Compliance and Acquisition
Chapter 3: Enquiries* * *
Samantha dropped a box of pens on top of the leather bound organizer that had concealed the MacGuffin from last night’s spot of hypnotic role play. She pulled open the bottom drawer of her desk and grabbed the wipes and air freshener she’d used to clean up after they’d finished. Lily had been right, she didn’t keep much here.
She checked the email Lily had composed for her, detailing the IT people down on the 17th floor today and when each of them were scheduled for lunch. Sometimes people traded those spots but… there was nothing to do except keep to the plan.
Theoretically, the only person working right now was Tally McIntosh. She was somewhat infamous in the annuls of Kreisberg folklore for having once drafted a memo to Samantha in which she’d detailed a crippling vulnerability that she’d personally discovered in the server software used by their industry. Then, she’d requested the largest purchase order in company history to fix it over the course of a weekend.
Samantha had approved her request and had been handsomely rewarded nine days later when the exploit brought every other company in their market segment to a grinding halt. Thanks to Tally, Kreisberg sailed smoothly past without difficulty. They’d gained as much marketshare on that day as the previous three years. Tally had been instantly promoted and Samantha saw to it she also received a generous bonus that holiday season.
Today, Samantha was the one who had to ask Tally for something. Something illegal, unethical, and decidedly fireable.
Samantha pressed the lid back on the file box and looked around the room for a moment. Less than 24 hours ago, this room had belonged to her. It had been the nerve center of her organization, the seat of her power, and an occasional playpen for the kinky games she and Lily played.
In less than a day, it had been taken from her. Taken by a woman she had worked beside, mentored, and considered trustworthy. Samantha prided herself on having never resorted to corporate bloodshed to have the career she wanted. Perhaps, she’d been naïve to imagine that her example had inspired her subordinates to behave likewise.
But, Beth had taken the gloves off and made the mistake of assuming that Samantha wouldn’t do the same. Very soon, she would discover the magnitude of that mistake. Setting her jaw, Samantha opened the door and stepped into the executive lobby.
Two men, wearing plain clothes security attire, were waiting for her.
“Hello,” Samantha stopping in her tracks. “Is everything alright?”
The taller one shook his head. His gold name badge read, ‘Taylor.’ “Sorry about this ma’am. We’ve been given instructions to escort you out of the building.”
Samantha looked around. The handful of people gathered were trying very hard to appear uninterested as they strained to hear every word. She turned back to Taylor, never letting her smile waver.
“Instructions from Miss Talbot?”
Taylor said nothing but nodded in the affirmative. Then he motioned towards the lift. “This way ma’am.” The two men took up position on either side of her.
Samantha began walking, looking anywhere for a handhold to stop the free fall her plan had just spun into. The procession reached the lift and Taylor pressed the button. The doors parted instantly.
This wasn’t going to work. Samantha turned back towards her office, brandishing the box she carried. “Taylor, I’m sorry, I’ve just realized I’ve forgotten—” The words died in her mouth as she looked past him, down the corridor.
An athletic woman with sandy-blonde hair done up on her head rounded the corner flanked by a pair of junior executives carrying binders and trying to keep up.
“Beth!” Samantha called out.
Beth looked up. They locked eyes and something like a smile played at the edges of Beth’s mouth. She waved off her entourage and walked over, clasping her hands before her.
“Samantha! Great to see you. Did you get everything you needed from your office?”
“Nearly. Actually I was hoping we could—”
“Lovely!” Beth cut her off. “Well just send me an email if there’s anything else. I’d be glad to send it along to you.” She walked away, waving energetically. “I need to get back. Lots to do!”
The two men stepped forward, Taylor gestured to the lift.
“I owe you an apology Beth!” Samantha called after her.
At this, Beth turned and cocked her head, smiling wide all the while. “What for?”
“That video.” Samantha held her gaze, certain it would spark a reaction. But Beth’s face was a mask of serenity. The moment dragged on… and on.
Finally, Beth used her signature shrug and asked, airily, “What video is that?”
“The trade show video project? I believe I said that you weren’t suited for that type of work. But… I’ve been proven wrong.”
Beth’s smile remain fixed as she stepped back over to the lift, squaring off with Samantha. “That’s a funny sort of apology,” she said brightly. “It doesn’t really sound like an apology at all.”
“Today is just full of things that don’t make sense, isn’t it?” Samantha replied cooly. “Although, a few things are starting to come into focus for me.”
Beth’s smile had crept out of her eyes, though the corners of her mouth were still upturned. She regarded Samantha for a moment, then turned to Taylor. “You’re Tyler, right?”
“Actually, ma’am, its Tay—”
“Lovely! Why don’t you two go on back to your duties. I’m going to see to Miss Bennett myself.” She nodded cordially as the two men awkwardly walked past them to the lift bank down the hall.
The executive lift doors in front of the pair of women finally slid shut and Samantha broke the silence.
“Don’t kill the Luxor deal, Beth. I know it’s a lot of money but it will solve the compliance problem. And, Kreisberg lives to fight another day.”
Beth leaned close to her and studied her eyes. “You really can’t see it, can you?”
“See what, Beth?”
“That acquiring Luxor benefits them far more than us.”
Samantha flinched as Beth reached out to her face… and pushed a strand of hair to the side of her head. “Your pet assistant has spoiled you. She’s got you trained to dominate and control. To conquer.” She pressed the lift button with her other hand. The doors chimed and opened once more. “And now you really believe those are the only ways for this company to reach its full potential.”
Samantha stepped onboard, turning back to her. “You’re the one in control now Beth. Are you going to help Kreisberg reach its full potential?”
Beth leaned into the lift and pressed the button for the ground floor. “Samantha, it’s all that I think about.” She leaned back out as the doors closed and the lift began to move.
Samantha counted silently.
Sixteen paces from the lift to the lobby. Twelve more from the receptionist’s desk to her office. She waited another five seconds for Beth to get inside and shut the door.
Then, she smiled. And, pressed the button for the 17th floor.
The lift doors opened and Lily stepped off.
“Twenty third floor,” announced a synthetic voice behind her. “Production studios seven through twelve are to your right. Editing facilities and production offices are to your left.”
Lily went left.
“Enjoy your visit to Broadcast World News headquarters and have a—” the voice was cut off as the lift doors shut.
Lily kept walking until she found a door plate with the number ‘5.’ She turned the handle and stepped inside.
Bavishni sat facing away from the door, her dark wavy hair falling across a low-back office chair. Her feet were up on the desk of the editing workstation that filled one wall of the small post-production suite. Her head was trained on a silent tv mounted to the ceiling in one corner, running the station’s live feed.
“…no, we don’t but I’ve been assured we will have it well ahead of airtime. Look, I’ve got a meeting. Stop worrying about this, it’s fine.” she was saying into her phone.
Lily’s stomach knotted up again, wondering what sort of day ’Vish was having at work. Wondering if there was any hope of a civil conversation between them.
“Well then its my problem and why do you care anyway?! I gotta run. I’ll see you after.” ’Vish hung up and dropped the phone on the desk. She didn’t turn around. “Your girl is popular today. We’ve started running some copy on the ticker.”
She sounded indifferent. Like she was discussing traffic conditions. Lily wasn’t sure if that was a good or bad sign.
“Got an on-camera piece ready for the business segment at the top of the hour.”
“It’s fake.” Lily said quietly.
’Vish turned around in the chair. “Can you prove it?”
Lily shrugged. “Working on it.”
“Speaking of working...” ’Vish sat up and crossed her legs. “Before we get into it, I need to hear it from you. Ten minutes on the phone. Three quotes. We’re agreed?”
Lily nodded and held out a business card. “She’ll do it tonight.”
’Vish pocketed the card and her expression softened a bit. “How are you getting along otherwise?”
Lily nodded slowly. “Good. Been busy last little bit. We’ve got these new regulations. We have to be in compliance by the end of next quarter and its kinda…” She trailed off. “How are you?”
’Vish shrugged. “Alright, I reckon. Busy.” She stood up and stretched her arms. “I hope you don’t mind but I’ve invited Abby to join us.”
“Sure, sure,” Lily agreed reflexively. “Abby? Is she your…?”
’Vish looked at her blankly. “Oh!” she finally said. “No. No she’s not my… she’s an editor. Video girl. Real sharp. She’s had a look at the footage so she can give you her opinion. Also… I thought it might be easier.”
Lily nodded. “Best behavior in front of strangers, yeah?”
’Vish shrugged, “I just think—”
The door banged open as a tall, slender woman pushed it wide with her shoulder. She cradled a large cup of tea that was steaming furiously. “You’ve got to do something, ’Vish. That kettle is a menace, it’s electrocuted me twice this week.” She regarded Lily over the top of her rectangular glasses.
“Are you her?”
’Vish nodded. “Yeah, this is Lily Carlton. She works on the top floor at Kreisberg.”
“Hi, I’m Abby,” she said warmly, shaking Lily’s offered hand. “Busy day for you lot, I expect.”
Lily nodded wearily. “And then some.”
They all sat as Abby took the chair at the video station and called up her software. A few clicks later and she had Not-Samantha’s video queued up on the room’s large monitor.
“So,” Abby started, “what do we think we know about this?”
’Vish gestured to Lily.
“Well,” Lily said, pulling her jacket off, “Its a fake and it’s been edited down from a longer video, or made to appear that way.”
“I think it’s safe to say these are clips from a longer video. If you play it fast enough, you can see the room darken as it gets later in the day.”
Lily pulled out her phone and started typing notes. “Is there anything you see that would obviously indicate fakery?”
“Nothing obvious, but...” Abby froze on a moment where Not-Samantha was looking towards the camera and clicked something on her screen. The color drained from the whole image leaving the bound woman looking like some damsel from a black & white movie.
“See how the lighting on her face is so pristine compared to everything else around her?” Abby said, indicating the deep shadows falling across the woman’s arms, shoulders as well as the room around her. “It’s a bit fishy. Makes me think that they lit the face that way deliberately. It just doesn’t look like this was recorded spontaneously. But, this being staged isn’t the same thing as as being fake.”
“We think they used a look-a-like and a sound-a-like.” Lily said, studying the image on Abby’s screen.
“Mmmm-kay,” Abby muttered, scrolling through the timeline. “Maybe they did, but they didn’t use both.”
“What does that mean?” Lily asked, studying the image.
“See this?” Abby said pointing to a small window open on her screen. There was a light colored graph on a dark background. Small blue dots bounced excitedly across the graph. “This measures the amount of echo the computer can hear. It’s identical no matter which of the two women is speaking. Means they were recorded together in the same room. They didn’t have a sound-a-like overdub the voice.”
Lily shook her head, unsure. “So…”
“So,” Abby interjected, “Either the woman who looks like your boss also sounds like her or someone has used some very sophisticated tools to alter this voice to sound like your girl.”
Lily frowned. “Does that mean they could have done something similar with the face? Like replace it somehow with Mistr- er Miss Bentley’s?”
Lily didn’t look but she could feel ’Vish tensing up in the chair beside her.
“Definitely possible.” Abby nodded. “Would also explain the way they lit the face. Doing that would make it easier for them to digitally replace it later. They would need photos of your boss though. A lot of them. From different angles and stuff.”
“There’s another thing,” ’Vish spoke up. “Is the information accurate? The company details, the personal stuff? If it is, then where did they get the information? Some of it goes pretty deep.”
Lily opened her mouth to answer, then stopped and eyed ’Vish. “Are we off the record?”
Abby turned in her seat, watching curiously.
“Sure. We’re off the record,” ’Vish answered.
“We think an employee at Kreisberg had a hand this,” Lily said carefully.
“Inside job,” Abby muttered. “The plot thickens.”
“The details are accurate but some of them are several months out of date,” Lily added.
’Vish pondered it for a moment. “Still, have to be someone pretty high up to know all those things.”
Lily chewed her lip. “We suspect a company officer but that’s all I’ll say.”
“Do they have money?” Abby asked, looking at a zoomed-in portion of the video.
“Definitely,” Lily replied.
“In that case….” Abby said rolling the footage back and forth over a single point in the timeline. “…there are some other possibilities we can consider.”
Lily leaned forward in her chair, “Such as?”
“This video looks like it was shot on a phone, sitting on a desk in a room where it recorded two women having a spot of sexy-fun-time. And, everything I see supports that.” Abby sat back and turned around to address them. “So,” she said finally, “my conclusion is either that’s exactly what it is. Or… a very skilled professional made it look and sound that way.”
Lily nodded to Abby, “Someone like you?”
“No,” Abby shook her head, laughing a bit. “I mean someone who creates staged videos like this professionally.”
Lily sat back. “There are people who do that?”
“Sure,” ’Vish replied, “we did a story last year—”
“The council leader,” Abby cut in.
“There was a council leader,” ’Vish continued, “who got brought down by a scandal video. He cried ’fake,’ no one listened—”
“Until!” Abby interrupted.
“Until some conspiracy hackers online got his phone’s location data and were able to prove he wasn’t at that hotel at the time the video supposedly took place.”
Lily typed furiously into her phone.
“Authorities took an interest and eventually they dig up a guy in Belgium who’d been hired to make the video. He staged a shoot with an actor, similar body type, and used AI software to replace his face with the council leader’s.”
Lily nodded, “What about the voice? How did they fake that?”
“They didn’t. No audio in that case,” Abby answered. “But there are tools out there that can do the same thing with voices. Have one person say the line, give the software a bunch of samples of the person you want to imitate and it spits out a facsimile good enough to beat voice ID security. And, since it’s altering an existing voice it would retain certain tonal qualities.”
“Like the echo in the room?” Lily offered.
“Exactly,” Abby nodded.
“How much does something like that cost?” Lily asked.
“Well,” Abby said, reaching for her cup, “the tools themselves are often free. Open source and whatnot. But the skill to use them in this way… Knowing that the work has to stand up to the scrutiny of the media, law enforcement… That costs real money.”
“Police said the man in Belgium was paid ninety-two thousand Euros,” ’Vish said.
“And the council leader was just some poor local hack,” Abby added.
“That’s right,” ’Vish nodded. “High-profile target? Costs more. Lengthy video? Costs more. How fast do you need it? Costs more.”
Lily stared at the wall, lost in thought. “We think,” she finally said, “they may have done this overnight. A few hours at most.”
Abby and ’Vish looked at each other.
“Can it be done that fast?” Lily asked quietly.
’Vish pointed to Abby for her answer. The other woman fiddled with her glasses a bit. “It’s the planning that’s hard to reconcile. The actual work in front of the computer can easily be done in a few hours. But, you’d need all the assets ahead of time.”
“Photos, voice recordings, fact sheets,” ’Vish rattled off.
Abby turned back to the video software. “Whoever did this, planned and prepared for it. Months probably.”
Just then, a chime sounded. Abby pulled her phone and muttered something angry. Then she stood and made for the door, waving to Lily. “Nice to meet you, I’ve got a thing to do.”
“Nice to meet you. Great help you’ve been, thanks!” Lily called after her as the other woman rushed out the door. She turned back to her phone, typing as fast as her thumbs would go. When she finally finished, she looked up to see ’Vish watching her, a sad smile playing at her mouth.
’Vish shook her head. “The same thing it always was. I know how important the lifestyle is to you but... you’re a double major computer science and business... you could be running that company Lil’. You could have anything you want if you’d just take the leap and grab it. Not trying to fight. Just saying.”
Lily nodded, hearing it, now, as ’Vish intended it. Had always intended it. Not condemnation, just concern. She pulled on her jacket and slipped her phone inside.
“’Vish...” Lily searched for the least hurtful words she could. “...that’s exactly what I did when I went to be with her. It was the biggest leap I’ve ever taken.”
’Vish was working her jaw, that fake-chewing thing she did when she was agitated. Lily had seen a lot of that, near the end.
“I’ve had this fantasy since I was a teenager. And the reason it seems so out of character is because, until I met her, I never imagined there was a way for me to actually live it. I did get exactly the life I wanted. It just wasn’t the life you wanted for me.”
’Vish pursed her lips. She was quiet for a long time. Then, she took a deep breath in and let it out. “Fair enough,” she finally said, managing a diplomatic smile.
Lily stood and put her hand on the door handle. “’Vish, I don’t know if you’d rather we never ended up together instead of me hurting you like I did. But, for whatever it’s worth, I wouldn’t trade a moment of it.”
She turned back. “And, either way, I’m really sorry.”
’Vish sighed. “Look. I’m still hurt and I’m still angry. But… I don’t want to be anymore. Okay? Right now my life is close to where I want it to be. It sounds like yours is as well. So... there’s that. Maybe we—”
She was cut off by a frantic, three note chime from Lily’s phone.
Pulling it from her pocket, Lily’s eyebrows jumped in alarm.
“What?,” ’Vish asked, standing up.
“News alert,” Lily muttered. “BNN is running something on Mistress.”
’Vish flinched at the mention of Samantha as Lily’s dominant, but said nothing. Instead, she grabbed the tv remote from the desk and switched stations.
An exceptionally cute woman with a short, page boy haircut was staring into the camera.
“Ooooh. Judith Palmer!” Lily breathed in awe.
’Vish chortled. “Breaking the hearts of queer women throughout the nation with her misguided heterosexuality.” She aimed the remote and turned the volume up on the wall-mounted television.
“... however, other sources within the Financial Services Authority have confirmed to BNN that an investigation is looking into the legality of Samantha Bennett’s sharing of company information with an outside party,” Judith recited in a deep, smoky voice.
“We are also now able to report that the company being targeted for acquisition by Kreisberg is market competitor Luxor Technology. Last year Luxor...”
“Fuck!” Lily growled under her breath.
“Is that true?” ’Vish asked, not turning to look at her.
“Yes,” Lily replied, with a great sigh.
“...representatives for Luxor did not immediately respond to our request for comment. Across the pond, Silicone Valley is reeling today from—”
’Vish muted the television once more. She dropped the small remote control loudly on the desk. It was the only sound in the room for several seconds.
“Well,” Lily finally said, “I suppose that phone interview is going to be worth a little bit more than you thought.”
’Vish nodded grimly. “Sorry, Lil’”
Lily shook her head. “Never apologize for doing your job.”
Bavishni smiled faintly. “I’ll ring your girl tonight.”
Lily nodded and turned the door handle.
“Good luck,” ’Vish called after her.
“Thanks,” Lily replied.
She was in the lift, halfway to the ground floor, when her phone rang. It was someone from Kreisberg. Dread washing over her, Lily pressed her wireless buds into her ears and tapped the throbbing green button on her phone’s screen.
“Samantha Bennett’s office, this is Lily.”
“Lily, it’s Robert. Is Samantha with you?”
Lily’s stomach lurched. “No. Is this about the news report?”
“I’m afraid so. Messages and phone calls started flying my way a few minutes ago.” He exhaled deeply.
“I knew that was going to hurt us. Speaking of which… Robert, there’s something I have to ask,” Lily thought for a moment. She needed to be careful not to tip their hand just yet. “How did Beth end up the interim CEO?”
Robert was quiet for a moment. “I nominated her,” he replied. “After the board had the vote to suspend Samantha. She’s the most qualified officer. She’s the logical choice to step in. Also, she really impressed everyone this morning. Staying here all night to get out in front of this thing… The board was pleased with her dedication to the company.”
Lily squeezed her eyes shut, nodding gravely. “I’m sure they were.”
“Lily, that brings me to the reason I called. I have some more bad news, I’m afraid.”
Lily sunk her head into the lift’s metal wall. “I’m listening.”