[5] Catastrophes

“Zoe! Get your lunch and your pack together and get your shoes on!” Annoyed, Teri tossed her daughter’s shoes from the bathroom where she’d spent the last half hour stumbling over them as she readied for work. Pulling her blouse over her head, she finger-combed her hair into place and hurried into the bedroom for her own shoes.

“Don’t wear the boxy black ones!” Zoe ordered bossily from the table as Teri emerged.

“What’s wrong with them?” Her eyes skimmed over the very shoes, already in hand.

Tucking her lunchbox into her pack, Zoe zipped it then hoisted it onto one shoulder, raising her brows in an expression she’d learned from her mother. “They make you look like those old women from that movie – with the monsters and the kids with weird powers. The women that could control time and turn into birds.”

Marginally insulted at her daughter's lack of appreciation for her fashion sense, Teri ran her tongue across the front of her top teeth. The reference was mostly unflattering and Zoe had intended it that way. “Fine.” She marched into the bedroom, swapping the shoes for the black t-strap pumps that were her only other option.

Moments later, they were out the door and on their way. They’d left early, uncertain how the traffic would be and because Teri wanted to be certain she made it to the hospital on time.

Zoe's chosen camp was at the opposite end of town from their RV park through unfamiliar parts of the city for Teri. While nothing was difficult to navigate or reach, especially using GPS, when they arrived at the administrative office and drop-off point, the parking lot was crowded with vehicles bringing other camp-goers in that morning too, with a borrowed school bus to transport the children blocking several parking spaces that would otherwise have been avaliable to arriving traffic.

It took what felt like an unreasonable amount of time waiting for a parking spot to empty, and another ureasonable stretch waiting at the check-in counter in the office to get Zoe set up for the weeklong camp, much of the process inefficient for its duplication of steps they'd already required at online sign-up. 

It's a small organization in a small town, Teri reminded herself, rapidly checking boxes on a printed waiver she'd filled out online previously, then signing at the bottom and filling in her emergency contact information. They either can't afford someone professional to streamline the process for them, or they don't encounter the difficulty enough to merit the expense, though in this case, if she'd had the time, Teri would have fixed the problem for them for free, just to save herself and others the future headache.

Despite the camp check-in hassles, Teri arrived at the hospital ten minutes before she was expected for her first day of work. Checking in, she moped, collecting a temporary badge at the security desk. Though occasionally she wished for more adult conversation, she missed her time with Zoe. While short-term, this contract put her on a schedule like most other parents, most other working adults. Already, Teri resented its rigid inflexibility.

She most dreaded meeting Dr. Johansen first thing this morning, but luck was with her. As the security guard was issuing her temporary badge, he noticed Teri was there to complete new-hire paperwork and escorted her to Human Resources himself. It was nearly lunch time by the time she completed filling out the paperwork, reviewing the employee handbook and completing her required compliance training.

An anxious Dr. Johansen was waiting outside the human resources department when Teri emerged. He explained as he escorted her to a conference room. “You’ll need to provide your demonstration again, this time to the rest of the Board.”

Doing her best to avoid walking too close to him, Teri wondered how she could have the contract and still need to show proof of her work. She had about worked herself up to ask, when Johansen abandoned her at the conference room door.

“If you’ll excuse me, I have other, pressing issues to attend offsite.” With that cursory dismissal, Nick Johansen had hurried away.

Most of the seats were already occupied as Teri entered the conference room, watching with private amusement as an administrative assistant laid out copies of the same report of the information security failings given to her in March when Dr. Johansen had initially solicited her bid for services. Most of the oblivious Board members were actively using various electronic devices, cell phones predominantly, though a few were also working on small Chromebooks or tablets.

Well, this second demo's going to get spectacular in a hurry, she thought bemusedly.

She politely declined a cup of coffee and took the remaining seat near the end of the table, switching on her equipment and quickly attaching the laptop to the overhead presentation screen so everyone in the room could see what she saw. Teri launched her programs, waiting scant seconds before the nearby electronic traffic connected to the boosted internet signal created by her antennaed device.

By appearing as any of the myriad of stored, trusted Wi-Fi networks she’d received from electronics near the room, her device redirected all of them through her hijacked signal system in less than a minute. At deliberately twice the strength and periphery of the local networks, the siren song of her little black device was irresistible. More and more devices were logging on to her fictitious network.

Without her having spoken, the conference room had become deathly silent, each Board member’s eyes glued to the projection screen and the scrolling lines of data there.

Teri selected a connection, highlighting it. “Does this belong to one of you in here?” she asked, politely, though she already knew the answer. As with Dr. Johansen’s smartphone, she’d seen connections previously made, one of them to a local coffee house.

Across the table and two chairs down from her, a man in a button-down shirt and boring tie hesitantly lifted his hand. The logo on the disposable coffee cup before him was from the coffee house Teri had noted in the recent historical internet connections from his phone. The hand-written name on the cup matched the one associated with the cellphone number.

“Everything,” she began, “with very few exceptions, can be cracked.” She focused on the man who’d raised his hand. “May I have your permission to hack your device?” When he nodded bravely curious and still shocked, Teri typed a command and more detailed data from him appeared on the presentation screen.

Networks for places he frequented were still there, but now with any associated passwords, which she’d efficiently and protectively blinded. His birthdate, address, several email addresses and his phone number as well as the specifications of the cellphone he was using comprised the expanding list she displayed in the foreground as the background data her device was receiving from other users continued to scroll.

Around the silent room, there were startled gasps and muttered curses, and a hilarious mass-frenzy of fumbling to power off personal cellphones and tablets. Giving them only long enough to feel secure that shutting off their electronics would protect them, Teri typed another command, and the log-in screen for the hospital information system loaded. The man’s credentials automatically populated, retrieved from his device, and a second later the financial data he’d been reviewing moments before displayed.

“Jaysus, Mary and Joseph,” he laughed derisively. “Her connection to our system is better than ours." The comment elicited nods and murmurs of agreement from the gathered Board. "That’s enough, Ms. Munro. You’ve made your point.” He waved a hand at the screen as if to erase it.

From her laptop, Teri stopped sharing to the projection screen. “If you would, please, refer to the copied system security report that you’ve received.” She spent the rest of the day answering questions about the report findings and her proposed updates to their information security, taking only short breaks and having a working lunch of delivered food with the Board members in the conference room.

Just before the meeting was scheduled to end, the financial advisor with the boring tie she’d hacked initially, Jonah Martin was the name she thought she remembered, asked, “Ms. Munro, have your recommendations changed from the time you submitted this bid?”

Confused particularly at what appeared to be sudden and inexplicable hostility, Teri shook her head. “No sir.”

“Would you explain why now you aren’t recommending three previous upgrades that were included in your bid? He read them from the pages before him for the benefit of those assembled.

Of course, she thought wryly, barely suppressing the desire to roll her eyes. Inhaling deeply, Teri considered her words. These were the things Dr. Johansen had insisted upon, adding them ex post facto to her bid, despite her explanations that they were unnecessary.

She was addressing Johansen’s peers however, which meant she needed to answer carefully. “The upgrades you referenced are additions to my bid. They came from Dr. Johansen. My understanding was they were previously approved changes in need of implementation and deployment.”

Jonah Martin and several others at the table nodded their comprehension. “If originally you agreed with them, why do you disagree now?”

Was he implying she was trying to pad her pockets? Or that Dr. Johansen was doing it for her? Teri didn’t like the direction this meeting had taken. Leveling her gaze at Jonah, she replied, more firmly than she intended, “Mr. Martin, I did not originally agree. I still don’t. I spent some time trying to talk Dr. Johansen out of them.”

Beside Jonah, an older woman Teri knew to be the hospital’s medical director spoke. “Dr. Johansen is the hospital’s IT Security Director, responsible for protecting the private information of this facility and its outreach locations. If he’s requested additional protections, why would you disagree?”

“What he’s requested is redundant to what I proposed.” Actually, it was out-of-date technology, costly to maintain and ineffective as well, but Teri didn’t want to say that to Dr. Johansen’s peers, especially since something was clearly amiss.

“Isn’t redundancy good?” Her challenge reflected in the medical director’s body position and expression.

“If you’ll permit an analogy?” Teri placed her hands on the table before her and rose. Seeing nods about the table, she walked to the door of the conference room, gesturing across the room they occupied. “This room, like your information system, contains sensitive information. As part of its protections, you’ve secured the room with a door.”

Turning the handle, Teri opened the door. Outside it, several administrative staff looked up and into the conference room. “Even an unwitting person can open it. Redundancy is adding another door. Its effectiveness is limited by its known or possible weaknesses. Even if cost isn’t prohibitive, the likelihood of each door’s failure against a determined hacker is the same.” She closed the door.

“Which is why it has a lock,” the medical director replied, unfazed.

Teri’s brows arched in acknowledgement. “This is true. A lock isn’t redundant though.” Again there were nods around the table.

“When you add a lock, you add a different layer of protection.” Teri paused, watching for understanding. “Dr. Johansen’s additions are adding a second door—familiar, even outdated technology with many known weaknesses.”

Teri took her seat. “The security protocols I’ve recommended layer your protections, much like you’ve added a door equipped with a keycode to the administrative offices outside this room, a magnetic lock to the hallway outside the administrative offices and require a credentialing process before providing the badge to unlock the hallway is issued.”

“Ms. Munro,” Jonah Martin piped up again, “If you explained this to Dr. Johansen, why did he still include them in the bid?”

“I don’t presume to speak for Dr. Johansen. It was my understanding from him he had discussed this with the Board.” Several furtive glances passed among the Board members, and Teri extended her invisible proprioceptors subtly, seeking more information. “I expect you know better than I do the extent of Dr. Johansen’s responsibilities here. Familiarity with the latest IT security developments may not be his priority in the way that it must be mine.”

There was a long silence before the medical director spoke, soliciting confirmations from those around the table as she did.

At Teri’s recommendation, all but two of the security protections previously proposed would be implemented and those two only excluded because the timeframe necessary to complete them was longer than her contract. Plus, she assured them, if they opted to install those, she could easily complete that work remotely or consult with local IT staff to assist with the installation as they performed it. 

“We will have an amended contract for you tomorrow, Ms. Munro. Thank you for your generous time and care in explaining today.”

The Board meeting ended, with half of the members exiting the conference room immediately, as eager to depart for the day as Teri. Four remained at the opposite end of the room from her, conferring in hushed whispers as she packed her equipment carefully and prepared to depart.

“Ms. Munro.”

The woman who spoke her name was tall and slim, with long, straight black hair shot through with silvering strands. She wore no make-up but fading henna tattoos covered both the backs and palms of her hands well over her wrists like fine lace gloves. Her voice was low, but firm.

“Yes?” Teri faced the woman, the remaining Board members arraying around and behind her. One of them was Johan Martin. “It was Dr. Pai, wasn’t it?”

Smiling, Dr. Pai nodded, gesturing to a seat. “We would like a word, please.”

“Of course.” Teri sat, watching as they took seats at the near end of the table to her.

“It is our understanding you were here in April and provided this demonstration to Dr. Johansen,” Dr. Pai began.

“Yes.” She nodded. “As I explained earlier, he contacted me explaining that the information security testing here had failed. The hospital needed someone to update it and I’d been recommended. He provided a copy of the report and asked for my recommendations and to place a bid for the contract.”

“Which you did, then he invited you here?”

Weren’t they supposed to know all this already? She was certain Dr. Johansen had told her at lunch the day she’d flown in that they had approved her bid that day, even though part of it had been an estimate. “Yes. There are parts of the system test that weren’t detailed sufficiently in the report for me to provide anything beyond an estimate. I arrived in the morning, screened those parts of your system as I waited to speak to him, then showed him most of what I just showed you.” Teri could hear their sharp, hushed intakes of breath, see them holding it.

What the hell is going on?

There were furtive glances exchanged around the table. The other man spoke then, his facial expressions barely concealing his intention. “You hacked Dr. Johansen?”

“It’s Mr. Silas, correct?” Teri focused on him.

He nodded, derailed slightly by how quickly she’d learned everyone’s names. “Bob Silas. Bob is fine.”

“I did not hack Dr. Johansen, Mr. Silas. I wouldn’t do so without permission and there was no need.” Teri shook her head. “He seemed to be expecting what I showed him I received from your system.” They were silent a moment as she eyed each. “You don’t intend to tell me what this is about, do you?”

“Ms. Munro,” Dr. Pai clasped her hands together on the table before her, one thumb stroking the other as she considered her words. “The truth is we are uncertain what this is about, aside from the fact that Dr. Johansen solicited no other bids and unilaterally selected you for the job. However, we aren’t blind. Having seen what your skills allow you to see, we believe you may be of assistance figuring the rest out.”

“Are you asking me to hack Dr. Johansen?”

“No.” The answer came from all of them immediately.

“Not at all,” Bob Silas assured her. “Without further information, we have no idea what we need to ask you to do. We are only reminding you that even as a contract employee, you are bound by the employee code of ethics for the hospital.”

Beside him, Dr. Pai nodded. “If during your work, you encounter something that violates the hospital’s policies, we would ask you to report it immediately to one of us. Immediately and directly.”

Teri glanced around the table, eyes narrowed, and concern etched in her expression. What exactly did they think she was here to do? For that matter, what did Nick Johansen think she was here to do? “Yes, absolutely.”

Dr. Pai’s small group rose. Thanking her for her assistance, the others departed quickly, leaving Bob Silas to escort Teri back to human resources to collect her ID badge and arrange her schedule for tomorrow. She walked beside him silently, the click of her heels echoing loudly in the uncarpeted halls.

At the door to HR, Bob stopped and faced her. “I’m sorry if this is confusing or alarming, Ms. Munro. I do want you to know that it’s not about you in any way. Clearly, you haven’t been part of anything before now.” He departed quickly, leaving Teri wondering what the hell she’d gotten herself into.

Tucking her ID badge into her laptop bag, Teri filled in her expected schedule for the first week and direct deposit details for the payroll manager. She paused, focusing behind her when she heard her name after some banal pleasantries and mention of the Board meeting she’d only just left. Teri worried at her lip as she eavesdropped.

“It seems you’ve found yourself an advocate in Ms. Munro, Dr. Johansen.” The saccharine politeness of Bob Silas’ comment did nothing to hide the distrust in his voice.

Nick Johansen chuckled. “Teri Munro is the most highly recommended and ethical information security specialist in the business, Bob. You spent more time with her today than I have in the last decade or more. If you doubted my recruitment, you had the opportunity to terminate it. Yet here you are, delivering her to human resources to pick up her badges.”

“Her ethics aren’t in question, Nick.” His name was clipped, the tone sharp. “You might be worried about that. Good evening to you.”

Raising a hand to her mouth, Teri bit the tip of her thumb. Why were trouble and woe bedpartners wherever Nick Johansen was concerned? 

When Teri emerged from HR, Dr. Johansen was waiting for her. “I appreciate how you handled yourself today with the Board.”

Now more annoyed with him, Teri fixed Nick with a pointed stare. “Dr. Johansen—”

“Please, Teri. Call me Nick.”

Refusing to be side-tracked, Teri ignored his interruption. “Why didn’t you solicit other bids for this contract?”

Nick crossed his arms over his chest. She’s unruly when she’s upset. It won’t do at all to have her doubting me.

“Why would I? Everyone I spoke to assured me you’re the best in the business. My esteem for and experience with your skills aside, I’m personally responsible for ensuring information stays secure here, so I chose the best. That you and I are friends only makes the working arrangements more agreeable.”

“Friends or otherwise," she warned, "I’m here short-term to do a job. I don’t appreciate being blind-sided by the political machinations surrounding you.” The words were icy, her hazel eyes hard.

Nick Johansen smiled down at her placatingly, his brows drawn together. He rested his hands on her upper arms at the shoulders with a familiarity Teri didn’t share. “Of course not. Let me take you to dinner to apologize.”

Backing out of his reach, Teri shook her head. “Thank you. I must decline. I’m late to pick up my daughter and I’m sure you need to get home to your own family. Good night.”

He watched as she stepped around him, his eyes on her back. “Good night, Teri. I’ll meet you in the IT office in the morning.”


Zoe made a couple friends during her first day at camp, local girls her age with similar interests. As they drove to the RV resort, Teri listened to her daughter chattering away about her day, her imagination quickly leaping to activities and adventures she could share with her newfound friends and tried to immerse herself to forget the day's annoyances at work.

Drama. Drama. Drama, she thought irritably. This is why I work remotely in an office I share with my dog.

While Teri changed into casual clothes, Zoe took Evie out on their RV’s landscaped pad, returning as her mother emerged from the bedroom. “Can I swim before dinner?”

Teri glanced up at the sky. It was clear, still light as the day edged towards a pleasant evening, and the pool had been open when they’d driven by moments before.

I can use the break myself. I'm not yet in a state of mind where I ought to be wielding weaponry, even something as innocuous as a paring knife.

Zoe squealed with joy when Teri nodded, racing inside to change into her swimsuit. Donning her hat and sunglasses, Teri followed and exuberant Zoe to the pool.

Teri took up residence on a lounger in the shade, away from other people but where she could see Zoe in the water. Her thoughts were still swirling about her workday’s events, and she marveled at her own ability to ignore her instincts and dive headfirst into shark-infested waters.

If it weren’t for the money, this whole trip was an utter disaster. Which shouldn’t have surprised her. ‘Disaster’ seemed intimately connected to absolutely everything Nick Johansen, including his loathsome personality and his information security ineptitude. I should have seen it the minute his email came in. Should have deleted it without a second thought. 

How many times had she returned her counteroffers that should have shut this down? How many red-flags did she need before she caught on? And Johansen. Of all people! What on earth ever compelled her to even consider it? 

No escaping now, she thought with a resigned sigh, smiling and waving at Zoe who was having swim races with two boys and another girl in the pool. The best I can do is follow the plan I outlined, correct the issues the way I said I would, and keep my head down.

She was scheduled to spend the day in IT tomorrow, to set up her system access and VPN. Hopefully, that would also include a conference room or office where she could hide from Dr. Johansen until she could get the project far enough along to work from here.

Mentally creating her to-do list for the most expedicious means to achieving that goal, she stared, blank and unseeing, at her surroundings. In the distance, along a ridge outside the RV resort visible from the pool, a few mountain bikers slalomed their way along a steep winding trail to the base in rapid succession as she absently observed them. It looked fun.

And dangerous.

As Teri mentally verified mountain biking wasn’t in any part among the camps she’d agreed Zoe would attend, another rider skidded to a stop in a cloud of dust at the top of the ridge, seeming to debate the course and his decision to take it. Teri watched as several others passed him and waited for him to pit himself against the trail.

At least he's nicer to look at then Johansen, her subconscious bit out cattily as she stared, appreciating the muscular legs and shoulders, the lean line of his body in his biking clothes silhouetted against the dusky sky.

After a moment, Teri realized he was surveying the RV resort, in much the same way she’d been idly watching the activity on the surrounding trails. She glanced around at the occupants of the pool and other loungers, wondering what might possibly be interesting here to him or more concerningly, what she had missed that was.

Focusing her attention on the biker again, she startled when he waved. Not to anyone on or below him on the trail, but across the space between them to Teri.

She made a half-hearted, mechanical attempt to wave back, hoping she’d made an error in his attention.

She hadn’t.

On the ridge, she could see his smile split his face, straight, white teeth beneath the helmet and goggles he wore, visible even in the dying light. As she waited, he adjusted the pedals, turning the handlebars as though he’d only come to survey the scenery, she thought, then blanched.

Like he wanted an audience.

When the bike was positioned as he wanted, he looked back over his shoulder at Teri. Lifting one hand, he waggled a hang ten her direction, then disappeared over the ridge on the opposite side.

Teri’s breath went out in a whoosh, her field of vision constricting to a white tunnel. Heart pounding, she sucked in air in heavy pants until the dizziness faded and her vision cleared.

Rising, she carried Zoe’s towel and flip flops to the edge of the pool, anxiously eyeing the ridge and the trail for a rider that didn’t return. She dropped the shoes at Zoe’s feet, wrapping the towel around her daughter before guiding her back to their RV.

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