Read The Fool's Run Online

Authors: John Sandford

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The Fool's Run

The Fool's Run

John Sandford

A gripping ultramodern novel…fast-paced and suspenseful. – Chicago Tribune

Con artists Kidd and LuEllen utilize state-of-the-art, high-tech corporate warfare to organize the technological takedown of a defense industry corporation, but their string of successes is cut short when the ultimate con artist gets conned.

John Sandford

 

The Fool's Run

The first book in the Kidd And LuEllen series

"Whereas crime has traditionally occurred in environments of manual human activities, some crime is now perpetrated inside computers in the specialized environment of rooms with raised flooring, lowered ceilings, large grey boxes, flashing lights, moving tapes, and the hum of air-conditioning motors. A new jargon has developed, identifying automated methods such as data diddling, Trojan horses, logic bombs, salami techniques, superzapping, piggybacking, scavenging, data leakage, and asynchronous attacks. Utility programs such as Superzap are powerful and dangerous tools in the wrong hands. They should be kept secure from unauthorized use."

Computer Crime,

a Criminal justice Resource Manual, U.S. Department of Justice

 

Prologue

It was hard work, which he hadn't expected. The thief removed each leaf from the blueprint book, squatted and centered it between tape markers on the rug. When it was in place, he stood up, squinted through the camera's viewfinder, and tripped the shutter. Then he did it again, ninety-four times, a long half hour of deep knee bends.

As he worked, he talked to himself: "Ooo, that's got it, Danny. Awright, motherfucker. Let's move this sucker a leetle bit this way.

When he finished, he was sweating. He turned off the photo-flood and lit a cigarette.

The thief was tall and sandy haired, with a long English face, beaked nose, and china-blue eyes. His ruffled-front shirt was buttoned and cuffed with onyx studs. He wore tuxedo trousers, a black cummerbund, and patent leather shoes. A tuxedo jacket was folded over the back of a visitor's chair.

The thief was working in his own office. The desk was real oak, the carpet real wool. The two regulation plants, a palm and something else, were plastic, but exceptionally authentic.

At the back of the office, an old-fashioned drafting table stood beneath a window. He didn't use it; it was a harmless affectation allowed an upper-middle manager. A swing-arm lamp was mounted on the drafting table, though, and that had been useful. The thief replaced the lamp's 100-watt incandescent bulb with a floodlight and maneuvered the lamp out over the carpet. The light on the blue prints was flat and even. The pictures would be perfect.

After a dozen drags on his cigarette, the thief snubbed it out and began rebinding the blueprints. As he clipped the pages in place, he paused occasionally to listen. Except for the odd plonks and plunks, the building was quiet. When he finished with the blueprints, he set them aside and turned to a second book.

This book was also loose-leaf, but smaller, the size of a telephone directory. Its 706 pages were covered with computer code. He could photograph four pages at a time. The pages would be out of order on the film, but that made no difference as long as he got them all. It took him two hours and fifteen minutes to make the copies.

"Jesus Christ," he muttered as he picked up the last two pages. His knees cracked when he stood, and his lower back ached. He lit another cigarette, stretched, and looked idly around the office.

He had spent a thousand days in it, but never breached its built-in anonymity. Memos, business cards, and procedure statements were thumb-tacked to a bulletin board beside the desk. A photo of himself, riding backward on a bicycle at a company picnic, was pinned in the lower corner. A cartoon from The New Yorker was mounted next to it. A gold-framed photo of Margo, with Tammy and Ben on her lap, sat on his desk, next to an onyx ashtray from Cancun. There was little else that was personal.

When he finished a second cigarette, the thief picked up the code book and the unwieldy blueprint binder and stepped into the darkened hallway. The executive suite was empty. The annual directors' dinner began in an hour. All the hustlers and hotshots would be there early.

"All the hustlers, Danny," he muttered through his teeth. He would be late and would miss the cocktails. But he wasn't so important that his tardiness would be noticed, he thought with a touch of bitterness.

Down two floors was the security library. The thief carried the books down the fire stairs and through another dark hallway and opened the library door with a key from a steel ring. Inside, he went to a separate room in the back, opened the fire door with another key, and put the books back on the shelves from which he'd gotten them three hours earlier.

As he shut and locked the library door, he was seized by a graveyard chill. Footsteps? No. There was no one there. He pulled the key out of the lock and hurried-scurrying, he thought, like a rat-back to his office, suddenly afraid of the dark. Afraid that somebody would step out of a doorway and say, "We know what you're doing."

Inside the office, his heart pounding, the thief put the original bulb back into the drafting lamp, dropped the floodlight into a brown paper sack, and crushed it under his heel. He would dump the sack in a trash basket on the way out.

The film cassettes he tucked under his cummerbund, like so many bullets in a cartridge belt. The camera, on a short strap, went over his shoulder, under and slightly behind his armpit. With the tuxedo jacket covering it, the camera would be invisible. Satisfied, he turned out the light, picked up his alligator briefcase, and rode the elevator down eight floors to the lobby.

The guard at the front desk was watching an Orioles-White Sox game on a grainy black-and-white television. He turned his head at the sound of the elevator.

"How are we doing?" the thief said as he crossed the marble floor.

"Down three to two, but we're coming up in the eighth." The guard pushed the sign-out register across the desk. "You going to the big party?"

"Yes." The thief glanced at his watch. Right on time. The guard checked his briefcase, deferentially opening the half dozen file folders inside. They contained routine personnel papers. Nothing technical.

"S'okay, and have a good time," the guard said. "Don't do anything I wouldn't."

"I'll be careful," said the thief, with a quick, pleasant smile. His teeth were white against his dark face. Sharp dresser, the guard thought as the thief went down the steps and out the door, though his tux was a little too full in the shoulder.

The guard looked at his watch and sighed. Five hours to go. He opened the drawer that held his lunchbox where a package of Hostess cupcakes waited. He knew if he ate them now, he'd regret it at lunch time. He opened the box and took out the cellophane-covered cupcakes and stared at them. Chocolate frosting with pink squiggles. God, it was a lonely job.

CHAPTER 1

He was tall and lanky and wore an expensive white summer suit with a complementary cream-colored shoulder bag and jet-black wraparound fuck-you sunglasses. Her ash-blond hair just touched her shoulders.

She would fit in nicely with the Concorde crowd. On the river, she was wildly out of place. Her business heels dug into the side of the levee as she came down. The summer suit, light as it was, clung to her thighs like wet paint. At the base of the levee she brushed through a screen of head-high willows, took a few steps out on the sand, kicked off her shoes, and scooped them up with one hand. She walked like an athlete, like a long-distance runner.

I was working on a sandbar below the St. Paul Municipal Airport, where the Mississippi curls away from the Twin Cities. It's a rough river off the bar, deep and muddy brown. It smells of dead carp, rotting wood, and diesel fuel. A half mile upstream, the St. Paul skyline soars over the river, the buildings more impressive for the hundred-foot bluffs beneath them.

A gravel road ran behind the levee, so it was possible to get in by car, as the blonde had. I'd come by water. The boat was tied off on a driftwood stump, and the easel sat out on the sand, facing the bluff across the river.

I work in watercolor and sometimes pastel. A newspaper critic once wrote that "Mr. Kidd paints in a colorful representational style borne of the Second Generation of New York School Abstract Expressionism." One of the basic rules of life is that artists don't question favorable newspaper reviews. But I brood about that borne when I've had too much beer or gotten stuck on a tough painting. Did he mean born? Or did he really mean borne?

I had to give up on the day's painting. This bluff was a monster. The rock was mostly a golden yellow, crossed halfway down by a band of pink. Weedy little saplings sprouted from crevices on the rock face, and the mix of green leaves and pink rock set up uncontrollable vibrations. Then too, I'd made a couple of bad moves. I said "shit" and stopped. The painting was gone.

"Mr. Kidd?"

The only other person who ever came to the bar was a snuff-chewing catfisherman with a plastic drywall bucket for a seat, a half-pound of spoiled chicken livers for bait, and a face like an English walnut. He'd sit and spit and never say a word.

"Yeah." She'd looked good coming down the levee. Up close, she looked even better.

"I'm Ann Smith." She took off her sunglasses with one hand and stuck out the other. I shook it. Her hand was cool and soft, a business hand with short squared nails, no polish, no rings. We have an abundance of good-looking blondes in Minnesota. Even so, she was a head-turner. Green eyes with gold flecks. Square chin. A few freckles on her too-tidy nose. Surgery? Maybe. The most delicate scent floated about her, a mix of iris and vanilla. "A woman at your apartment building said you were working down here. I hope you don't mind the interruption. It's important."

"I was finishing up." I took an X-acto knife from the tackle box and cut a triangle from the center of the painting.

She frowned, took another step forward, and cocked her head to look at the painting. "Why'd you do that? Ruin the picture?"

"It was already ruined. If you leave bad paintings laying around, they wind up on walls." I tossed the knife back in the tackle box. "What can I do for you?"

"A job," she answered promptly, her eyes still on the wrecked painting.

"Ah. A job."

She put the sunglasses back on, hiding her eyes. "A computer job."

"A computer job. I'll tell you, Miss.

"Smith."

"I charge outrageous prices. And I hate consulting work. I can recommend a reliable freelancer-"

"We're not looking for bugs," she said flatly. She opened her purse and took out an envelope. "I have a retainer here."

I tried again. "Look, I've had a good run of paintings-"

She interrupted again. "Last year you made seventeen thousand dollars on paintings," she said. Her dark glasses gave her a hostile power. "That will barely pay your mortgage. You might make twenty thousand this year. You spend a month fishing in the Northwest Territories. You spend another month on Biscayne Bay, out of Miami. You go to New Orleans to paint. You'd like to buy a permanent place down there. Your karate costs a thousand. You have to eat. So you'll have to take computer work. And we don't care about your outrageous fees. We can afford them."

My easel is a homemade contraption, designed to disassemble and fit in the boat. It's held together by a bunch of butterfly-sized wingnuts. As she was talking, I dropped to one knee and reached in to loosen one of the nuts and to hide my face while I thought about what she said.

She looked too rich to be a cop. And she was too direct to be political. Political people ooze butter even when the knives are out. That left two possibilities. She might be private. Or she might be federal, working for an agency I didn't want to know about.

Whichever it was, she'd seen my tax return. That's the only place she'd find the amount of seventeen thousand dollars, because it was phony. I made a lot less than that, on the painting anyway, but declared seventeen. It accounted for income that couldn't be hidden and that I couldn't afford to explain.

So she had some clout. The business about a place in New Orleans was harder to figure. It suggested surveillance, though I hadn't felt a thing.

"You want more?" she asked, showing off. "Your friends say you're odd. That's the word they use: odd. You have a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering. You have a master of fine arts in painting. You should have a Ph.D. in software design, but you skipped your orals to go fishing in Costa Rica."

"They were biting," I said lamely, trying to slow the recitation.

"That's bullshit," she said crisply.

"Yeah. But it's the simplest explanation that fits all the facts."

"Occam's razor."

"A good guy, Occam," I said.

"Your friends say you stay up all night and sleep until noon. You paint and do computer programs and know a lot of politicians who come to your apartment with sacks full of money. Sometimes shoeboxes."

"Only rarely. Shoeboxes, I mean."

She rolled on like a Vandal. "Your friends say you have a wonderful nerd act. You dress up like an engineer with a white shirt and string tie, and put a calculator on your belt and nine ballpoint pens in a white plastic pocket shield. That's how you went to the Beaux Arts ball last year with Bette what's-her-name. But you don't quite make it as a nerd. You worked with the Strategic Operations Group out of Saigon during the Vietnam War. And I have a fuzzy television monitor photo of a man who looks quite a bit like you-couldn't prove it, but it's close-going over the three-strand wire at Belkap MicroTech. He's not dressed like a nerd at all. He's dressed in an Army urban camouflage suit that's supposed to be sort of secret. He left a little blood behind on the wire, type A-positive, which happens to be your type. You want more?"

"No." The wingnut came loose in my hand. I looked at it and wondered who had designed such an elegant, useful thing. It might be something to draw. "It's all pretty much of a fantasy anyway."

She took another step closer, until she loomed over me. "I don't think so. We have excellent sources of information. You were recommended by Jack Clark at Clark Foods. He gave you high marks for solving his problem, whatever it was."

If she'd talked to Jack, there was one more thing she'd know, but hadn't asked about. It was coming.

"There's one more thing," she said.

"I thought there might be."

"A couple of people said you do the tarot. That makes us a little nervous."

"It shouldn't. You don't know how I use it."

"The job we have is critical. We don't want it done based on the stars, or whatever."

"I'm probably less superstitious than you are," I said. I stood up and it was too close for comfort; she backed off. "I use the tarot my own way. You wouldn't understand it, and I'm not inclined to explain. If you don't like it, you can hike back over the levee." I pulled the easel apart and laid the uprights in the boat.

"We just don't want it to get in the way," she said.

"Is that a royal We? Or do We have an employer?"

"You'll get a name when you agree to work with us. That's what this is for." She unfolded the envelope, and showed me the money. She was a big woman, her eyes level with my chin, and the sun and the light breeze turned her blond hair into a halo. Behind her, on the water, a tow pushed a string of rust-colored barges upstream. A bare-chested deckhand in grimy jeans sat on the lead barge and watched us. "We will give you five thousand dollars to ride in to Chicago with me this afternoon. I've got a plane waiting at the airport. We'll buy you a return ticket."

"Convincer money," I said.

She shrugged. "Free money, Mr. Kidd. All cash, no record, no taxes."

"I declare all my income, Miss.

"Smith."

"Right." If her name was Smith, I'd eat my brushes. "How much for the main job?"

"You'll have to talk to my employer about that. If you take it, you won't have to worry about financing a place in New Orleans. You'll be able to buy it outright."

She was cool, superior, and slightly snotty. A male friend, if she had time for one, would have a hard body, a great tan, a gold chain, a two-seater Mercedes-Benz, and no sense of humor. A commoner had little chance of peeling off her shorts. Should it happen, she'd do it purely for the experience, like shopping at Kmart or sniffing glue.

She knew what I was thinking, of course. And she knew she was reaching me, with her information, money, and long athletic legs. All management tools, properly deployed, well under control. It was mildly irritating.

Letting it percolate for a moment, I looked down at the battered, grass-green fiberglass hull of my boat, the brilliant white D'Arches paper, the black handles of the watercolor brushes. It was all I really wanted to do; I didn't want to fool with some rich guy's computers. But a bigger boat would be nice, and money would buy more time to paint. And New Orleans is a pleasurable place.

"It sounds illegal," I said after a while.

"I don't know what you did for Jack Clark," she said, "but I got the impression that the police wouldn't be happy about it. When I talked to him, he was grinning like the cat that ate the canary."

"I could call Jack and ask who your boss is," I said.

"He wouldn't tell you," she said promptly.

"Five thousand?" I'd been rubbing my hands with an old T-shirt, now a paint cloth. She handed me the envelope, absolutely sure of herself.

"In twenties and fifties," she said. "See you at the airport in an hour?"

"Make it an hour and a half," I said, giving up. I tucked the money into my hip pocket. "I've got to pull the boat out of the water, and make arrangements for the cat. take a shower."

She looked at her watch and nodded. She started to walk away, then changed her mind and turned back to the ruined painting.

"I went to an opening a few weeks ago," she said. "Oil paintings, though, not watercolors. They had holes cut in the middle of them. Like that one. My friend and I spoke to the artist. He said the holes represented his contempt for the conventional form that has trapped painting for so long. He said the American Indian, for instance, often painted on irregularly shaped war shields.

It was the kind of talk that gives me headaches.

"Miss, ah, Smith?" I said when she slowed for a breath.

"Yes?"

"If we have to fly to Chicago together, if I take this job, do me a favor?"

"Yes?"

"Don't talk to me about art, okay?"

Her face froze up. Offended, she looked down at her watch and said, "An hour and a half. Please be prompt."

She started stiffly across the sandbar toward the willows, but loosened up after a few feet, and even gave it a little extra effort, knowing I'd watch. Which I did. At the base of the levee she stopped to put on her shoes, glanced back, and nimbly climbed the bank.

I keep a pair of 8 x 50 binoculars in the boat, so I can get a closer look at landscape structures. When she disappeared over the levee, I got the glasses and jogged after her. A car door slammed as I scrambled up the levee and put the glasses on her car's license plate. It was a Minnesota tag, probably a rental. Back at the boat, I wrote the number on the cash envelope with a nice vibrant black made of alizarin crimson and hooker's green.

Then I went off to call Robert Duchamps, pronounced Doosham, and usually called Bobby.

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