Fraudulent Intention$ – Read Chapter One

FI.coverPROLOGUE

There are a lot of lies going around – and half of them are true.  – Winston Churchill

The Deal

The polished blonde anchorwoman readied herself as a camera man signaled the countdown.  When he held up a fist, her script started to crawl up the teleprompter.

“In business news, local Atlanta bank SouthPoint announced today that it is acquiring Miami-based Internet Connections for $750 million.  ICon, as it is known, is an internet payment processor and aggregator of internet credit card transactions.  The deal will give the traditional SouthPoint bank an arm into the ever-expanding internet commerce industry.  It has received a warm reaction from Wall Street.”

She turned to face a side camera.  The screen split between her and an image of a written press release.

“In a statement released earlier today, the Chairman of the Board of Directors of SouthPoint, Hunter McMillan, said ‘we are excited about the acquisition of ICon.  We view the deal as a partnership that makes both companies stronger as we march side by side into the arena of internet commerce.  With ICon’s industry leading technology and SouthPoint’s strong and conservative balance sheet, we think we have put together the best combination to ensure maximum value for our shareholders.’”

The screen cut again to a close up as she continued the story.

“However, some analysts criticized how fast the deal was done and are wary that the decision may have been a rash short term move just to pacify edgy shareholders.  In fact, the annual meeting of SouthPoint’s shareholders is scheduled to take place soon after the ICon acquisition, which a source tells us was planned in order to drive the stock price up right before the shareholders meet to pass judgment on management.  Only time will tell.  Now let’s go over to Kurt to tell us how the Braves did last night . . . ”

CHAPTER ONE

Three Months Before The Deal

Bill Dixon’s fingers trembled on the keypad trying to enter his password as quietly as possible.  The offices of ICon were dark and he was alone huddled in his cubicle.  The air conditioner had been turned down overnight, and the single story building began to bake inside.  He wiped his glistening forehead with the sleeve of his golf shirt and blinked to focus.  Although he had spent countless hours at his desk at ICon over the past three years, he never realized how loud he typed until he was the only one in the large room of workstations.  Only the hum of sleeping computers interrupted the silence.  He glared nervously at jagged shadows that were inching across the walls from his co-workers’ screensavers.  Bill knew that he was alone, but his eyes were not so sure.

He rubbed his tired face and felt his unshaven cheek scuff at his hand.  Dark crescents had seeped under his eyes from his recent restless nights.  His thinning brown hair was now splashed with silver, and small crevices meandered across his forehead like tiny dry riverbeds.  At forty-eight years old, he had expected gravity to catch up sometime.  But the weight of the stress he was under over the past few weeks heralded its early arrival.

With each keystroke, his chest pounded so loudly that he was sure it amplified outside of his body.  His computer, however, was impervious to his anxiety.  It seemed to take an eternity to meander through its log on procedures, and all he could do was clench his jaw and wait.  Finally, after a series of blips and flashes, a rectangular logo encasing the word ICon emerged onto the screen.  A small hourglass turned slowly in the center signaling that the computer was still waking up.  He noticed his hurried breathing for the first time, and inhaled deeply to try to calm down.  Tiny sparkles of perspiration reemerged and dotted his balding forehead.

A moment later, his familiar home page flashed onto the screen with a window waiting for a username and two passwords.  He quickly typed in WillD and his first password, Trouper, the name of his first childhood dog.  The second password changed every ten seconds and was displayed on his employee identification card.  The ID card had an embedded microchip that continually received a different six-digit number from a satellite signal.  He pulled the ID card out of his pocket and, for a moment, stared at his grinning face looking back.  The card read William C. Dixon, Senior Computer Programmer, Internet Connections, Inc.

Three years ago when the photo was taken, both his hair and his face had been fuller.  He remembered that first day at ICon and the excitement of getting involved in a start-up internet company at the ground level.  ICon was an internet payment processor, which connects small websites to large credit card companies like Visa.  Similar to PayPal, ICon’s computer system operated a secure pay page that customers of the websites accessed to input their credit card information for a transaction.  Once entered, ICon processes the credit card information, transmits it to the credit card company to be approved, and then sends the approval to the customer – all in the blink of an eye.

He joined ICon after twenty-five years of being just another name on a bulging corporate phone list.  He had decided that it was time to take a risk.  Sixty years old was still twelve years away, but as he sighed over his thinning brokerage account statements he knew that his silver years were approaching quicker than his investments were increasing.  So he quit the big company and borrowed against his 401K to buy a piece of hope.  As an initial investor and employee in ICon, he might have a last chance at wealth if the start up company grew as big as his dreams.  Now, looking down at his grinning photo on the ID card, he wished he knew then what he knew now.

He softly entered the digital number that appeared temporarily on the ID card and eased down the Enter keyAgain the hourglass spun.  Before it had turned three times, the ICon logo disappeared and a background photograph appeared of him in a loud Hawaiian shirt draped with a flowery lei.  He was standing arm and arm with his wife Cindy who was grinning broadly behind large designer sunglasses.  Every morning when he saw that picture of his twentieth anniversary, he grinned.  This time, however, he stared right through the tropical setting to an array of icons that lined the beach at the bottom.  He slowly raised his head to peek over the cubicle as he glanced around the office.  No one.

He jockeyed the mouse to access the computer server that housed ICon’s operating software that ran the payment processing engines.  The only way to access the secure server was through his computer at ICon, and the only time that he could do it without being watched was after hours.  As he scrolled through the programs, his scanned the lines of computer source code that were racing down the screen.  He had written most of ICon’s software over the past three years.  To the untrained eye, the speeding data looked like unintelligible computer gibberish.  But after a lifetime of programming, the computer source code was clearer than English to him.  Computer code devoutly follows strict rules and patterns, unlike the inconsistent tenets of most written languages.  His eyes darted through the passing data as he frantically searched through the programs.  He was hunting for a parasite program that he suspected someone had buried somewhere deep in the multitude of electronic data.

“C’mon, c’mon, where is it?” he whispered to the oblivious computer monitor.

For the past several weeks, he had been assigned to work on a secret corporate project.  ICon’s biggest client, Modos Operations, needed a special computer program to process international transactions faster, and Bill was told that no one else could know what he was working on, not even his wife.  According to ICon’s President, the veil of secrecy was necessary to keep ICon’s competitors in the dark about the new technology, and he promised Bill that he would be paid handsomely for his discretion.  But it wasn’t long until he figured out the real reason for the confidentiality . . . and the danger of what he was involved in.  It was not really about speed or technology, it was about deceit.

Again, he looked around the empty offices, which glowed in the blue hue of computer screens.  A bead of sweat traced down his temple, and he wiped it with his shoulder as he continued to scan through ICon’s innermost computer system.  He was sure that the secret programming work he was assigned to do was just a front for a surreptitious scheme.  He suspected that someone had installed some kind of spyware in ICon’s operating system because he had detected a slight disturbance in the processing rates.  But when he tried to examine the source code during the day, he could tell that his cursor was being shadowed.  Someone was watching him.  He had to get in after hours.

It was past midnight and his stomach tightened with stress.  He still had a thousand lines of code to scan and his head was getting blurry.  Bill blinked hard to clear his eyes.  Just as they began to refocus, he saw what he was looking for.  Strange computer code with awkward formatting.  As soon as he saw the first lines of the foreign code, he let go of the mouse abruptly.  The data stopped instantly and glared back in black and white.  He leaned closer to the monitor, and his eyes narrowed while he scrolled slowly through the spyware that had been added covertly to ICon’s operating system.

He could tell right away that this was not the work of an amateur.  The program was complex and it fit seamlessly into ICon’s system.  It was like a cancer that had metastasized onto the source code, the source code that he had written.  Someone knew exactly what they were doing, and he shuddered at the thought that the operating system that he created had been violated.  He could feel his breathing quicken as he scanned the spyware trying to figure out what it did and who could have written it.  Again, he wiped his glistening brow and shot a glance at his watch.  He had to get out of there.  Although he was an employee by day, he clearly was a trespasser that night.

After ten minutes, he had read the whole spyware program.  “Jesus,” he muttered and sat back in his chair, stunned.  His mind raced through the implications of what he had just found as he stared blankly at the computer monitor.

Suddenly, he heard voices on the far side of the room.  A shock of adrenaline raced through him as he lunged down on the floor under his desk.  He listened for the direction of the voices, but the sound bounced around the cubicles making it impossible to track.  He looked up and saw that his monitor was still displaying the program.  While on his knees, he reached up and guided the mouse to close down his computer.  After a few clicks, he saw the familiar background picture of he and his wife in Maui, and he leaned back down under his desk praying that he would not be found.

There were at least two men and it sounded like they were on both sides of the room.  The exit was behind them and they were blocking his escape.  He was trapped.  They were getting closer, and his heart was pounding louder.  He inched further under his desk feeling an array of computer cords pressing hard against his back.  Bill held his breath, unable to do anything as the men approached.

Before he knew it, the voices were right above him and he could feel the presence of the men.  All of a sudden a tattooed arm reached down towards him.  Just as he was about to lurch forward in self-defense, the man grabbed his trashcan and whisked it out from under the desk.  Bill froze.  In an instant, the trashcan reappeared empty and wobbled in front of him from being dropped down.  He slowly looked out from under the desk and saw the back of the man’s cleaning crew uniform as he walked towards the next bay of cubicles.

His chest ached from holding his breath, and he gasped as he finally let the air escape.  He tried to calm himself by breathing deeply, and he pulled his striped golf shirt to his face to wipe away the sweat.  After a few moments of panting, he eased himself out from under the desk and peeked slowly over the cubicle.  The room was quiet again.  This was his chance.  Bill slipped out of his cubicle and snuck across the room towards a hallway that led to an employee exit.  At the exit door, he tapped his ID card on a black pad on the wall, and a small green light flashed.  He gently opened the door and slid out of the building.

A full moon brightly illuminated the humid Miami night as he dashed in the shadows of palm trees to his car hiding in the back of ICon’s parking lot.  He looked around before opening the car door, and then quickly got in.  No one had seen him.  He eased the late model Volvo out of the parking lot and glanced up at the rear view mirror to confirm his escape.  In the mirror, he watched the single story office building emblazed with the ICon logo grow smaller as he drove away.

Standing on the roof of the office building, a guard dressed in a black jumpsuit watched the red tail lights of the Volvo disappear around a corner.  He snapped a cell phone from his belt that was clipped next to a gun holster, and he punched in a phone number.  After four muted rings, a sleepy voice answered.

“Hello.”

“Sir, we have a problem at ICon.”

*       *       *

The worn brakes of the aged Volvo whined as Bill slowed the car and parked next to the curb on the corner in front of his ranch-style house.  He turned off the ignition and leaned back in the seat, trying to process what to do next.  The residential street was quiet except for the incessant buzz of cicadas that seeped through the closed windows of the car.  He ran his fingers through his thinning hair.  He had to tell someone about the spyware program that he found, and it couldn’t wait until morning.  It was just past 1:00 a.m., and Cindy was long asleep.

After a few minutes, he reached for his Blackberry.  At least he would send an email to Mick.  Mick Sertoff was a computer programmer who worked with him at ICon.  They had known each other long before ICon, and Bill hired him as the company started growing.  Mick was the only one at the company who he could really trust.

After he typed the email, he re-read it almost disbelieving what he had discovered on ICon’s server.  He sent the email to Mick and he felt a sense of relief as he watched the message disappear from his Blackberry.  Now he was not the only one who knew.

He yawned deeply as the adrenaline began to subside.  Tomorrow morning he would confront ICon’s President and demand that the program be removed.  If he had to, he would call the authorities, but there was nothing else he could do that night.  He rubbed his tired eyes and he nonchalantly looked out of the car window as he reached for the door handle.  The grill of a late-model pick up truck racing towards him was the last thing he saw as it slammed violently into the driver’s side of his car.  A horrific crash sounded, and everything went dark.