It is with great pleasure that we host talented author Tim Brost, the winner of our annual Captivating Opening Contest, whose novel High-Rise Crew: Dirty Money ticked all of Stef’s boxes – which is quite an achievement given Stef’s curmudgeonly, picky nature (sorry, Stef).
The Author: Tim Brost lives a reclusive life in the Twin Cities, USA. Thirty years into writing as an avocation, he will release three works of fiction in fall of 2016. His novels blend research, personal experience and incredible stories gathered from subject matter experts who specialize in cyber security/cybercrime and the mechanics of managing violence in international conflicts.
The Blurb: Billy Chownyk has just graduated with a Master in Computer Science and Engineering Degree. He is one of the best software development and network security students the university has ever seen, but Billy has no plan to hunt for a job.
He spent his youth behind a keyboard. Now, he is in the hands of gangbangers, hackers and nefarious men hunting for shortcuts to the good life. Everyone wants a piece of his talent.
Over to Stef and Tim:
[Stef] Welcome aboard, Tim. Now, nobody can accuse me of being savvy with all this new-fangled technology nowadays – nor do I have a clue about apps or anything much cyber or social media, but I found the structure and plot of Dirty Money easy to follow: did you intend to make your narrative friendly for readers like myself?
[Tim] Stef, thanks for having me. I’ve been around security experts for quite a while, find the subject fascinating, but rely heavily on subject matter experts. That will become increasingly apparent the deeper we travel into the High-Rise Crew trilogy. Honestly, Stef, I don’t even write code. But to answer the question directly, yes. I do my best to give the reader an informed view of technology, without creating a manual. Thus far, readers seem pleased with the blend of information and entertainment. Where I succeed, I’m an interpreter of sorts, adding just enough industry-specific information to be interesting, but not so much that it becomes a glossary of technical jargon that overpowers the characters’ lives.
[Stef] I’m quite surprised you’re not a techno-geek, given the authority the narrative exudes. You mentioned a trilogy. How did you decide on that strategy?
[Tim] I unwittingly wrote the final novel in the trilogy, first. It is titled High-Rise Crew: God Rights.
I could have rushed to market, but a big piece of the story was not present. I decided to add what happened earlier in Billy’s life and of course this made the story far to long for commercial viability, especially for a new author, and certainly for print. After discarding a dozen chapters set in his teens, I open High-Rise Crew: Dirty Money in the month of Billy’s college graduation. Where every other student turns right, Billy takes a hard left. He grew up behind a keyboard, so it takes him a minute to find himself socially. His role models are mostly older powerful individuals, albeit less accomplished technically. It’s an odd dynamic I see all the time, where youth has the skill, age has the maturation, but there’s a disconnect.
In some ways, High-Rise Crew: Dirty Money is a coming of age story, but for many reasons I didn’t use that classification in sales channels. Let’s just say that my protagonist is about to take a thrilling three-novel ride.
[Stef] And who doesn’t enjoy a thrilling ride… So, where does the trilogy take us?
[Tim] The arc of the trilogy spans black hat, grey hat, white hat. We begin with common street crimes and a reasonably complicated attack on a financial institution. The second installment explores corporate espionage and insider theft, especially peered attacks. High-Rise Crew: Financial Insiders adds a layer of sophistication to the attacks shown in Dirty Money. Corporations spend billions on securing firewalls, but humans still run them. The reader will encounter both technical and social hacks.
My novels also delve into human nature. It would not be good fiction without unscrupulous personalities lurking about, a sense of betrayal, and emotional vulnerabilities conflated with self-examination. I like to think that in each of the novels, Billy’s personal life leaps dramatically forward toward maturation.
I won’t spoil anything for the reader when I say that an FBI cyber action team and/or the Secret Service may enter, stage left, in High-Rise Crew: Financial Insiders. This second installment will be released in Q1 of 2017.
I mentioned the final novel in the trilogy a moment ago. High-Rise Crew: God Rights brings us to the brink of nation-state cyber warfare, and illustrates much of what keeps our security experts awake at night. Since I wrote God Rights, a lot has happened, both technically and politically. By the time the novel is released, late in 2017 or early in 2018, a great deal of then current information will be incorporated.
[Stef] Do you have any other work in (or out of) the pipeline, Tim?
[Tim] I do. The first two works of fiction in the Trade series are Trade: Bangkok and Trade: Azerbaijan. They are inspired by the life of international arms dealer, Rod McKay. Actually, most of the characters in the Trade Series are inspired by real people.
In Trade: Bangkok the protagonist, Tuck (Web) Webber, and the operatives, shadow agents, technicians and lawyers that make up his teams, are just months into a multi-year contract to improve intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities in Thailand when crew members are taken by insurgents. Reviews thus far acknowledge that this is not your stereotypical arms dealer. Readers on both sides of the political spectrum should set expectations aside and come to the read with an open mind.
Trade: Azerbaijan is what Amazon calls a short read (around 35,000 words). It lives in time between the novels Trade: Bangkok and Trade: Bishkek (Trade: Bishkek will be released mid 2017). This story gives followers the opportunity to keep up with the team’s activities between novels.
I’m considering a trial release of audiobooks later this year or early next. In all, I’ve been, and will continue to be, very busy for the next year or more.
[Stef] It’s a good strategy to work, work, work as an author. Not only does it build your backlist but fans will not be left feeling empty when they are hungry for more… Thanks for swinging over, Tim. Always a pleasure to chat to a salient author such as your good self.
[Tim] Stef, given your reputation, I am honored that you enjoyed Dirty Money. It is every author’s aspiration to be well received. Thank you.
Dear Readers: Take a look at the opening of Dirty Money below and find out just why it captivated me so strongly…
“Seriously? Who packs lunch for a burglary?” Billy says. He sits on the lid of a Coleman steel-sided cooler that Mack has stuffed with Diet Coke, half a dozen ham and cheese sandwiches, wavy cheddar potato chips and Russian sausage. A mega-thermos of coffee is lodged in the back of the step van somewhere, possibly trapped now behind equipment they stole. In a day or two he will deliver the equipment to his cousin for printing credit cards.
Mack is behind the wheel of his underpowered white-panel truck, which they call Joline. Evgeny rides shotgun. They’ve just robbed a printing supply company in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and are headed back to Chicago.
“You okay, kid? You never done nothing like this before,” Mack says.
“Is good idea not to be on highways with cameras and toll booths, etcetera, etcetera,” Ev says.
“We’re taking back roads,” Mack answers.
The men’s faces are raked by the light of another streetlamp. Billy leans his lanky six-foot one frame forward, between men twice his age. “You don’t have to say etcetera, etcetera, Ev. Just say etcetera,” Billy says. The Russian immigrant is always good natured about Billy’s corrections.
Mack turns his bearded face slightly toward Billy, but keeps his eyes on the road. “Didn’t answer the question. You start looking all long in the face, I get worried. This one was your job, right? You worried we won’t be able to turn over the equipment or something?”
“That won’t be an issue,” Billy says. He doesn’t go on to say that he’s only twenty-four years old and doesn’t want to spend time in jail over something as stupid as stealing printing equipment.
As he rides in silence, Billy notices how the driver’s seat of Joline has bent over the years under Mack’s considerable weight. Mack carries himself well for a man over six feet two inches tall and easily three hundred pounds. His bulk seems even more impressive now, behind the wheel.
Mack turns to Evgeny. “Drop anything?”
Evgeny taps his pocket. “Pick sets, tension bars, etcetera, etcetera is all here.”
“He checked before we left,” Billy says. He catches a glimpse of himself in the reflection off of the windshield and realizes he needs a haircut.
“Check and check again, kid. That’s how we roll. You want to become a pro or what?”
“I definitely need to stick with computers,” Billy says.
Mack and Evgeny both laugh. “Is smart. Picking computers is better than picking locks,” Evgeny says.
“Picking computers. Nice!” Billy says. He’s never thought of a rootkit or SQL injection that way, but sure. Breaching a firewall for him is like breaching a padlock for Evgeny.
Whatever the metaphor, computing comes naturally to Billy. Because of his father’s skills, guidance, persistence and competitive attitude, cracking eggs for breakfast is more difficult. He breached his first corporate firewall at fourteen. A decade later, a masters in computer science days away, he drops code into vulnerable systems nationwide every week. Calls training to hack the discipline, and the act of hacking the game. It started with his father when he was twelve, a program they wrote together called Awaken. Writing code is like jazz or anything else, he always says. In the beginning it’s all about the notes, the licks, the chops. But only amateurs stop there.
Thing is, Billy has never monetized the game. That would be a punk thing to do, and risky. He does it for the excitement and to see just how far hard work will carry him, a discipline his father ground into him and one he has taken to the extreme.
“We rode the rail tonight, boys! Good work,” Mack says.
Billy turns toward the stolen card printer, embosser, dies and blanks in the dark of the van. “I just want it to be over,” he says.
Mack backs Joline into the second bay of his three-stall garage, which sits at the back of a small parking lot on the north side of a randomly constructed building he calls the Enterprise. They shut the garage doors and cart loot, over cracked concrete, into the workshop.
The garage and workshop are tacked onto the back of his sprawling building. The retail shop up front reaches the city sidewalk of this degraded neighborhood. He calls his retail business Mackentronics. The garage, workshop and retail space form an L-shaped flat-roof maze around the original rickety two-story wood-framed house where he lives. The second floor of the house rises above the mess; 12/12 pitch roof that longs for new shingles, double-hung windows and wooden lap siding in need of paint.
Billy inventories stolen equipment and supplies. Saturdays are big days for Mack. In a few hours customers might arrive with cash money, so they keep moving. Collectors will drive twenty miles for the right vacuum tube. Mack hangs onto all that old technology. Has racks of analog parts in a world of disposable digital everything. Mack calls all those old schematics, resistors, switches and diodes his retirement plan. Billy smells desperation. The ambiance of the place sometimes reminds him of rural gun collector shows where tired men trade in overpriced relics.
Beneath the dust and clutter of the enterprise, there lies something else. Hundreds of ideas, like bottles in a wine cellar, rest in diamond-shaped shelves on the south wall of Mack’s large workshop. Some of those ideas have turned to vinegar as new technologies replace the old. Even so, it’s an amazing brain-dump, and Billy wants in on creating the next batch of ideas.
When he turns over the equipment in a day or two, they will have a little cash. Might have enough to get going on a prototype. It’s why they stole the equipment and why he hangs out with Mack, but he can’t focus. His brain returns to images of the printing supply caper they just pulled and how Mack looked with the ass of those pantyhose over his beard. He smiles at the thought and wants to relive the heist with his friends, but they have already returned to who they are and will always be. For them, the excitement is over. The routine of cutting Russian sausage and filling stained coffee cups has returned. For Billy, this new trajectory is anything but routine.
“What time does your train leave for Minneapolis?” Mack calls to him.
“A few hours. Why?” Billy walks toward Mack and Evgeny.
“What’d you tell your folks this time? Job hunt or girlfriend?” Mack says.
Billy laughs. He taps his hip pocket and wallet, implying that the heartthrob picture of the woman he carries around is the reason. Billy retouched an image he grabbed from the Internet and made prints at Walgreens. Calls her Britney, sometimes Brit. Tells his parents she’s the reason he spends weekends in Chicago. “If my mother doesn’t meet her soon, I may have to get dumped. She can’t find Brit on Facebook.”
Mack laughs every time he hears Billy talk about his scam. “You’re crazy, kid. Speaking of pictures, I found a few of your old man from our Navy days. Got one of him just after induction and a couple with friends of ours. Crazy times.”
Mack served with Mikhailo (Halo) Chownyk before he married, before Billy was conceived, before Halo became a US citizen. They let him into the Navy on a green card and because he was a talented programmer. Czechs, at the time, could get more out a few lines of code than US codesmiths could get from a page. Got citizenship while in the service and has lived in the States ever since. Billy gets his green eyes from his father and his olive skin from his mother.
“Pics of my old man? Nice! I want to see them,” Billy says. He sits at the table and opens a sandwich bag, expecting Mack to sit also, but Mack climbs the interior set of wooden stairs toward his kitchen and living quarters.
“Your father is interesting man,” Evgeny says. Ev has devoured a half-pound of meat and a quarter pound of cheese since they returned. Cholesterol be damned.
“You’ve met?” Billy asks. He’s surprised that Evgeny knows anything at all about his father, even more that they’ve met. Then again, Mack and his father were apparently very close at one time.
“I am meeting him two times. Is good man.”
“You met him two times.”
“Is what I said! Two.”
Billy smiles. “I suppose he’s all right, in an annoying sort of way.”
“Every father and son is the same. The boy looks up at father. The father looks down at son. So happy. Now eye to eye, things become different. Is natural way.”
“You’re a smart man, Ev. I’ll be right back,” Billy says, and walks up the stairs into Mack’s apartment. Mack is in the back corner of his living room rummaging through a paper bag stuffed with photos. Billy stops in the doorway between the kitchen and living room to see that Mack has three photos in hand and is smiling, distracted and unaware of Billy’s presence.
“Find them?” Billy asks and steps forward. Mack gets a curious look on his face, as if he’s embarrassed. He says, “On second thought I’ll find them later. I need a cup. Let’s head back to the workshop.”
Billy looks at the bag. Mack pushes the photos back into it, sets it aside and brushes past Billy, heading toward the kitchen and the stairs. The thought crosses Billy’s mind to pick up the bag and look anyway, but Mack calls to him. “You coming?”
Billy follows Mack to the workshop but can’t resist making a comment “What just happened?”
“Nothing just happened,” Mack says.
“Cut the shit. You changed your mind on me. What’s up with that?”
Mack has a wry smile, which says he’ll never tell. “When are you heading back to the Twin Cities?”
“You already asked that.”
“I made a card skimmer. Pretty slick. I was thinking we might go end-to-end, see how all this shit works,” Mack says.
“You sure you didn’t just change your mind about the pictures?” Billy asks.
Mack doesn’t answer. “Whatever,” Billy says. “Let’s do it.”
Mack skims one of his own credit cards, loads the data onto a flash drive, and hands that drive to Billy. They plug in all the equipment and load toner and dies.
Before they attempt to replicate Mack’s credit card, Mack turns to Billy and says, “I don’t ever want to get between you and your old man. Dangerous place to be. Let’s just leave it at that.”
What happens in the Navy stays in the Navy. Mack built his career around circuitry, transistors and exotic electronics. The Navy took him off the street as a troubled kid, yanked him out of high school and saved him from jail time, but even the Navy can’t cure bad judgment.
Billy offers bribes of real Kona coffee and a dozen custard donuts if Mack will show him the pictures of his old man and tell more stories. It doesn’t happen. Mack laughs off the requests and tweaks settings on one of the stolen machines. Billy asks what he can do to help. “RTFM,” Mack says. “Read the fucking manuals. They’re on the lunch table.”
“Can we alter serial numbers?” Billy asks.
“What would that accomplish? I can take a whack at it, I guess, but why?”
“I don’t know. If it’s easy, do it. Could slow down an investigation,” Billy says.
Evgeny joins them in front of the printing equipment smelling of garlic. “I think maybe we keep equipment, print cards here. Better monies.”
“Not going to happen. All this stuff is spoken for,” Billy says.
A look passes between the older men. “Ev has a guy. You should hear him out,” Mack says.
“Yuri can help. No problem. Good connections in Ukraine, Bulgaria and Balkan states. We can print cards for all these guys. Steady incomes.”
The stain of rough places and shady deals is evident in every decision Ev and Mack make for the crew. There is always a guy they know ready to do whatever it is needs doing, including theft, break-ins, the acquisition of favors and now identity theft. Many of their connections go back to days on the water.
“One of your Navy friends, Ev?” Billy asks. Both Mack and Evgeny went straight into the Merchant Marines after service, Mack out of the US Navy, Ev from the other side. They left at about the same time and ended up in Chicago.
Mack answers for Evgeny, “Yuri is Ev’s nephew. You’ll like him.”
Billy is unsure of how adamant he can be without showing blatant disrespect to his elders. He defers all the time because these men have a long history together, but not today. “We’re not getting into printing. Not me anyway. That’s how amateurs get busted. Your nephew’s connections sound interesting but not for this project.”
Evgeny and Mack look at each other again, information passing through the twist of the bushy graying eyebrows on Mack’s face to the tilt of a ball cap atop the Russian’s head. Mack says, “No better man in a scrap and I’ll tell you something else, kid, he’s not just connected, he is very connected. Know what I mean? He knows people.”
“Is former Spetsgruppe Vympel,” Evgeny says.
“So is that like a military tech?”
Mack laughs. “Close. Russian version of the Green Berets.”
Billy doesn’t mention that he has bartered with numerous scurrilous Eastern Bloc hackers, including Russians and Ukrainians. One of his best connections goes by the name Toucht and is extremely well connected with that part of the world. They met at a hacker convention in Vegas when he was eighteen. That single meeting, won by an exchange of code he and his father worked up together, led to many additional online encounters and dozens of amazing resources. Toucht is likely one step removed from the communities Yuri says are connections, which places him only two steps away.
Even so, the discipline keeps Billy from sharing anything with anyone that can’t reciprocate. He says, “I hear a lot of nasty stuff comes out of Russia these days. No promises, but if your nephew ever comes to the States I’d be willing to meet.”
“Is here! Is in Chicago!” Evgeny reaches for his phone and steps away to place a call. Billy doesn’t stop him.
Mack continues talking as he opens a stolen box of toner. “Yuri can hook us up with the kind of people who turn identities into plastic and plastic into cash.”
“But we’re not carding, Mack. Do what you want. Not with this equipment. If I don’t deliver, I’m fucked. We’re not talking about it anymore. Seriously!”
Mack holds his hands up in surrender. “All I’m saying is you should listen to what the man has to say.”
“Is good man,” Ev says.
Billy folds his arms.
Mack signals Evgeny with a quick finger across his throat, and Ev places his phone back in his pocket.
“Another day, then,” Mack says.
Billy has never understood why it takes forty minutes less for Amtrak to haul him from the Twin Cities to Chicago than it does to return, but today the trip doesn’t bother him. A chapter in his life has closed.
Halfway through the trip he checks an assortment of Facebook pages. His friend Derrick has posted another cartoon. Cartoons on this particular site mean Derrick has another package. Billy logs into Facebook as a fictitious character named Karen. Karen likes Derrick’s cartoon.
Billy has never used even one of the hundreds of stolen identities he’s collected to pilfer money. Looks down on anyone who does and says to anyone who knows his skill that the discipline will not allow it. But he has, in his own vernacular, messed with people who deserve it. It can’t be helped.
The train crosses the St. Croix River at the Wisconsin border. He smiles as he recalls an incident from the week before. A breached firewall in Atlanta led to owning the network of a small business there. If he wanted to do so, he could take administrative control over dozens of networks just like that one, but he doesn’t do it.
In this case he took control of cameras and microphones on one of the manager’s laptops. Best reality television available. As an employee the man bored Billy, but in his dick role as a husband, every episode became more compelling than the last. His wife is pregnant. He sleeps around. The wife and husband watch television at opposite ends of a sofa almost every night, open laptop on a coffee table in front of them.
The episode that bothered Billy took place on a Monday night. Billy expected to see the married couple at home again. Made a bet with himself that they would be eating pizza, but what he encountered was the manager’s secretary bent over his desk. It was hilarious viewing. Billy would have done nothing about it except the dick told his secretary how he wanted to ditch his wife before the kid came. Made Billy angry. He rolled video. Using the man’s own email account he sent copies to the guy’s wife and boss.
As the train passes Stillwater, Billy sends text to his father, Halo: Don’t worry about me. I’ll take a cab.
Halo replies immediately that he’s already at the depot. He adds a second text that they should have a drink. Texts that they have things to talk about.
Billy: It’s late. Sorry. Maybe another day.
His father doesn’t reply so he tucks his phone away. It hits him again how he’s turned a corner, a bona fide thief in a bona fide freaking crew. At least for the moment, it feels good to be an outlaw, to have a secret life. He smiles at the now-frozen image of Evgeny picking the lock at the back entrance of the printing supply. If his parents find out about his nefarious activities it will break their hearts, but that won’t happen. Absentmindedly he says, aloud, “one and done.” The hipster in the seat in front of him turns his head slightly.
Billy sees Halo’s Lexus inching toward him through waiting cars and the departing crowd of riders. He opens the back door and carefully lays his bag on the seat.
“Good trip?” Halo asks.
Billy enters the SUV and straps in. “Didn’t expect you, Papi. Yeah. Good trip. Didn’t want to come back this time.”
“She’s that hot, huh?” Halo says, idling away from the depot. “You should dip the old wick for a while, if you know what I mean. Relationships can come later.”
Billy laughs at his father’s tired and incessant innuendos. He doesn’t know how a father figure is supposed to behave, only that Halo is not it. “She is hot and no. I don’t want to be tied down right now.” What Billy doesn’t go on to say is that his chosen lifestyle, temporary as it is, doesn’t allow time for romance.
“All I’m saying is you’re hung like a horse, so get busy. She give good head?” Halo says.
Billy should be shocked, but nothing his misogynistic father says about women surprises him anymore. “You don’t know anything about my package.”
“Changed your diapers for years. You should be happy!”
“You know how disgusting you are right now? For real.”
“Get over it. What will it be, coffee and a cigar, or a couple beers? I can go either way.”
Billy shakes his head no. Derrick will be waiting for him at his apartment. “It’s finals week, Papi. Give me a rain check on this one.”
Halo practically begs. “I just need a few minutes.”
Billy recognizes a rare side of his father, almost needy. Even so, he doesn’t commit. They ride in silence to the Whittier neighborhood of Minneapolis. Derrick’s red jeep is parked across the street and a few doors up from his apartment.
Before he opens the car door to get out, Billy hits send on a text to Derrick. Billy asks his father if they can’t connect the next day, maybe sit at Spy House for a while with coffee and cigars. “Whatever is so important will have to wait. Sorry,” he says.
“What do you think, ten o’clock? Not much going on at work this week. Bring your laptop.”
Billy is surprised. For years nothing has been more important to his father than work, and work means many different things. Halo has been on golf outings and late-night drunks that he called work. Anytime he wants to be away from the family is called work. “You should just give up, Papi, but sure. I’ll bring a laptop. You’re so on.”
Billy gets out of the Lexus and gingerly lifts his luggage to the curb. He taps on the top of Halo’s car and waits as Papi drives away. When he’s staring at tail lights, he turns toward the jeep and acknowledges Derrick’s presence with a nod of his head. Derrick gets out of his jeep and hustles two massive duffle bags in his direction.