giving to Wall Street.’

This doesn’t sound that positive. I wonder what’s happening? Al took a deep breath, ‘The Board considers that the performance of the Sheffield office is below the standards that are expected in the company.’ I looked around at the audience and could see the surprise on everyone’s face. It was a surprise to me as well, as I thought we were doing well, although we did have some teething problems at first. Perhaps they might be thinking about relocating to Frankfurt. That would suit me and Trace. ‘I also have to inform you that the evaluation of expansion into Europe has raised a number of crucial risks.’ A murmuring arose throughout the room. I could feel the tension as people waited.

‘The Chairman is informing the Wall Street investors and analysts that Manhattan Steel Trading, with regret, we will be closing the Sheffield office and cancelling plans to expand into Europe.’ The room erupted into noise.

I couldn’t believe what I’d just heard and I leapt to my feet, ‘What’s going to happen to us?’ I shouted. I felt Alicia grab my arm.

‘Sit down Daz, he hasn’t finished yet.’

‘But the bastard has just said he is going to close the office.’ Al Michigan banged hard on the table. Some of the noise subsided. But there was still movement, as people shifted uneasily in their seats.

Al raised his voice, ‘If you will let me continue I will explain what the consequences are.’

I said to Alicia, ‘The bloody consequences are that the bastard is throwing us all out of our jobs.’

‘Shhh.’ she said.

Al continued, ‘The office will close, and at that point, all staff will be offered a redundancy package.’

A voice came from the back of the room, ‘Is it all staff? Are you offering any the chance to transfer to New York?’ Al raised his hands to quieten the murmur that went round the room.

‘I want to the answer the question. It is all UK staff. And regretfully, no, we have no requirement for further staff in the US.’ The noise in the room rose again. Someone shouted, ‘What about the redundancy package?’ Al held up his hands again, ‘Please calm down and don’t shout, I will endeavour to answer all your questions.’

The voice came again, ‘Redundancy package!’

‘As I said the company proposes to close this office as soon as is feasible. There will be a generous redundancy package, which will be negotiated between now and then.’

I couldn’t stand this any more. Alicia’s hand was still on my arm, but I brushed it aside as I stood up. I rushed forward and banged the table in front of him, ‘The staff have only been here for three years, what type of offer will it be when you have just sold everyone down the river. These people…’ I swung round and pointed at them, ‘Have worked wonders for you.’ There were loud cheers, ‘And all you do is throw us out, without as much as a thank you. You’re so bloody unreasonable.’ There was a broken round of applause. I realised I was shouting at Al. I was stood about six feet away from him. He was a large rotund man much taller than me. He glowered at me. The sweat was running down his face. He was turning red. ‘You bastard.’ I screamed at him. I felt Alicia pull me back towards the seat. There were various other shouts at Al. I could see he was losing it.

He shouted to get above the noise, ‘If this type of behaviour continues then we will only give staff the bare minimum package.’

‘That’s bloody blackmail,’ I shouted as I got to my feet again. Alicia grabbed at me. As she pulled at my arm, the HR manager came down the aisle and stood in front of Al. He put his arms up and the noise subsided. He waited. Al tapped him on the shoulder, but he ignored it.

‘It’s a shock for all of us. Please let us remain civilised and listen to what the board has to say even it is distasteful. I would then suggest we meet as a staff, when the American representatives have gone.’

Alicia grabbed hold of my arm and forced me down in the seat. I was surprised at her strength. She shouted in my ear, ‘For Christ’s sake, Daz. The decision has been made. They might be total arseholes, but you’re just making the matter worse.’ I grabbed her arm and pulled her close to me.

‘Do you expect me just to roll over? I can’t afford to be out of work. We’ll have to make them change the decision.’

‘Get real, the decision’s made. Stop buggering it for everyone else.’ I shook off her hold on me and stood up.

‘I’ve got one question for him,’ I shouted. I intended getting in first. The HR manager stepped to the side.

‘What is it?’ snapped Al.

‘Be reasonable Daz,’ I heard the HR manager say.

‘If all the UK staff are being made redundant, will you be joining us in the dole queue?’

‘Daz,’ said Alicia as she came round in front of me and tried to push me back. But I wasn’t having it.

I could see Al was struggling. He was bright red now. The other directors were standing and waving their arms, but I could see they didn’t really know what to do. Voices came from the crowd, ‘Answer the question! Are you with us or with them?’

Alicia was pushing me back. ‘Calm down! Calm down!’ she shouted. I brushed her aside and stepped forward again. I saw the HR manager shake his head. He looked down at the floor. He was weak and it was me that would be strong.

‘Come on then let’s have an answer,’ I shouted.

‘I’m employed by the American company and I shall return to New York, and my former job.’

I went up to the table, ‘You total bastard!’ The other directors backed away.

Al shouted, ‘If you continue this personal abuse, I shall have you removed from the building.’ I glanced at Mike, the HR Manager. He went white and slumped down into his chair.

‘You can’t threaten me,’ I shouted, ‘I’ll see you in court. England won’t put up with you American bastards taking the piss out of us.’

He rose up to his full height, advanced towards me and shouted, ‘I’m not afraid of you, I won’t be intimidated. I’m a director in this company. Security! Escort Mr Faulkner from the building! He was now standing three feet in front of me. I had the opportunity to flatten the fat American bastard. Alicia was tugging at my arm. No one moved. I looked sideways. Security hadn’t moved from the door. Al glanced at them. I saw my opportunity. I stepped right up to his face. He went white.

‘Security, throw this man out.’

‘Don’t bother I’m going.’ I just controlled the desire to drop him where he stood.