The nursing home story broke just as Christmas break was coming up. Allison had been a sophomore at Boston College at the time and planned to spend the holiday alone. Charlotte and her husband, Oliver, had moved to Seattle a couple of years ago. They had offered to buy a plane ticket for her to come, but knowing they were saving up to buy a house, Allison declined their generosity. Allison did have three other relatives, but she would rather have slept on the street than spent the holiday with them.
Allison and Charlotte had been very young when Aunt Jane and Uncle Russell became their legal guardians. The couple had one son, Will, who was two years older than Allison, and the atmosphere of their home was neither warm nor welcoming. An air of constant friction permeated the place, usually stemming from something Will had done. He never showed any signs of ambition or responsibility, and he hung around with a group of creepy misfits. The only talent he seemed to have was a knack for getting into trouble-or mischief, as Uncle Russell called his skirmishes with the police.
To Allison, her aunt and uncle and cousin were her poor excuse for relatives. Charlotte was her only family. When they were children, their aunt had often threatened to split them up if they didn’t obey and keep quiet, and the possibility of never seeing her sister again had terrified Allison. She’d felt so helpless. She would have done anything to keep that from happening. Her fear, plus her sense of obligation to them for taking Charlotte and her into their home when they had nowhere else to go, had kept her compliant. However, now that she was an adult and had moved away from their house, she felt a new sense of freedom.
Since Allison was spending the holiday vacation alone, she decided to use the time off to focus her full attention on the hackers. She was confident the vast forces at the FBI would find the culprits eventually, but she wasn’t going to leave the task to them. It could take too long.
She didn’t get very far in her search during the break, yet she didn’t give up. Every moment of spare time she could steal between her classes was spent on her hunt. She was well aware of the chance she was taking, and she knew how careful she had to be. Breaking into protected sites was against the law, and yet she wasn’t deterred. She couldn’t get the elderly victims out of her mind. Finding their money was becoming an obsession.
A breakthrough came when she gained access to the bank’s servers and tracked the thieves’ withdrawals to various bank accounts that had been set up in a number of European countries. As she suspected, those had been closed within seconds of the deposits, and the money was routed to other accounts. Ultimately she traced the funds to a consolidated account in Ukraine, and from there it was dispersed once again into smaller bank accounts. With each discovery, she became more and more certain the attack was not carried out by a cyber syndicate, but rather by a small group of hackers or maybe even a lone wolf, someone who had devised an elaborate plan to find a vulnerable target and drain the funds before anyone could detect the theft. Step by step, she unraveled the knots.
After a month of searching she hadn’t found the source, but she could feel she was closing in. A long weekend was coming up and she was excited to have the extra time. The minute her classes ended on Friday afternoon, she hurried to her house off campus to resume her quest. Changing into her favorite fleece sweats and fuzzy slippers, she propped pillows against the bed’s headboard and leaned back, her laptop on her outstretched legs. Around three in the morning, just as she was about to call it quits for the night, she found the last link . . . and presto, she had them.
Her discovery surprised her. The theft wasn’t carried out by the Russians or the Chinese after all. All of the routing and rerouting through foreign banks turned out to be just a clever way of diverting attention. The real source was actually on the West Coast of the United States. The hackers were two seniors and one grad student at Stanford University. Their carefully hidden accounts-all containing some form of their initials, CHF, for their first names, Charles, Harold, and Franklin-had a total of thirty-eight million dollars. Certainly not chump change by any hacker’s standards.
Allison was euphoric for a good fifteen minutes before worry set in. The way the three men moved money around was a concern. That thirty-eight million could have been gone by morning, and she would have had to spend God knew how long tracking it down again.
She knew what she needed to do. She just didn’t know if she had the courage to do it. If she messed up, she could get thirty years in prison, she thought, even as she realized she couldn’t and wouldn’t let those three greedy lowlifes take what didn’t belong to them.