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netwars 2 - Down Time 1: Rogue

About the Book

netwars 2 — Down Time: Rogue
Part 1 of 6

Mutual funds. Savings accounts. The stock exchange. It takes just one cyber attack to crash it all.

Down Time sees the return of vigilante hacker Scott Mitchell, whose victory against hacker group Black Flag was just a minor setback for the cyber criminals. With a new recruit under his wing, The Salesman is ready to launch another attack in this high-tech serial thriller set in the anonymity of the Dark Web.

The National Cyber Crime Unit (NCCU) in London have joined forces with the FBI to battle a new piece of malicious code threatening to bring the world financial market to its knees.

Meanwhile, several elite traders have been found dead in strange circumstances — from heart attacks to kinky sex acts. Could their deaths be connected?

About the Author

M. Sean Coleman launched his career as one of the original writers on Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy Online. He has since written and produced original, award-winning shows for MSN, O2, Sony Pictures, Fox, the BBC, and Channel 4. He continues to write novels, graphic novels and tv scripts from his home in London.

1

An arrogant man was always far easier to kill, he found. Not because he had anything against self-importance, necessarily, but because it was always so much easier to get closer to the arrogant ones without being noticed. They made more noise, and left a bigger trail. They were so accustomed to being the centre of attention, that they never noticed him until it was far too late. Even if they saw him watching them, it would never occur to them that he would want to kill them. Somehow their arrogance made killing them all the sweeter. It was their sudden realisation that they would never achieve their lofty ambitions, and that, ultimately, they would only ever be remembered as a victim, and not as the great success they had always assumed they were.

Shylock sat quietly at the end of the crowded bar, watching his next victim with a bubbling sense of loathing building in him. Nat Marley was a popular young man, and was surrounded, as usual, by a braying group of colleagues. They were here every Thursday, with unstinting regularity, necking expensive shots, with champagne chasers and making sure that everyone in the bar knew exactly how important they were. It would have been easy for him to hate these finance boys — everything about them oozed corruption, pomposity and a blatant disregard for anything except higher profit and more glory. Who was he to judge them though? He had been one of them once, and what was he now? A hired killer has no moral high ground, after all. If he was really honest, their behaviour didn’t actually bother him that much — this was far more personal. Besides, he had spent a long time following Nat Marley, and he knew that this young man was by no means the worst of the bunch. He was arrogant and driven, for sure, but then, so was Shylock. The problem was that Nat Marley had just become a serious threat, so it was time for Shylock to get rid of him. If only the young man had been easier to corrupt or more inclined to cheat, perhaps he would have lived to see the morning. Shylock knew that he was moving quickly, and without his partner’s knowledge. But he also understood that, to his current partner, everyone had a finite time in which they could be useful and when that time expired, it became far too dangerous to let them hang around. The trick was to stay useful. Nat Marley had not managed to do that, and now his time was up.

Shylock had learned the hard way not to make this part of his job more personal than it had to be. Of course, many would argue that taking someone’s life was as personal as it got, but he didn’t see it that way. Not in this case. He hadn’t started this fight, but he would certainly finish it. In the beginning, he hadn’t intended to come this far, but he had no regrets about what he had become. There was no point trying to sugar-coat murder. It was far better to simply shut off any feelings he would have once had about it and focus on the job in hand. Revenge was just a job to him now, like baking bread, or packing meat — functional and repetitive. Yes, particular care needed to be taken to do it right and to follow the rules but, otherwise, it was just a job. He checked his watch. Eight-thirty exactly.

If he’d done his homework properly — which of course he had — Nat Marley would be about to make his excuses and leave his colleagues in the bar, to slip off to an important meeting that he couldn’t tell anyone about: a hot date with one of his company’s strongest competitors who appeared to be offering him a significant step up the career ladder. Nat Marley would be feeling pretty good right now, Shylock thought, as he watched him throw his head back and laugh raucously at one of his colleague’s comments. He could have made some lofty assertion about Marley’s meeting tonight being a date with destiny, but the truth was that Nat Marley was going to die. Not because it was his destiny, but because he had become a serious risk Shylock’s bigger plan.

Sure enough, within moments, Shylock saw the young man glance at his watch, quickly down the rest of his drink and stand up. There was the usual chorus of taunts from his colleagues — leaving the party early was a sign of weakness in this pack. Nat Marley brushed off their insults with ease. Collegiate ribbing was water off a duck’s back to him.

“Why would I want to waste a perfectly good evening with you bunch of losers,” was his parting comment, as he slung a ridiculously expensive jacket over his shoulder, downed a final shot from the tray on the table, and strode off, middle finger extended to his colleagues over his shoulder, and most eyes in the bar tracking him out. He made it too easy.

Shylock watched his victim leave, and smiled. Despite reminding himself that it was just a job, he had to admit enjoying this part more than any other. The last moments of the hunt were certainly the most tantalising. Last time, he hadn’t really enjoyed the actual killing, and a lot of the preparation had bored him, but these last seconds of the chase — they were sublime. It was the understanding that he knew something literally life changing about his victims that even they didn’t know yet; that’s what was thrilling. He left a twenty-pound note under his empty glass and eased off his chair. He could hear the bugle calls in his head — the hunt was almost at an end, the hounds were closing in. He smiled a broad and sinister smile as he followed Nat Marley out of the bar and into the cool night air.

The city was dark and cold, under a thick drizzle. His breath fogged in front of him and he zipped his leather jacket up. As predicted, Nat Marley hailed a cab, directly outside the bar. He pulled his smartphone out as he watched his target give the address, and used one of his own custom-built apps to log the taxi’s GPS tracker as it pulled away. Of course, he knew where Nat Marley was headed, but this way he would be able to follow his progress in real time.

He slipped his helmet on, climbed onto his motorbike, and gunned the engine. He took one last look at Nat Marley as he pulled alongside the cab at the lights, and then he sped off. There was still a lot of work to do.

*

Nat Marley didn’t bother tipping the taxi driver and he certainly wasn’t going to thank him — it just wasn’t his style. The guy was doing his job, he didn’t need thanking for that, and he only tipped if they did something exceptional for him, or he was trying to impress some pretty little thing he’d picked up. Other people often accused him of being cheap, waiting for his change when he had enough in the bank to support a small country, but it was the principle of the thing for him. Give nothing away for free.

He slammed the door and stood in front of the tall glass building. It was a building he knew well enough, he had walked past it every day for the last five years. Eisenberg, Katz & Frey were the company he had set his heart on getting into ever since graduating, and it looked like he was finally going to get his chance. He’d heard of the top companies poaching the elite from their competitors before, and there was often a good sweetener to help you jump ship. Not that he needed any kind of sweetener, just getting a foot in the door was exciting enough. This was where he would make his real fortune, he was sure of it, and he could put the stress of the last year behind him.

Almost a year ago, he had stupidly involved himself in some extra-curricular activities that had seemed like a good deal at first — he had been approached by a group of likeminded individuals to pool their resources to build a program that would tackle the security vulnerabilities in their part of the financial sector and make them all richer than they could imagine. They had called themselves The Water Boys, and they fancied themselves as the best of the best. He had been paid well for his time, but had gradually begun to realise that they were working on something much bigger than he thought, and he didn’t like the risk of it. He knew that their industry was more complacent about security than it should be, but he wasn’t prepared to become an activist to prove it. When he realised that the people he had joined forces with were actually looking to bring down the stock markets, he tried to pull out. That was when the threats had begun. He had given them one last piece of code, but it had deliberately included a backdoor, in case they ever used it. He had assumed that his involvement was now over, and he had then set about building the antidote. If they did attack the market, it would be Nat Marley who stopped them. He would become a legend. Tonight’s meeting would be the beginning of that journey.

Nat Marley might be young, but he was widely recognised as one of the most gifted employees in his firm right now, and he knew it. He had graduated top of his class, which was already an elite group of mathematical geniuses, and after a brief stint on Wall Street, he had been snapped up and shipped back to London by Flintlock and Staines, one of a handful of high-frequency trading firms which effectively ruled the London Stock Exchange.

People have an image of the stock market which usually involves testosterone-fuelled men in expensive suits and colour-coordinated shirts, barking orders into multiple telephones, while watching fluctuating market prices appear and disappear on a scrolling ticker-tape beneath large banks of screens. That image is as outdated as the movies that created it, but the alternative is too complex for most people to comprehend, so we cling to the old image because it makes sense. It puts people behind the success and failure of our stock market, and somehow that makes it okay. The truth is that those traders are no longer there, at least not in the same way, and the majority of trades are now made inside black boxes, located in heavily-guarded buildings, with little or no human understanding of what happens.

Following the market collapse of October 19, 1987, which became known as Black Monday, the global financial industry began to change irrevocably. The process began slowly at first, but intensified over the years that followed as, gradually, all of the people — those loud, confident guys in expensive suits — were replaced by computers. These days we live in a world where machines make the trades, and where those same machines read our news stories and even our Twitter feeds, and react to what they see there in milliseconds, or even nanoseconds, faster than any human trader could even blink. A hoax tweet from a hacked Associated Press Twitter account, suggesting that President Barack Obama had been injured in an explosion at the White House, sent the stock market into almost instantaneous free fall, erasing some two hundred billion dollars from the market’s value. As soon as the tweet had been confirmed fake, the markets bounced back up again, just as quickly as they had gone down. The computers had made the costly mistake of believing Twitter and reacted as quickly as they had been programmed to do. These so-called Flash Crashes have become part and parcel of the modern stock market.

In his first month on the job, Nat had experienced the full, shocking enormity of a Flash Crash, and it had excited him like nothing he’d ever experienced before. May 6, 2010, had started out fairly normally for him, with the one difference that it was the day of the General Election in the UK, and that always made the European and US markets a little jittery. He had been looking forward to seeing how those nerves affected the market, but he hadn’t been prepared for what he experienced that day. Adding to the global tension on that day was the fact that, while the UK electorate had been casting their votes for a new government, the Greeks had taken to the streets to protest against the austerity measures being imposed by their own government. The mood on the market was already darkening by the time Nat had arrived at work, and every time Athens appeared on a news bulletin, another few points drifted away from the Dow Jones Industrial Average like wisps of smoke from a bonfire.

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