Prologue: Spear Phishing
An email supposedly from your bank, or Amazon, or eBay. Same logo, same corporate talk, some lines of scaremongering spiel. We have detected a problem with your account. If you’re dumb enough to click on the link, you’ll go to a web page hosted on the hacker’s server, where a realistic form will capture your login details.
That kind of phishing attack, it’s like a net. Throw it far and wide, and hope you reel in some stupid. But if you want to target one person, and if she’s savvy enough to swim around the net, then the attack can be fired.
It’s called Spear Phishing.
This is how it’s done.
Know everything about Rachel’s life. The shifts she works as a nurse at St Pancras Hospital. The relationship she has with her three-year-old daughter, Lily. Use that to plan for when she will be so busy she’ll miss a cleverly worded, smartly disguised email that’ll convince her to download a piece of spyware to her phone to capture her passwords. Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, these are the digital doors and windows to our private lives, and people are sloppy with the locks. Despite who may be lurking outside.
This email can’t be some syntactically tortured spam, like a plea for airfare from a disgraced Congolese prince — soon as he lands, he’ll pay you back from the millions locked in his offshore account, promise. The mail needs to be important, requiring immediate attention.
It’s about getting her to click on the link.
Easiest way to make an email look authentic? Add more mails to the bottom, so the one they receive looks like part of a chain. People scroll down, glance at the history, and believe it’s real.
It will be the same for Rachel as for the others.
Think of it as a kind of seduction.
No matter how organised she tried to be, preparing her uniform the night before, laying out Lily’s clothes, something always made them late. Her nurse’s fob watch vanished, or her daughter refused to brush her teeth. The half hour to get dressed, scrubbed, and out the door inevitably disappeared.
This morning, they were falling at the final hurdle — shoes. Lily wanted to put them on herself, which was fine until she got to the buckle, where she had to slip a slender leather tongue through a delicate frame, and impale the tiny hole in it with a flimsy prong. No chance. The sun would grow to engulf them all in a fiery inferno before that ever happened.
‘Please, honey,’ Rachel said, kneeling in front of her. ‘Let mummy.’
Lily twisted her body away, cheeks bunched in concentration, and lifted her heel to her eye to get a better look at what she was doing wrong.
Rachel looked out of the window at the grey skies and sighed. Another grimy morning, the rooftops of the Victorian terraces stretching down the street slicked with autumn rain; the summer had disappeared way too soon. London always looked so concrete under grey skies. Sometimes the gloom seemed to seep into her soul, especially the way she was feeling today. It didn’t help that Konrad had got in late last night, crashing around downstairs, waking her up. It took her ages to get back to sleep. She didn’t mind him coming back to hers after a night out, it made more sense than him trekking to his parent’s in High Barnet, but the least he could do was be quiet when he got home.
Then again, he’d been acting strange all week – ever since he turned up with those bruises covering his cheek. At the time he said that Pete, his best mate and partner in their office relocating business, had accidentally caught his face closing the van door, but that didn’t explain how he’d been since then. Ignoring her calls during the day, and moody when she did see him. Drinking a lot too, like the other night, when he finished a four-pack of beer in front of the telly without even saying a word to her. It was so different from his usual, easy-going nature.
‘Sweetheart,’ Rachel said, trying to grapple the shoe from her hands. ‘We’re going to be late.’
Lily pulled away. ‘No, Mummy! I do it.’
‘If you don’t give me that right now, then I’ll tell Daddy no cartoons after school.’
Who knew bribery would be such a big part of parenting? It was a wonder that all children didn’t grow up to be corrupt politicians.
Rachel felt her phone vibrate in her pocket. She rocked back, got it out and saw she had an email. Probably just some mailing list, but it could be her dad about picking up Lily later; she was staying at his tonight. When his phone ran out of credits, he sent her emails from the computer in the public library.
It was from work, the payroll department. The subject said Bank check urgent. She opened the message.
Hi Rachel, there was an issue with the payroll software overnight, and some people’s bank details may be out of date. Please can you check the attached file to confirm yours are correct, and let me know.
It’s kind of urgent. Sorry!
She didn’t have time for this, but if there was a problem she needed to know. They lived month to month on her wages, so by now, on payday, her current account was down to single digits. She scrolled through the mail, and saw it was the last of a chain, with lots of important people copied in on the previous ones, even the chairman of Camden and Islington NHS Trust.
The attachment was called Rachel Stone details.pdf. She tapped on it, and waited for the file to download. Nothing happened. She pressed it again, and again, but still nothing. Stupid phone. It was a white Samsung S4 Mini with a cracked screen and a broken headphone port, donated by Mark, Lily’s dad, after hers fell in the bath while lifting her daughter out. Another of its ‘features’ was its tendency to turn off at the most annoying moments, such as right now.
Rachel scowled at the blank screen. Great, typical. She’d have to call HR from the hospital. Sorry, Doris, can you hang on for your analgesic. I’m just on hold listing to the same piece of smooth jazz for the thousandth time!
Konrad’s voice startled her. ‘Morning, beautiful.’
He was leaning against the doorway, still in his going out clothes, his cream Diesel T-shirt crumpled beneath his charcoal overcoat. Cute with his bed hair, Rachel almost forgave him for waking her up. And if that had been the only thing, she probably would have done, but this wasn’t an isolated incident. How he was acting couldn’t go on.
‘Are you annoyed with me?’ he asked, tentatively.
‘Whatever gave you that idea?’
He tried for a smile. ‘Your face?’
‘You don’t remember coming in and crashing round downstairs? I don’t know what’s going on with you, but—’
‘I’m sorry, Rach,’ he said, dropping into a crouch beside her. ‘I’m really sorry.’
She recoiled from the smell of alcohol clinging to his skin. ‘I bet the sofa stinks of booze now as well.’
‘I’ve been a bit stressed, that’s all. With work and stuff. Last night I had to blow off some steam. But I promise, I swear, if I get that hammered again, I’ll head back to Barnet. I won’t come back here and wake you up.’
She wanted to believe him, but the way his eyes had darted one way then the other when he spoke, like he was checking no one was behind him, made her think he was lying. Was it something to do with her? She’d been stressing about it all week, but couldn’t think what she’d done wrong. The last eleven months with him had been like something from a romance, the way their lives had clicked, albeit a slightly boring one where the two leads went to work every day then snuggled on the sofa in the evening to watch Love Island. Amazingly, the feelings were just as they’d been described — the jump in her chest when he came to her mind, how she couldn’t wait to see him in the evening so they could share funny stories about their day, the sense that she’d maybe found the one, long after giving up the idea that such a thing was any more real than the tooth fairy. She didn’t want to lose that.
Rachel squeezed her forehead, the start of a migraine pulsing in her temples, and glanced at Lily. Still struggling with her buckle. As she would be until the end of days.
‘Fine,’ she said. ‘Let’s leave it. Just don’t be late tonight, okay?’
‘Six thirty, on the dot,’ he said.
As they embraced, she felt the tension seep from her stomach. They pulled apart and she saw him wince in pain, his hand going to his forearm.
‘What’s wrong?’ she asked.
‘I banged it yesterday at work, that’s all.’
‘Let me see.’
He pulled his arm to his chest, eyes wide, looking – what? Scared?
‘I’ve really got to go,’ he said.
Rachel looked at the faded yellow bruises on his cheek, creeping out the top of his stubble. ‘I want to see your arm, Konrad.’
‘Okay,’ he sighed. ‘But don’t freak out.’
‘What do mean, a game?’
They were in the bathroom, Konrad sitting on the edge of the tub, while she hunted in the cupboard under the sink for the Dettol and cotton pads.
‘Drinking game,’ he replied. ‘Way too much vodka. Someone suggested we try and see who could stand the most pain… I know, I know, it’s stupid. You don’t have to tell me!’
She uncapped the antiseptic and tipped it on the pad, the medicinal smell calming her, making her feel more in control. When she first saw the wounds, three raw, crimson circles, each the size of a ten pence piece, crusted round the edges, and spotted with black in the middle, she thought they were bullet holes. She even flipped his arm, expecting exit wounds, but the underside was clear. Then she realized – they were cigar burns. Someone had stubbed cigars out on his arm.
He winced as she dabbed the pus collecting in the crevices of the scabs. The shiny pink skin edging the worst of the wounds was concerning; he’d need to monitor that, maybe get antibiotics if it got any worse. She knew how quickly sepsis could spread, even when you were as young and healthy as him.
‘So who were you out with?’ she asked. ‘When you decided to use each other as ashtrays?’
He shrugged and looked to the side. ‘You know, the lads.’
Another pause, a frown. ‘It wasn’t Pete’s fault.’
‘Oh, right. Now I get.
‘Rach, come on.’
There was no love lost between her and Konrad’s best mate. How could there be? There was never any love to begin with. The first time they met he looked her up and down, and sneered, ‘So you’re the bird who stole my wingman.’
From that day he’d treated her with disdain. She was an irritation, a distraction, the Yoko to his Beatles, if the Beatles spent their time sleazing up to girls at clubs instead of writing albums. In fact, never had that description, sleaze, been more appropriate for someone than for Pete, with his sad man bun and tribal tattoos and his misplaced delusion that every woman gushed like a raincloud in his presence. He even called her toots. Toots! To her face. That was what she and Lily called farts.
‘If this is what happens when you hang out with Pete,’ she said, ‘then maybe you shouldn’t.’
‘I told you, it wasn’t—’
‘I’m telling you.’ She felt tears rising up and held them back. No way did she have time to do her make-up again. ‘You can’t bring… trouble into my house. Not with Lily here. I don’t want to lose you—’
‘You won’t, you won’t! It’ll never happen again, I promise.’ He took her hands. ‘Please, Rachel. You and Lily mean the world to me. All I want is for the three of us to be together.’
She fixed on his pale green eyes. Before this last week, he’d never been anything less than a perfect boyfriend. So as much as she still didn’t think he was telling her the whole truth, if that was what he said happened, and if last night was the last time he did anything like that, didn’t he deserve the benefit of the doubt?
‘This is it, Konrad,’ she said. ‘No more.’
They went to kiss, but before their lips could touch Lily shrieked. Rachel ran to the bedroom to find her pouting at the shoe, defeated. She knelt and fitted it on her foot, catching the time on the lock screen of her restarted phone. Seven thirty-eight. If they left right now, and hurried, they’d make it to nursery on time. Scooping her daughter up, she sent a smile of gratitude to the heavens.
Perhaps today will be a good day after all, she thought, unaware that nothing would be further from the truth.
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