by Kevin Z. Garvey
“Fountainhead just disappeared with five million dollars,” said Treasury Department Assistant Deputy Director Jennifer Woodrow. “They’re offline. It’s an exit scam.”
Special Agent Jack Ellis took a sip of coffee and smiled at his boss. She’d called him into her office the minute he’d shown up for work, on the one day that he happened to be on time. Lucky him.
“I hate to say I told you so,” he said, “but–”
“But you will anyway, Jack. I know that. So get it out of your system now.
They were sitting in Woodrow’s corner office on the eighth floor of 26 Federal Plaza in Manhattan, home to the New York branch of the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network. Ellis had been working at FinCEN for six years and made his living like most Treasury Department employees: by following the money. For the past year, he’d been tracking the flow of currency into and out of Fountainhead in an effort to find out whose pockets were being lined. Fountainhead was a leading “deep web” black market website and shutting it down was a top priority at Treasury. But now all the hard work they’d put in seemed to be for naught. Fountainhead was gone. Just like that.
Woodrow banged her fist on her desk. “We were this close,” she said, holding her forefinger to her thumb. “A couple more days were all we needed. It’s like they knew we right there, knocking on their door.”
Ellis shrugged but said nothing. He didn’t share Director Woodrow’s view that the secrets of Fountainhead were close to being exposed, but knew that now was not the time to express his thoughts. It was true that the department had been making progress. They’d shuttered several online black market sites recently. But those successes were mostly due to stupidity on the part of the criminals. Smart online black marketeers, however, like the brains behind Fountainhead, had proven themselves to be formidable adversaries. It was virtually impossible to shut them down. Their sites facilitated the sales of drugs, weapons, counterfeit money, phony credit cards and a host of other illegal items. And they always seemed to be one step ahead of the feds.
“The forums must be blowing up with the news,” Ellis said. “I should check it out.”
Woodrow stood up and went to the window, looking out at the streets of lower Manhattan. “Put together a report,” she said, her back to the special agent. “Then be here at 11 a.m. sharp.” She turned to face him. “And make sure it’s tight, because I’m not the only one you’re going to be briefing.”
Ellis looked at her. “Who else?” he said.
Woodrow took a deep breath and blew it out. “The President of the United States.”
From inside his cramped cubicle, Ellis logged into FinCEN’s computer network and pulled up an encrypted Tor browser that would let him access a corner of the deep web known as the “darknet.” The terms deep web and darknet are used interchangeably by many people, but in reality they are two separate entities. Simply put, the deep web contains content that is not indexed by standard search engines such as Google, as opposed to the “surface web” which is indexed and is the part of the web that everyone with internet access is familiar with. There are plenty of things on the deep web that are innocuous, such as government databases and the like, but there are also some very unsavory places there, including the darknet. The darknet is a section of the deep web where black market sites such as Fountainhead reside. Accessing darknet sites requires the use of anonymizing software such as the Tor browser. Tor browsers are free to download, simple to use and perfectly legal. They are a godsend for libertarians, privacy advocates, freedom fighters in oppressive countries and, of course, cybercriminals.
Ellis, whose Tor activity was monitored and recorded, tried to log into Fountainhead, but knew he’d have no luck. The site had been buggy for the past few days and it was obvious to anyone experienced with darknet markets that they were planning an exit scam–vanishing with everyone’s money. Now they were down hard. Gone. Off the air. Having struck out on the main site, Ellis tried to log into Fountainhead’s forum, where all things Fountainhead were discussed, but that too was offline.
Closing the Tor browser, Ellis pulled up a standard Mozilla browser and navigated over to ever-dependable Reddit, hitting up their darknet markets sub-forum. As expected, the disappearance of Fountainhead was the topic of the day. There was much outrage, angst and pain as people raged and cried over how much money–in the form of bitcoin, a digital currency that is the gold standard at illegal cyber-markets–they’d lost.
Although people were understandably upset over their losses, Ellis found it hard to feel sorry for them. They should have known that this event was coming. Black market sites had a history of absconding with their users’ bitcoins. But Fountainhead had seemed different. People had begun to trust them and soon Fountainhead had grown into the biggest market site of its kind. In fact, until today, it was the industry’s most trusted resource.
Sifting through the forums, the only thing of note Ellis found was a post by someone calling himself “Heavy Water.” In his post, Heavy claimed that he had discovered the identity of Fountainhead’s owner–known only as “Atlas”–and was preparing to “dox” the cyber-kingpin if he didn’t restore the site and give everyone their bitcoins back within 48 hours. Doxing was internet slang for revealing someone’s true identity online, usually with malicious intent. If Heavy really had the goods and did wind up doxing Atlas, Atlas would find his life expectancy reduced to several hours at best. There were thousands of people who wanted to see him dead. And, Ellis knew, at least a few of them would literally be out for blood. But he doubted Heavy Water was legit. A lot of bogus claims were made behind the anonymity of the Internet. Still, you never knew. So, to be on the safe side, Ellis jotted down some details in his notebook.
After perusing the forums for another hour, gleaning as much information as he could about the Fountainhead debacle, Ellis took a break. He headed downstairs to a street vendor for some more coffee and then walked the streets for a time, gathering his thoughts. He had a big briefing coming up and needed to be sharp. After all, it wasn’t every day that a special agent got to brief the POTUS. And that’s who Director Woodrow had told him would be in her office with her, the president himself. It had to be true, right? Because as everyone knows, government officials never lie.
Ellis looked around Director Woodrow’s office. “So where’s the president?”
She made a face. “His staffer, Simon Asher, will be here any minute.”
“Wait a second,” he said, feigning shock. “I’m not briefing the president himself? He’s sending a flunky?”
“Can it, Jack.”
He turned to leave. “Sorry,” he said, “but I don’t speak to underlings. When the POTUS gets here, text me.”
“Sit down, Ellis,” Woodrow said. She put her elbows on her desk and intertwined her fingers as she watched him sit. “Look, Jack, I know you find it very difficult to be serious, but I need you to focus today.” She looked him in the eye. “Busting Fountainhead was supposed to be a crowning achievement for us. But instead of a feather in our cap, it’s now a target on our back. Right or wrong, we’re on the hook for this. And it could very well affect my funding, which is directly related to your job security. So if you like working here…please.”
Ellis regarded his boss silently for a moment. Although Woodrow was in her mid-forties, she was still a beauty, with blonde hair, blue eyes and a slim, athletic build. But today Ellis could see stress lines around her eyes and mouth. She looked significantly older than just a day ago. It was obvious that she was under some serious pressure. As Assistant Deputy Director, Woodrow interfaced with top government brass and the media, and that kind of responsibility could really weigh on a person. He actually felt a little sorry for her.
Ellis decided to play it straight. He said, “So who am I briefing? Simon…?”
“Simon Asher. He’s a Whitehouse staffer who reports to the president’s director of IT. But I can assure you that the president himself is all over this. He’d made a campaign promise to snuff out black market websites. All of them. And by snuff out he meant snuffed out by us, not by the owners disappearing with all the BTC.”
Ellis nodded. That’s what this was really about. The money. BTC was an acronym for bitcoin. When the feds shutter a black market site, they seize all the BTC and eventually trade it into hard currency. Over time that adds up. The ongoing tally was easily into the hundreds of millions of dollars.
Ellis looked at his watch. “He’s late. Is there a chance he’s not coming?”
“He’ll be here,” Woodrow said. “What have you got?”
Ellis shrugged. “Nothing you don’t already know,” he said. “We’d located the server in Ukraine and were trying to find out who was paying for it, but now that’s a dead end.”
“How about the forum chatter?”
“Nothing but a bunch of pissed off drug dealers and their clients.” He paused. “But there is one thing–”
He was interrupted by Woodrow’s desk phone. She raised a forefinger to silence Ellis and then picked up the phone and listened for a moment. “Send him in,” she said.
By all appearances, Simon Asher was your typical Washington bureaucrat. Well groomed, well dressed, shifty-eyed and adept at speaking out of both sides of his mouth. Ellis disliked the man the minute he laid eyes on him. Director Woodrow made the introductions and then the three of them got down to business.
“As I’m sure you know,” Asher said, looking Woodrow in the eye, “the president is supremely disappointed in your department’s inability to bring Fountainhead to justice.” He turned towards Ellis. “I’m here to find out what went wrong.”
The way his eyes focused on Ellis’s suggested to the special agent that Asher wasn’t here for facts, but rather to find a scapegoat. But Ellis was fine with that. His credentials were solid with respect to busting darknet websites. Even if they hung Fountainhead on him, he reasoned, his career would survive.
Woodrow must have picked up on Asher’s vibe, because she came to Ellis’s defense.
“Mr. Asher, Jack Ellis has been an integral player in shutting down online black marketeers. His work is directly responsible for the seizure of assets from the original black market site, Silk Road.”
Asher pursed his lips. “That may be,” he said. “But I’m here to discuss Fountainhead, not Silk Road.” He turned back towards Ellis and maintained eye contact without saying anything.
“Nothing went wrong with the Fountainhead investigation,” Ellis said after a moment. “We had discovered where the servers were located and were making headway in determining who was paying for them. But then whoever it was shut the servers down and took off with the escrow money.”
“Approximately five million dollars in BTC.”
“I don’t follow,” Asher said.
Ellis and Woodrow looked at Asher with puzzled faces.
“What do you mean, sir?” Woodrow said.
“I mean, what is escrow?”
Ellis couldn’t help but smile. “You don’t know what escrow is?”
“Not in the context of black market websites.”
Ellis rolled his eyes. “Oh, brother,” he said.
“Did I say something that offends you, Agent Ellis?”
Before Ellis could answer, Director Woodrow jumped in. “Mr. Asher, there are buyers and sellers on black market websites. In any transaction, the buyer sends money, in the form of digital currency, to the website, where it is held in escrow. The seller than ships the product to the buyer. Once the buyer receives the merchandise, the website releases the funds to the seller. If there’s a dispute between buyer and seller, the site mediates the dispute. That’s how the escrow system works.”
“In the case of Fountainhead,” Ellis said, “they’d shut down their servers immediately after transferring all the escrow money into their private accounts.”
“Can’t you just trace that money?” Asher asked. “That’s what you people do, isn’t it?”
“We try,” Woodrow said. “But part of the attraction of bitcoin is that it is very difficult to trace.”
“Difficult but not impossible.”
“Virtually impossible,” Woodrow said. “The bad guys use tumblers”–she quoted the word with her fingers–”which mix bitcoins together, making it, like I said, virtually impossible to track. That’s why these darknet sites are so ubiquitous.”
Asher thought that over for a moment. “So you’re saying that nothing further can be done? The bad guys won?”
“We haven’t given up yet,” Woodrow said. “We’re still analyzing the bitcoin blockchain. It’s a large sum of BTC, and we’re hoping that whoever is moving it through the tumblers gets careless.”
“How could they get careless? It sounds foolproof.”
“Not so much careless,” Ellis said, “as greedy. There’s no way to convert that much BTC into cash anonymously. They’ll have to sell it off on the black market, usually at less than half price. But sometimes, if they get greedy, they’ll try to get full value and that will trip them up. We have eyes on all the bitcoin exchanges.”
Asher thought that over. “Is there a chance they’ll be that foolish?”
Ellis shook his head. “Highly doubtful.”
“But you never know,” Woodrow added, shooting Ellis a look. “It’s happened before. We’re still actively investigating this case.”
Asher glared at Director Woodrow a moment. “It sounds like you’re giving me lip service, Director. If you cannot trace the funds, then what else can you do?”
“Sir, we’re also trying to ascertain the identity of Fountainhead’s owner. He’s known as “Atlas” and we are examining all of his online postings. He was quite active on Fountainhead’s message forum and we’re analyzing that data.”
Asher sighed. “The president is not going to be happy,” he said. “He’s already unhappy. He was told by your superiors just weeks ago that Fountainhead was going down.”
“I haven’t given up hope yet, Mr. Asher,” Woodrow said.
But Ellis could hear the defeat in her voice and he knew that Asher could hear it too. The three of them sat silently for a moment. Then Woodrow snapped her fingers and turned to Ellis.
“Jack,” she said. “While we were waiting for Mr. Asher, you started to say something about the forums. What was that about?”
Ellis sat back in his chair. Woodrow was talking about Heavy Water’s threat to dox Atlas. But now Ellis regretted even bringing it up. Still, he’d had no choice. He had to share any possible leads with Woodrow, no matter how weak. If he didn’t it could come back to bite him later. But he certainly didn’t want to discuss it in front of Asher.
Ellis took a deep breath. “It’s hardly worth mentioning, because it’s the longest of long shots,” he said. “But we’re following every lead we can.”
“Go on,” said Asher.
“There’s a guy on Reddit claiming that he has discovered Atlas’s true identity. But like I said, we see that all the time and it never pans out. If we weren’t able to ID Atlas, there’s no way some random poster on a forum could. But of course I intend to check it out.”
Asher thought that over for a moment. “Interesting,” he said. “I want the FBI involved in this as well.”
Ellis looked at Woodrow and raised an eyebrow. Woodrow said, “Sir, it’s a little premature for–”
“I don’t care about interdepartmental squabbles,” Asher said. “I want results. Get the FBI involved in this mess immediately.”
“Sir, with all due respect, let us at least vet the guy first. It won’t take long to determine whether he’s a quack or not. If there’s something there, the Bureau is welcome to join the hunt.”
Asher sucked his teeth. “I’ll give you twenty four hours. I’m staying in New York tonight and will be back here at 8 a.m. Give me something I can take back to the White House.”
He stood up and left the office without another word.
Woodrow and Ellis looked at each other.
“Nice guy,” Ellis said. “Must be a blast at parties.”
“Follow up on this lead, Jack. It probably nothing, but let’s hope for a miracle that there’s something there. Go.”
Back at his cubicle, Ellis pulled up Reddit and studied Heavy Water’s posts. The more he read, the more he believed that this guy was full of crap. But he had to be one hundred percent sure.
Using a Tor browser, Ellis then checked the forums at other black market sites. He found Heavy Water all over them. Apparently, Heavy was a big time drug user and enjoyed reviewing products from various drug vendors. Ellis found reviews for everything from weed to coke to prescription pills to heroin. Heavy didn’t sell anything, but he certainly bought his share. Ellis decided that it would be wise to pay the man a visit. But first he had to discover Heavy Water’s identity–if that was even possible.
Although it is difficult to shut down black market websites, investigators such as Ellis have many tools at their disposal. The sites are considered a threat to national security, and as such, Treasury is authorized to use the latest NSA technology in the effort to shutter them permanently. Ellis considered himself a libertarian and didn’t appreciate the way the NSA spied on American citizens, but he wasn’t above using the technology to help him do his job. It didn’t take him long to ascertain Heavy Water’s IP address from Heavy’s visits to Reddit. And it appeared that the IP address were not spoofed or protected by proxies. This was good news. It showed carelessness on the part of Heavy Water. And carelessness was an investigator’s best friend.
Ellis looked up the IP address and saw that it originated in New York City. This was another break, because it meant Heavy Water was close by. The problem now was in determining who was paying for that IP address. Ownership information is held by the Internet Service Providers, and the only way an ISP will give up a name is if they are served with a warrant. The fact that Heavy Water was an apparent drug user would not be enough probable cause to obtain a warrant, Ellis knew. The good news, if it could be categorized as such, was that after 9/11 agents didn’t need probable cause anymore. All Treasury had to do was to tell a judge that Heavy Water was part of an ongoing investigation that involved national security and that would be enough get a warrant issued. Ellis didn’t agree with such a flimsy justification for issuing warrants, believing that it was an intrusion on the rights of citizens, but today he was grateful for it.
Looking at his watch, Ellis frowned. Time was the only real problem now. Asher was pushing to get the FBI involved and would not be patient about it. Ellis had to move fast. He stood up and headed over to Director Woodrow’s office.
For the first time today, Ellis saw Woodrow smile when he told her he’d discovered Heavy Water’s IP address. He knew that Woodrow was loath to have the FBI involved in the investigation, but not for territorial reasons as Asher had suggested. It was that she knew, as Ellis did, that Asher was using the Bureau as a symbol of his dissatisfaction with Treasury. This was his way of humiliating Woodrow, Ellis and FinCEN itself. That’s why it was no surprise to Ellis when Woodrow approved his request for a warrant and told him that she’d get it issued before the end of the day.
A few minutes before five o’clock, Ellis was back in her office. “Howard Finger,” she said, sliding a folder across her desk. The folder contained a signed copy of the warrant, some biographical information, home and work addresses, and a copy of Finger’s driver’s license photo.
Ellis looked over the documents.
“Go,” Woodrow said.
Dressed in jeans, a t-shirt and windbreaker, and wearing a baseball cap and sunglasses, Ellis kept a low profile as he sat in his car across the street from Westside Electronics in Midtown Manhattan, where Howard Finger, aka Heavy Water, worked as a computer repairman. A few minutes earlier, Ellis had walked into the store, posing as a customer, in order to ascertain if Finger was working today and to get a look at him in person. He’d been in luck. Finger looked just like he did in his license photo. Now it was just a matter of time until the computer tech’s shift ended.
About twenty minutes later, Ellis watched as Finger left the store. Ellis knew there were no guarantees that Finger would go straight home to his apartment in Washington Heights, but he hoped for the best. He put his Treasury parking permit on his dashboard so that his car wouldn’t be ticketed or towed, and exited the vehicle. He assumed that Finger would hit the subway and intended to follow on foot.
Once uptown, Ellis kept his distance as he followed Finger home. The only stop Finger made was at a bodega for some groceries. Ellis lingered outside the store, pretending to read a newspaper while Finger shopped. When Finger exited the bodega and approached his front door, Ellis made his move.
He waited until Finger had opened the building’s locked front door and entered the vestibule. Before the door closed, Ellis grabbed it and entered as well.
“Howard Finger, right?”
Finger looked him up and down. “Who are you?”
Ellis flashed his badge. “I’m with Homeland Security. Got a second?” Ellis preferred to say he was with DHS rather than DoT. It sounded more ominous.
Finger was taken aback. His eyes shifted between the front door, Ellis and the stairs. Ellis could see his mind working overtime.
“It’s about an issue involving national security,” Ellis said, using the phrase so that Finger, a known drug user, wouldn’t assume that Ellis was here about narcotics. “It’ll only take a second. Can I come up?”
Ellis put a finger to his mouth and then pointed towards the staircase. “Upstairs.”
Finger hesitantly went up the stairs. Ellis followed right behind. When they reached the third floor landing, Finger transferred his groceries into his left arm and took out his key. Ellis noticed his hand shaking slightly as he put his key into the lock.
Once inside the apartment, Finger turned and faced the special agent. “What’s going on?” he said. “I know my rights.”
Ellis smiled. “I’m here to talk about Fountainhead’s exit scam,” he said. “Heavy Water, right?”
Now Finger smiled too. “Oh, that,” he said, visibly relieved. “Yeah, I’m Heavy Water.” He paused. “How did you find me?”
Ellis shrugged. “This is what we do.”
“Is this about me saying I was gonna dox Atlas?”
Finger scratched his head sheepishly. “Yeah, well, I was kind of talking out my ass about that.”
“So you don’t know his identity?”
“Not really? What does that mean?”
Finger looked around. “Can I put these bags down?”
Finger put the groceries down on the coffee table and pulled a carton of milk out of one them. He walked across the small, cramped apartment to the refrigerator. Ellis stayed close to Finger as he moved throughout the place, but he could tell Finger was not going to try anything funny.
Once the milk was away, Ellis got down to it.
“Tell me what you know about Atlas.”
Finger shook his head. “I don’t really know anything…”
“But a few years ago, I used to run a clear net website called H2420.com.”
Clear net was another term for the surface web. Finger was telling Ellis that the site he owned was not on the deep web.
“H2420?” Ellis said. The name rang a bell. “I think I remember that site.”
In Ellis’s line of work, it was important to have his finger on the pulse of the industry, and that meant checking out any and all websites related to illegal black markets on the deep web. He’d read and posted on thousands of clear net and deep web sites over the years and was pretty good at remembering them all.
Finger perked up at the revelation. “Yeah? Well, I owned that site. The domain’s expired now, but it had a good run.”
“It was a discussion forum, right?”
“Exactly. It was right around the time that the Tor browser was gaining traction. On H2420, we were talking about the possibility of operating black market sites on the darknet long before any of them came into existence.”
“Yes, I definitely remember that site. It went offline right around the time that bitcoin popped.”
“That’s the one,” Finger said. “I think BTC was about ten cents each back then.”
“So what does this have to do with Atlas?”
“Maybe nothing,” Finger said with a shrug.
“But there was this one poster on the site. He didn’t post a lot, but he obviously knew a lot about the burgeoning darknet scene. I think it might have been Atlas.”
“Because one time he wrote that if he were ever to start a darknet trading site, he’d call it Fountainhead and he’d call himself Atlas. After the Ayn Rand books.”
Ellis stared at Finger but said nothing.
“The guy’s screen name was Tin Man,” Finger said. “I still have his IP address.”
Again, Ellis said nothing. His eyes were locked onto Finger’s.
“That doesn’t prove that Tin Man is Atlas,” Finger went on. “It could be a coincidence. Or maybe Atlas used to read the site. Or…who knows?”
“You say you still have his IP address?”
Finger nodded. “I’m sort of a digital pack rat. I save everything. I have it on a scandisk. Along with the IP addresses of everyone who ever visited the site.”
“Does anyone else know about this?”
Finger shook his head.
“You ever mention it on Reddit or any other forum?”
“Just the posts on Reddit where I threatened to dox Atlas.”
“Have you posted the IP address anywhere?”
“Nah. Like I said, I was just blowing smoke. It was a bluff. Atlas screwed a lot of people.”
Finger looked down. “Um…”
Ellis waved his hand. “Don’t worry. I don’t care about your drug use. I’m here about Atlas only.”
Finger shrugged but remained silent.
Ellis thought for a moment. “Okay,” he said. “I need to see that disk.”
“Sure.” Finger went to a cabinet in a corner of the room. He rummaged through a drawer and came out with a scandisk. There was a piece of tape on it that said: H2420. “Here you go,” he said as he handed it to Ellis.
Ellis looked at the disk. “What’s on it?”
“Everything. The entire database. The disk includes all the forum posts and a log of IP addresses.”
“Does this data exist anywhere else?”
“It’s not on your computer?”
“Nope. You’re holding the last remaining vestige of H2420.com.”
Ellis pocketed the disk. “Howard, I appreciate your cooperation.”
“We done here?”
“Almost. Just one more thing.”
“I’ve read your drug reviews on the darknet market forums.”
Finger’s face turned bright red. “Oh, boy.”
Ellis smiled. “Relax. I told you I don’t care about that. I want you to help me with a sting operation.”
“I need you to put up a review. Right now.”
Ellis pointed to the computer on a table near the window. “Log in.”
“So what do you want me to write?” Finger said. He had booted up his computer and logged into the discussion forum of a black market site called Armageddon. Armageddon was a fraction of the size of Fountainhead, but it had been around nearly as long.
“Howard, do you have any drugs in the house right now? Be honest.”
The way Finger stammered before replying in the negative told Ellis that he was lying.
“Didn’t I tell you to be honest, Howard? Tell me the truth. Do you have any heroin here?”
Finger shook his head. “I don’t keep that stuff around. Too tempting. I have some weed, perkies and a little blow. That’s it.”
“Thank you,” Ellis said. “I appreciate the honesty.”
“So what about the sting? What do you want me to write?”
“I think it would be easier if I wrote it.”
“Fine with me,” Finger said, standing up.
Ellis sat down and Finger stood behind him, looking at the screen. Ellis’s fingers hovered over the keyboard, but then he abruptly stood up again.
“Howard, this is going to sound silly, but I can’t concentrate with you standing over my shoulder.”
“No sweat, I’ll go sit on the couch.”
“Even with that, I’ll lose my focus.”
“You want me to leave?”
“Of course not, this is your home. But would you mind if I cuffed you until I finished writing the review? I promise I’m not arresting you and I won’t confiscate your dope. I just need five minutes peace of mind.”
Finger shook his head. “Man, I don’t know about that.”
Ellis spread his hands. “I’m afraid I’m going to have to insist.”
“This ain’t right, man. You’re taking me in.”
Ellis smiled. “If I were taking you in, I wouldn’t be asking. I don’t need permission to arrest someone.” He paused. “Please.”
Finger shook his head again and sighed, but didn’t argue further. Ellis reached into his windbreaker and took out a pair of handcuffs. He pointed to another chair in the room.
“Have seat right there, and we’ll get this done. Five minutes is all I need.”
Finger did as instructed. Once seated, Ellis gently pulled his arms around and handcuffed his hands behind his back.
“Not too tight, is it?”
“It’s okay,” Finger said. “Five minutes, right?”
“Or less,” Ellis replied, walking back to the computer.
Before sitting down at the keyboard, Ellis reached into his jacket pocket and removed a pair of surgical gloves. He put the gloves on, sat down and double checked to ensure that he was logged into the forum as Heavy Water. He turned and looked at Finger. “Who’s one of your heroin dealers?”
“I usually use Prince White. Why? And what are the gloves for?”
Ellis ignored the questions and began to type:
Mailman just delivered my package from Prince White. About to give it a try. Will update later.
He hit enter, closed the browser and stood up. “That’s it.”
“Told you.” He walked over to Finger and stood behind him. But instead of unlocking the handcuffs, Ellis wrapped his left arm around Finger’s throat and locked up a choke hold with his right arm. Finger didn’t have time to protest. He gurgled and then passed out under the pressure.
Ellis held the choke for a moment longer and then released it. Finger’s head drooped. He was out cold but still breathing. Ellis reached into his windbreaker and took out a cigarette case. Inside the case was a syringe and a small plastic baggie of fentanyl, an opioid analgesic twenty times more powerful than heroin. Many fatal overdoses have been the result of users not realizing that they were shooting up fentanyl instead of smack. Ellis kept samples of various drugs from purchases he’d made during his deep web investigations. He was supposed to turn them all in, but he kept some for himself. He found them useful when dealing with informants. But today he had a different use in mind.
Ellis went into the kitchen and prepared the syringe using one of Finger’s spoons. He returned to the still unconscious man, rolled up his sleeve and injected him with a large dose of the drug. By this time Finger was coming to.
Finger shook his head groggily. “What happened?” he said.
“You overdosed,” Ellis told him. He looked at Finger’s eyes and saw that his pupils were pinpricks. The drug was already taking effect.
“You overdosed on fentanyl. You thought it was heroin.”
“No,” Finger said, panic creeping into his voice. He tried to stand up but was restrained by the cuffs.
“Sorry about this,” Ellis said.
“Why?” Finger croaked.
“Because I screwed up and now I have to fix it,” Ellis said. “You were right, Howard. Tin Man was Atlas. And I was Tin Man.”
Finger mumbled something, but Ellis couldn’t make out the words.
“To be honest, I don’t even remember making that post about the name Fountainhead. I can’t believe I did something so stupid. If Tin Man’s IP address ever got out, I’d be sunk. I can’t leave any loose ends.”
Finger struggled against the cuffs, but his energy was waning. He was frothing at the mouth and could barely move.
“Take it easy, Howard. You’re almost there. The good news about overdosing on pain meds is that, well, you feel no pain.”
A minute later, Finger was unconscious. Ellis picked up Finger’s hand and pressed his fingertips on the syringe, spoon and baggie. Then he removed the handcuffs.
Finger slid off the chair onto the floor. Ellis checked his pulse. It was there, but faint. Ellis stayed with the dying man until he was sure he was dead. It didn’t take long.
His work now done, Ellis removed the gloves and tucked them into his pocket. He took one last look at Finger, then left the apartment and went to go get his car.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Director Woodrow said. It was 9:30 p.m. and Woodrow was still in the office. Ellis was with her now, giving her the bad news. “What happened?”
Ellis drew a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I drove to his apartment and knocked on the door. There was no answer, so I showed the super the warrant and got him to open up. Finger was inside, dead. There was a syringe and a packet of what looked like heroin on the floor. I called it in to the NYPD. When they showed up they found other drugs in the place, too. Guy was hardcore.”
“I can’t believe this.”
“Just our luck, right? As soon as I got back here I checked the forums and found a post he’d made at around 6:30 tonight, saying the mailman had arrived with a package for him. It must have been the H he OD’d on. Had to be just minutes before I got there.”
Woodrow banged her fist on the table. “Dammit. Finger was our last hope. Asher’s going to be on the warpath.”
“At least this takes the FBI out of the equation,” Ellis said. “Not that the Finger angle was going to pan out anyway. This guy was just blowing smoke. Atlas is way too smart to be exposed by some junkie. He’s not getting doxed. By anyone.”
“If you had shown up a few minutes earlier,” Woodrow said, “you might have been able to save his life. Poor guy.”
Ellis shrugged. “There is a bright side for him, though.”
“He died doing what he loved.”
Despite the seriousness of the situation, Woodrow had to laugh. “You’re a piece of work, Ellis. Go home. Be back here at 7 a.m. sharp. Asher will be here at 8. It’s damage control time.”
Ellis stood up. “If they’re looking for a scapegoat, I volunteer to take the fall,” he said.
Woodrow nodded. “Thanks. I may have to take you up on that. Hope you have a parachute.”
Ellis smiled. I do, he thought. A nice golden one. He walked to the door. “See you tomorrow,” he said.