There weren’t a lot of venues for Vegas quality magic shows on a farm, but there was a surprising amount of computerized infrastructure in place Tam observed.
Granted, it was mostly surprising because she hadn’t expected to a see a single piece of technology that she wasn’t carrying herself once they left their plane behind at the Larimore Municipal Airport. Being located in the middle of nowhere North Dakota, Green Bowl farm’s tech setup wasn’t going to set Silicon Valley on fire but it did seem to be composed of generally newer machines within reasonably up to date software running on them.
“Oh so how do you like our command center?” Daniela Palomo asked, her North Dakotan accent marking her as a long time native even more than the well worn overalls and work gloves she wore.
Daniela was the founder and primary owner of Green Bowl Harvest, though Tam had gleaned from Anna’s breakdown of their financial structure that Green Bowl was an employee owned and operated venture. From Anna’s description of it, that was an notable irregularity in an industry where the vast majority of agriculture output came from either family owned farms or large agribusiness operations.
“You’ve invested a lot in this place,” Tam said. “Telematics for the tractors I take it? And soil monitoring?” she asked, nodding at one of the monitors. Her mind was leaping through the various failure modes she could imagine for each system she saw. The engineer in her saw the problems weather could produce in the readings and the lack of robust security in the applications that were running. The magician in her saw the options for spoofed inputs to convince her audience of a variety of illusions. People thought “computer wizard” was distinct from “stage magician” but Tam often found the two skill sets overlapped quite a bit.
“Yah, it helps with the maintenance and operational costs,” Daniela said.
“Seems like you stay on top of things pretty well,” Val said wandering around the walled off section of the barn that formed Green Bowl’s ‘command center’. Tam could tell Val was bored. She wasn’t being rude about it, Val claimed the Marines had taught her patience in addition to one hundred and seven other deadly skills, but being surrounded by tech was not Val’s strong suit.
“Well, I thought we did,” Daniela said. “Until this all happened.”
“May I?” Tam asked, sitting down at one of the stations in the command center. Daniela nodded her approval.
“I’ve spoken with your accountant,” Anna said. “Missing your payments for over a year is extremely implausible.”
“I know, but we can’t show the bank that we paid anything for that whole time,” Daniela said. “All the records are gone.”
“It was all electronic fund transfers?” Tam asked.
“They had to be,” Daniela said. “That’s what the bank wanted. I thought those were supposed to be secure.”
“They are,” Tam said. “But that doesn’t mean the bank is.”
“You think someone hacked the bank?” Val asked.
“Yeah, and, unfortunately, Green Bowl’s systems as well,” Tam said, reviewing the server logs on Green Bowl’s financial system. “Not the greatest job in the world. Pure slash and burn on the data. Problem is there’s no records here that support the claim that you made your payments.”
“Don’t they have backups?” Val asked. Computers didn’t fascinate her like they did Tam, but she wasn’t a techno-illiterate either.
“Sadly, no,” Tam said.
“But we do!” Daniela said. “We backup our data every day.”
“Unfortunately you back up onto the same media every day,” Tam said. “You can recover yesterday’s information, but it’s just as empty as today’s. If you’d caught the hack the day it happened you could have recovered but it’s too late for that to work now.”
“I guess part of it’s on us then,” Daniela said with a defeated sigh.
“We will connect you with a reliable IT coordinator once we have everything else straightened out,” Anna said.
“Who would do this?” Daniela asked.
“Most likely candidate? Whoever buys your land once the foreclosure is finished and the farm reverts to the bank,” Anna said.
“And we won’t know who that is until it’s too late,” Val said.
“Yes. Once the foreclosure goes through, the new owner will be able to do what they wish with the land,” Anna said. “If they want this land as anything other than a farm they’ll slash and burn the current batch of crops the same as they did with the financial data and begin whatever development they have in mind.”
“Losing a whole season of crops would put us in mighty poor shape even if we could get the farm back,” Daniela said.
“How long do we have until the foreclosure is finalized?” Tam asked.
“That is the puzzling thing about this,” Anna said. “Foreclosures on agricultural properties vary by state, but they are never rapid. In this case, Green Bowl Harvest should have up to a year to reinstate their loan payments, and the bank would need a court judgement against them to sell the property.”
“So why is the bank claiming that the farm is going to be put up for sale next week?” Val asked.
“Probably because they think they’d already won a judgement against Green Bowl,” Tam said, spinning the monitor in front of her so that the rest could see.
“The date on this court judgement was over a month ago,” Anna said, scanning the document on the screen.
“Where did you get that?” Val asked.
“It’s on First Security’s collections server,” Tam said.
“How can you see that?” Daniela asked. “Did you hack into them?”
“It’s hard to call it hacking when it’s this easy,” Tam said. “Check out the created date on the judgement file though.”
“That’s last week,” Val said.
“Which could mean that they received the electronic copy of the file last week,” Anna said.
“Or that it was created directly on their server last week,” Tam said.
“Will any of this stand up in court?” Daniela asked, a note of hope brightening her voice.
“We could check with our legal team,” Val said. “But I’m going to guess the answer is no.”
“There’s another option we could pursue though,” Tam said. “We know that Green Bowl made the payments right? That means that the money went somewhere. If First Security still has it then an audit of their systems would turn up an overage for the amount they were paid but aren’t showing anymore.”
“The problem there is what if Green Bowl isn’t the only place the hackers targeted?” Val said. “If the overage doesn’t match their payments exactly could we prove that it was really their missing money.”
“That won’t be a problem. The money won’t be in First Security at all anymore,” Anna said. “Why steal just a farm, when you can steal the farm and a year’s worth of their loan payments?”
“Well this just doesn’t sound all that good then,” Daniela said. “Is there anything we can do?”
“Oh, no worries,” Anna said. “We will make sure you keep your farm.”
“How are we going to do that?” Val asked.
“We’ll follow the money,” Tam said. “If First Security prefers to use electronic fund transfers then Green Bowl’s money should show up somewhere in the withdrawals.”
“While Tam works on that, you and I will pay a visit to Howard Larson,” Anna said.
“The CEO of First Security?” Val said, having paid more attention in their briefing than Tam had.
“Yes. This move against Green Bowl is risky and rushed,” Anna said. “That tells me there is more to it than acquiring a single farm, however well organized this one might be.”
“And you figure Howard Larson is either in on it, or can point us in the direction of whoever is?” Val asked.
“Precisely,” Anna said.
Howard Larson was most definitely “in on it”.
Anna worked that out within three minutes of entering the “Good Father’s Annual Foreign Charity Ball” which First Security sponsored and Howard Larson lead as the featured awards presenter.
“How many rich people does North Dakota have?” Val asked. Her champagne pink dress stood out enough in the crowd to draw attention, just as Anna’s simple black ensemble allowed her to blend in almost invisibly despite her height.
“These are not all local residents,” Anna said. “We have quite a few out of state interests represented.”
“What brings them all here?” Val asked, evaluating the room along different lines than the one’s Anna was looking for.
For Anna, reading the room meant evaluating the interplay between the various groups of people. Who sought conversation with who, what sort of distance did they keep between themselves, who was enjoying themselves and who wished to appear to be enjoying themselves to please someone else.
Val’s attention on the other hand was focused on the locations of exits, cover positions and areas sheltered from outside view. Those were considered and catalogued, before being placed in her memory securely enough that she could navigate the room to safety while blinded and deafened. Determining which people could become active threats and what sort of challenges they would pose to deal with was a more involved process and took somewhat more consideration.
“Infrastructure development,” Anna said. “See if you can find anyone here who’s not a local, and not involved with heavy construction.”
“What will they be involved with?” Val asked.
“Technology or international investment,” Anna said.
“That’s an odd combo,” Val said.
“Larson either employed a hacker directly, or has contacts with someone with no compunctions about hacking an American bank,” Anna said. “Probably a Russian or Chinese interest.”
“And while I do that, you’re going to go talk to Larson and find out if he’s the player or the played?” Val asked.
“Just so,” Anna said and turned to cut a path through the crowds.
Howard Larson was a large man, cut and chiseled like he’d been hacked from a wide tree with an axe. He was in mid-diatribe when Anna reached the group he’d gather around himself. Their attention ran the gamut from servile attentiveness to feigned amusement for their hosts sake. Only a few seemed to believe the claims he was making about his college tenure and being denied his rightful position as valedictorian because of the school’s fear of his entrepreneurial success while there.
“It’s a shame you can’t buy them and close them down,” Anna said as Larson concluded his monolgue. “That’s what I did.”
“I probably could,” Larson said, his eyes lighting up at the idea. “I don’t know though, would the Queen sell Oxford to an American?”
Anna resisted the urge to sigh. The Queen of England didn’t own Oxford, but the assembled crowd neither knew nor cared about that, they were happy to swept along by Larson’s bluster. That was always aggravating on a personal level, the moreso because Oxford was Anna’s alma matter, and would never have admitted a lout like Larson. Bluster and brainless were too useful a combination of traits to ignore though, however distasteful they might be, so Anna played into her role, allowing a subtle hint of a British accent to color her words. People always thought she was wealthier when they thought she was British.
“You’d probably do a better job with it than she has,” Anna said, heroically refusing to gag on the words. “From the look of this event though, I’d guess things here must be keeping you quite busy? Lazy people don’t throw galas like this.”
“Oh, I like this one,” Larson said. “She gets its. She does.”
It didn’t take many more bald faced lies disguised as compliments before Anna had Larson’s complete attention to herself. The others who had gathered into his orbit either wandered away, grateful for the chance to exit Larson’s company without offending him, or remained and hung on his every word, hoping to enter his good graces through sheer proximity.
“I’ll tell you,” Larson said, when the group had at last dwindled to just Anna and a handful of silent hangers on. “What you see here is nothing. Nothing at all. I’m going to make such a killing. It’s going to be incredible.”
“Personal investments?” Anna asked.
“Big ones. Huge,” Larson said. “I’m not supposed to say anything but it’s ok, we’re going to announce it soon anyways.”
“Your bank will announce it?” Anna asked.
“No, no, the Consortium I’m with,” Larson said. “The airport. They’re going to tear down Pembina Municipal and put in a new international airport out west.”
“Out in the farm country?” Anna asked.
“It’s not going to be farm country when we’re done,” Larson said. “They’re going to build an airport, and I’m going to build the city that services it.”