It wasn't so odd that black-hat hackers would go white. Not really that strange that they would find challenging employment with industry or government guarding the perimeters of cyber-space. But it was strange to see a job posting by the General Dynamics Information Technology section for applicants who could 'think like the bad guys.'
I am not sure who came up with the idea of hiring computer hackers to secure the nation's networks. It is a proposal tinged with desperation, because if there ever was a case of getting the fox to guard the hen-house, this is it.
The streets were covered with leaves and shreds of paper. A mini-tornado had blown through Capitol Mall last night. It was just a dust-devil, without much dust, but it stripped the cherry trees and cleaned out the newspaper boxes. Plastered to the window of my morning coffee shop was a torn piece of yesterday's Post which read: 'Police Clueless in Smithsonian killing.'
Subtext: Police clueless in just about everything, but especially so in the matter of the Smithsonian killing.
The curator of the Technology section was found dead in the laboratory. His face was smashed into a circuit board whose wires were unsoldered and sticking up in a menacing manner. Which menace was fulfilled in his death. Clueless hands had to pry the circuit board away from his face. Their clumsy crime-scene protocols destroyed a lot of evidence, making one think that there were at least some police who did not watch CSI shows. Evidence technicians can't do the miracles suggested by those shows, but at least if the scene of the crime isn't trampled and manhandled they can do something.
The technology section at the Museum of American History didn’t deal with technology the way they did it at General Dynamics. They assembled displays of marvels of history like the Morse Code key, the Enigma Device, and the first Apple computer. Of course the whole museum was outfitted with wireless internet, intranet and everything. At the time I came into the lab to investigate the death of the curator there was no reason to think there was any connection between the General Dynamics posting and the murder of Dr. Joseph Taasche. That would change. But first I would have to sort out this crime-scene. In fairness to our first reporting officers it must be stated that the Washington Post was premature in labeling the police as ‘clueless.’ They picked up the story from their scanner just before the morning edition went to press. So, technically we were clueless even before the first officer hit the scene. But the force has priors for cluelessness so it’s to be expected. As the Detective-in-Charge I just wish my guys wouldn’t destroy the clues.
Officer Brummer looks like Peter Lorre, which is part of the reason it's hard to take him seriously. He glanced up at me sheepishly and brushed crumbs from his uniform shirt. "Hi, boss," he said. "This place is a mess. I don't know how you'll make anything out of it."
"What have you bozos been doing in here?" I replied. "It looks like you contaminated the whole place with footprints, fingerprints, and donut glaze."
"I don't think you can see our fingerprints, boss."
"You know what I mean," I snapped. "Who is this dead guy?"
"Professor something, boss. He was working on some sort of project, at least that's what they said."
"Those people over there." He pointed towards an office on the edge of the room. "It's this guy and a chick."
"Brummer, you are a fountain of information. Did they tell you anything useful?"
He scratched his chin, then said, "They told me the guy was working on internet security protocols."
I was surprised and said so. "Brummer. You surprise me. I didn't know you knew that word." I looked across the room and saw two people engaged in furtive conversation. My suspicious mind concluded that they were consulting about how much to say and how to conceal the truth. You can get cynical like that from police work. "Brummer, get your soggy donut off the path and when the crime-scene guys get here give them the lowdown."
"OK, boss," he said.
I sighed to myself. Brummer was actually a good cop, if you could get him to concentrate.
“What’s your intution on those two, Brummer? What are they talking about?”
Brummer looked thoughtful. I detected a faint odor of tech-lube in the air. I began to notice the room a bit more. The rafters were steel, exposed beams with cross hatching. It was a tall ceiling. There could be a vulture perched up there for all I knew. Brummer looked over at the man and woman in the office and said, “The guy is telling her to tell us the minimum of stuff because the dead guy was working on some secret project that he doesn’t want her blabbing about. He’s actually thinking about grabbing her ass while he talks, and trying to remember when the last time was that she said, 'No, I won’t go to lunch with you,' because he’s married and doesn’t give a crap, and she’s single and doesn’t want any creepy supervisor putting his hands all over her.”
“You have a vivid imagination, Brummer.”
“Hey! Go ask them yourself. I am sure they’ll verify that that is exactly what they were doing.”
I went over to the office and walked in. They saw me coming, but still jumped a bit when I shut the door hard. “I am Lt. Argyle of the Homicide Division. I’m wondering what you two are talking about?” I demanded.
The office had a decorative sense of controlled chaos. It was her office, that much was plain. A girly coffee mug was on the desk with the tag of a tea-bag hanging out, next to a picture of the woman with a small girl.
“I am Melissa Crandall,” the woman replied, “and this is Mr. Franklin. He’s the operations supervisor for this complex.”
“And who is the victim?” I asked, glancing out at the body.
“That’s Joe Taasche. He’s the tech guru,” she said.
Mr. Franklin said, “I was just asking Melissa how the work would go on with Dr. Taasche, uh, dead.” He looked at her, and back at me.
“Have any idea how he got dead?” I ventured.
“He was like that when I came in this morning,” Miss Crandall answered. “I don’t know what happened. I called the police right away. I didn’t know what to do.”
I said, “That was the right thing to do.” I thought for a moment. “Were you working with Dr. Taasche?
“Yes, I am his assistant.” She looked thoroughly downtrodden. I noticed the man looking at his watch and glancing out to the corridor.
“What’s out there?” I asked. I knew it was a line of administrative offices because I had walked in that way.
“My office is down there. I have a meeting scheduled there in just a few minutes,” he said.
I nodded, went to the door and gestured to Brummer. I stepped out of the office and told him to take Mr. Franklin to his office and sit on him. Brummer stepped into the room and said, “I’ll go to your office with you, sir.” The man looked offended. He didn’t need supervision. He could go to his office by himself. The meeting was confidential and he didn’t need a cop breathing down his neck. This unspoken script was clear in his eyes.
The evidence techs were out in the room dusting and photographing. Melissa looked helpless. In my years investigating crimes I learned how to read people. At that moment Melissa was reading me, but with an angelic innocence that upset my equilibrium. I had to force myself to concentrate on the matter at hand rather than her persona. Brummer was probably exactly right in his assessment. I can’t say that I blame Mr. Franklin.
“Miss Crandall, can you tell me what project Dr. Taasche was working on? Oh, and what is the, the thing upon which he is impaled?” She brought her hands to her face and sobbed. How many things could be read into that? I didn’t know. I had to resist the tempation to comfort her with a bear hug. “I know this must be very hard for you, but it is important for you to tell me as much as you can.”
“I know. I’m sorry. It’s just so shocking. He is . . . was . . . a good man. I don’t know who would want to do this to him.” She wiped her eyes and composed herself. “Dr. Taasche was working on this display of the antecedents of modern computers. You can see it scattered about out there. The machine he’s . . .” she began to sob again . . . “smashed into, that was an early prototype of a personal computer. It was borrowed from the IBM labs. He got it in bad shape and was rebuilding it for the exhibit.”
"Now Miss Crandall, what can you tell me about this kind of work that would seem to be a provocation to murder? Was there some dark secret that Dr. Taasche was hiding, or was he on the verge of uncovering something that would shake up the museum world?"
She looked at me suspiciously. "I can sense that you are jesting. You are making fun of us and our work." Flashes of red appeared on her cheeks.
"Not intentionally, I assure you. I am here for the first time, and there is a body out there. My job is to find out who turned him into a body, and hopefully why. You work here, worked with the victim; you know the situation, the projects, and the layout. You probably know the killer." I waited for this to sink in.
She looked shocked. "Know the killer?" she said. "Do you mean it could be someone who works here?"
Her face showed the disbelief common to people who are confronted with death, murder, and the idea that someone close may be the criminal. Nobody wants to admit that someone in their circle might be responsible for a heinous act. It’s simply not part of everyday life, except that occasionally tragedy strikes, and then people have to revise their opinion of what their colleagues might be capable of. There’s not any hard and fast rule which prevents everyone from stepping over the line. Common decency, a sense of fair play, a desire to survive the day and work another, these are always in play. But what is that one thing, that one small, even innocuous event, which can cause a rational person to flip, and commit the capitol crime?
The office was a jumble of papers, pictures, and books. On the table by the door was a sculpture of paintbrushes and television tubes. The man was an artist, or at least knew one. Melissa paused in the doorway and looked forlorn as she let me in. I started by looking at the pile of documents and notebooks on his desk. From a cursory inspection I learned that he was working on a project to reconstruct an early computer, from the sixties, one that was an experiment in miniaturizing parts. The machine out in the lab was about the size of a generator you'd use to run electric saws and drills if you were building a house with no electricity to the site. On an open page of the journal on the desk he had written, "It's too late."
“Melissa, what do you think this means? ‘It’s too late?’ Too late for what? What do you think?”
She looked at the notebook, glanced away, and her face got a faraway look.
Out in the laboratory the evidence technicians were dusting and photographing. I saw the Medical Examiner walking slowly around the body, looking carefully at the details, gesturing to the photographer to get an important shot. “Excuse me a moment, Melissa,” I said. I went out to the lab and watched the M.E. watching the techs. “Busy day, John?” I asked.
“Oh, hello Argyle. Yes, it’s pretty much like all days in the city of peace and love. It’s pretty early and I already went to a cute little spot down in Georgetown where a guy was stabbed right out on the street in front of the C Street House.”
“Really? I didn’t hear about that.” I said. C Street House was a place congressmen and senators and the like went for prayer and such.
“Yeah. You were already out on this call. They gave it to Drexler.”
“Mmm, so what do you think about this guy? Other than the fact that he’s dead.”
“That much I know, Argyle. You can’t fool me for long. But just off the top of my head I’d say that they smashed him into this, this machine or whatever it is, after they killed him. I’m going to have to get the body back to the lab to see for sure, but I am sure there will be a cause of death other than face-smashed-into-machine.”
He told me that it wasn’t a substantial enough impact to have resulted in death, and that it was more than likely a symbolic act, a display, for someone. That’s what I had concluded as well, so it was nice to hear it confirmed by somebody else.
The ME was very competent, with years of experience and the cynicism to go along with it. He preferred dead people, and the challenge of figuring out how they got that way. His only contact with perps was in the courtroom, when he testified at their trials. He liked the rareified air of the superior courts, even though the courts’ demeanors were diminished by the endless parade of violent criminals who peopled their corridors. And he missed the eloquence of the old times, the glorious speeches by both prosecutor and defender calling on the judge and jury to remember the sacred principles on which our nation was founded, and to protect the liberty of this free people by doing the right thing every time. Who can do the right thing every time? That seemed unrealistic, but it was still worth holding out there as a viable credo. The Medical Examiner was a philosopher too. They call him ‘Dr. Death.’
“Look here, Argyle,” the ME said. “This fellow has this whole work area lined up with computers of different vintages, from the early IBM model here, to the big server back there, to the Apple IIe, the early Univac monster over there. All crucial pieces in the evolution of what we call ‘technology’ these days. The only thing that’s missing is a modern ultra-light, super powerful and speedy laptop. Like his laptop, which by my way of thinking should have been right here . . .” he said, pointing to a spot on the work table with an anchor cable. “No computer. But, there’s the adapter cord running down there, and the lock cable right here. So his computer is gone and probably a lot of information about what he was working on too. And I don’t need to tell you that there could be a bunch of other crap on that computer, secret stuff, that could be a big clue in this murder, and very interesting too, I might add.”
“No, Doc,” I said quietly. “You don’t need to tell me that. But thanks for noticing his computer is gone."
So much boils down to computers these days. Everywhere there are computers. In coffee shops, airports, shopping malls, on our desks at home. Oh, in my car! It's daunting. And of course the tech professor would have a powerful personal computer with all of his important data stored on it. If you watch TV cop shows, and I do, you see much wizardry with computers. Like NCIS agents who track a suspect by locking onto the path of his cell phone record and getting his location by satellite. Or Law and Order detectives who just casually access bank records of whoever as though it was an everyday operation. This is all baloney. Real police work takes a lot more grinding. But it is fun to think that if we just got our hands on Taasche's laptop we could make a picture of just what he was doing and who did what to him.
There are some guys at the police department who are pretty good with computers. I have no doubt that they could fill the bill for the Department of Homeland Security cybersquad. Except for the fact that they can't 'think like the bad guys.' If we were able to get ahold of Taasche's computer it's quite possible that our experts could take it down to the rails and squeeze everything out of it. It would be a lot of hard work though, and nothing like the miracles depicted on TV. If only life were like TV it would make our jobs easier.
“Anything I can do to help you, coach, you know I am always willing.” Brummer was standing behind me with Mr. Franklin who was looking impatient.
“I’ve got meetings,” Franklin said.
Brummer looked at me and at Franklin and told him that we were missing a billiard tournament but that was just life. Franklin didn’t see the humor in it. “Do you guys have a donut machine around here?” Brummer asked.
I told Brummer that we were missing a portable computer from the victim and to see if he could figure out where it might be. I studied Franklin while I said this, looking for signs.
“That’s funny, boss,” Brummer replied. “The murderer has it, obviously. The guy was probably murdered for the computer. Although why the computer couldn’t have been stolen some other time, like when Taasche wasn’t here, I don’t know.”
“Very smart, Brummer. I wish that you had been the culprit: then we might not have a dead body lying around for us to deal with,” I remarked dryly.
“That you would not, sir, I assure you. I would have killed the Professor somewhere else, and not bothered with the theatrical set-up which our killer found necessary.”
Franklin was looking unnerved and as though he might be moving into a medical crisis. I asked him, “Do you have a blood-pressure problem, Mr. Franklin?”
His face was red as he said, “No, but I will if you people don’t let me get to my meeting.”
Officer Brummer put a hand onto Mr. Franklin’s elbow, gripping him firmly. “When you say, ‘You people’ are you intending the sort of meaning that one might use when he says he can’t get anything out of the White House now that 'you people' have taken charge?”
I tried to calm Franklin down by telling him that Officer Brummer was sensitive about his ethnic heritage and didn’t cotton on to having slurs made about his familial heritage.
“What sort of ethnic heritage is that?” Franklin shouted. “Near as I can tell both of you are descended from demented comedians. You are supposed to work for the city and all you do is play word games.”
“Do you hear that, Brummer?” I remarked. “Mr. Franklin has learned our secret. Now we will have to clap him in irons and hold him incommunicado until we can administer the mind-sweep.”
Brummer looked very devout, bowed slighty and intoned, “Yes, My Master.”
Franklin paled, then bolted.
"What do you think about that, boss? The guy just doesn't appreciate a sense of humor. He ran off like a scared rabbit." Brummer scratched his chin fiercely.
I asked him what he thought of Franklin as a suspect. "As a suspect, I like him," Brummer said. "He would look very nice on the witness stand, if he would take the stand of course, and he would provide evasive, equivocal answers which would be amusing for the jury." Brummer looked at me with deep concentration.
"Yeah," I said. "Rabbit trails leading everywhere and nowhere. I don't like him either."
Brummer said, "I like him for something else, I don't know what. I don't think he killed Taasche, but he's covering something else up."
"That probably is a good evaluation. I don't even know why I am here Brummer. You think like a well oiled machine."
"Lt. Argyle, if you weren't here I would think like a rusty wheel, and that's a fact, sir."
Lt. Argyle found a museum postcard from the Paris Louvre in Professor Taasche's in-basket. There was a Lyons postmark from a week ago and an inscription which read, "Je ne le trouve pas." -M
The memory of walking down to the Seine with Rachel came to me strong from looking at this card. We had visited the Louvre and she was enchanted with the statuary and stone carvings. Rachel was fascinated with everything medieval, and to be in Paris and especially that museum was great for her. We walked to the river, hand in hand, stopping at a booth where a man sold crepes, and sat down with coffees at a bench along the bank. That's when she told me that she was really glad we were able to make that trip because she had cancer of the breast and didn't know how long she would live. I don't suppose it would have been reasonable for her to withhold this information from me until we got back to Washington, but it certainly put a dark cloud over our vacation. She's been dead now for three years. You never get over losing your wife, but sometimes the numbness is interrupted by a sight or sound which brings her memory back to me.
The postcard raised the possibility that there was an international aspect to this murder, and I didn't like that. But Taasche had a contact in Paris who was looking for something, and didn't find it. It could be that the contact was searching for a French computer for the museum project, but a possibility loomed that the motive for his murder and the search for something in France were related.