A Palo Alto Mystery

Chapter 1

It was mid-February, and the release date was looming over Jessica Munsey’s shoulders. As she checked her calendar, she noticed that she has just two weeks to test, deploy, and demo the beta with the new functionality. She was still checking in her fixes to the P-1 bugs. She had actually just joined Info-Data Systems.com, a mid-size company in the valley founded by two Berkeley alumni. It was a data center housing large terabytes of personal information about myriad households ranging from personal income to the preferred choice of breakfast cereal for each member of the family. Every detail, each moment of a person’s life recorded from their birth to death was stored on file as ones and zeros.

Her office, shaped like a cubicle with a door, was in the far west corner on the second floor of a two-story stucco building in Palo Alto with Spanish style architecture and furniture. She had carefully decorated it with her certifications, distinctions, and awards. At 28 years of age and a graduate of an accredited university, she had brought much knowledge and experience to the table, and her company greatly valued her talents. Yet a gnawing feeling would grow inside, and she could not comprehend the doubts that followed a panic attack. She often found herself saying “There is something you don’t know!” Fearing a stress reaction, she would calm herself through focused breathing.

Today was no different. She caught herself having one of these moments, and quickly squelched her fears from manifesting. Now, as she wrapped up her conference call, she thought about her plans for the upcoming weeks. “Jessica”, she heard a growl from behind her shoulders. It was Malek Subotnik, her boss. “Can we talk in the conference room?” The nervousness that had settled once again resurfaced. Her pounding heart, racing thoughts, and sweaty palms gave away her innermost thoughts and fears. “It’s a layoff, ” she thought, “but I’m too important. It can’t be me. It’s the action items from the design review, but the designs were approved. What does he want to see me for in the middle of the afternoon?” On her way, she crossed paths with the leopard print clad Meena Pai, the receptionist with six-inch acrylic nails and an hourglass figure. It was rumored that Malek and Meena were very hot n heavy. Stories about their latest romantic interlude circulated around the water cooler. Though Malek was in his early fifties and Meena about 25 years younger, the age difference did little to curb their passion. Jessica had often found it hard to steer clear of the affair, and often bore the brunt of being the target of Meena’s taunts and barbs. Though she was fair and pretty, Jessica chose to maintain a professional attitude and avoided dating co-workers or bosses.

“What does he want with her?” Jessica heard her asking around.

“Oh Meena, I think they’re just holding conference” was the response from Andrew, another young project manager who was a big fan of Meena.

“Jessica have a seat.” Malek ordered.

She closed the door behind her and grabbed an empty chair.

“Jessica, the data syncing code – we’re having some issues here. Tell me what’s going on with that.”

“Well, I know there are quite a few bugs open right now in the data syncing module. I’m taking a look at it, but I haven’t put in any fixes yet. I should have some resolved by Tuesday. “

“Jessica, the data syncing is completely broken. The primary and secondary are out of sync when we swact or spare. That’s not good. You know how important reliability is for quality in this business. You are aware of the sensitivity of the information we are dealing with here.”

“I know sir, but that’s not my code. I’m debugging Ian’s issues. I think it’s going to require a major rewrite. I will need some more time and more resources.”

“I don’t want to spend time finger-pointing. We are short on both time and resources. And I want you to make this your number one priority. Put aside all your other issues and get data sync working as soon as possible. I’m holding you responsible.”

“Ok, but that’s going to require extensive testing, redesign, and changing the implementation. That means rewriting the design specs and changing the system architecture.”

“Well you do what is necessary. You will be working with Hong Xu for the testing portion. He will stop by and ask you questions about your component. I’m giving you a week’s deadline. We cannot prolong the release date before the customers start seeing these issues. I’d rather we catch them in-house and prevent any fires. Do you know what I mean?”

“All right, I’ll get right on it. I’ll send you my status at the end of the day.”

“Why don’t you send me status each day until these bugs are closed?”

“Ok.”

“Good. I’m glad we’re on the same page!”

Jessica closed the door on her way out. Meetings with Malek were always unpleasant. She always felt his roving, watchful eye behind her back, adding to the pressure. She spent the next two hours explaining test scenarios to Hong. He was a very sharp intellectual type who spoke in short terse sentences. His cube was decorated with the red flag. When asked about Communism, he replied with “the principles of brotherhood, betterment of the community, and belief in non-materialism.” They stopped by Chewy’s for lunch, and he already drafted the test plan complete with end-to-end scenarios before he left for the day.

She stayed late that night pondering over the redesign and analyzing the system diagrams. She was the only one at 11:30 PM, along with Rufus Iskarous, the database programmer from Greece. A young handsome lad with dark, curly hair in his early 20s, Rufus had made quite an impression when he solved the binary log replication failover issue. He was munching on a midnight snack, and she refilled her coffee cup for the 8th time. On her way back, she stopped by the printer room to pick up some printouts. She noticed an incoming fax sitting on the fax machine. She picked it up to notice that it was for Malek. It was an account summary from an overseas bank, a transfer confirmation for a very large sum.

“Hmm,” she thought, “Malek’s stock options must have really matured!”

“You know he gets more bonuses and incentives than the rest of us.” It was Rufus Iskarous. He must have heard her from behind. Jessica blushed.

“I was just putting the fax on his desk. I didn’t mean to pry.” She found herself making excuses.

“Oh no – I’ve seen those lying around many times. His H1-B visa processing, now his green card status, it’s a small office.”

“This is his latest investment. An overseas bank.”

“Let’s see. I have quite a few investments overseas myself. “

“I haven’t done any international trading myself but…” her words were cut off by Rufus frowning at what he saw on the paper.

“Jessica, look at this. These account numbers, they look like InfoData’s. Something is not making sense.”

“Rufus, I assure you. There’s a logical explanation.”

“No – wait, let me go verify something.” Rufus made a copy of the documents and disappeared for the night leaving an astounded Jessica in a moral quandary. She decided that in the morning, she would let Malek know what had transpired here with Rufus. After all, if someone had done that with one of her documents, she would want to be told.

Jessica turned off the lights, locked up, and located her lone car in the dimly lit parking lot. She was so tired by the time she reached her home in Cupertino that she immediately dozed off the minute her head touched the soft pillow on her comfy, cozy bed. Her mind was muddled with design specifications, system diagrams, Rufus’s strange behaviour, and Malek’s bloated accounts. All these ingredients created interesting and strange dreams for her that night.

Chapter 2

The next two days proved very hectic for Jessica. She pretty much locked herself in a room and coded straight for 16 hours. She must have written over 1000 LOC because it felt like she had just published the complete volume of a very large tome.

She would now have to schedule more code reviews, write tools for unit testing her code, and work with test engineers to make sure proper code coverage is achieved. As she pondered the upcoming days’ work, she looked out her window and noticed an law enforcement agent leaving the building. Though he was in plain clothes, Jessica recognized his holster and badge dangling from his waist bearing the special task force government seal. He stopped to talk to Malek. Their conversation turned into a heated argument. The officer and Malek pointed to her door as if to swear by or attest to the person inside. Jessica immediately turned away to avoid eye contact.

There was a knock at her door. A nervous Meena barged in.

Stunned by her presence, Jessica stammered “Oh, um, hello Meena. What can I do for you today?”

“Jessica, have you seen Rufus?”

“Rufus? Why no!”

“When did you last see him”

“Why do you ask?”

“Was it 2 nights ago? Didn’t the two of you stay late that night together? Did you spend the night with him?”

A stunned Jessica forced an answer, “Meena, what are you talking about?”

“Meena is right,” Malek entered and closed the door behind him. “Listen, Rufus went missing 2 nights ago. They found his body dumped in a bog near Palo Alto Baylands.”

“Oh my God!” incredulous Jessica stood agape. “Who did this to him?”

“We don’t know. The officer said that they found some company documents with him that were confidential. Would you happen to know anything about them?”

“Why would I know anything about missing confidential docs?”

“I’m just asking because we could become targets of a federal investigation if we don’t cooperate. Listen, we already told the officer that you were the last person seen with him at this office, so he might ask you some questions.”

“Look, I don’t want to be involved with police and lawyers. Right now, I am knee deep in data sync issues. I can’t afford that kind of digression.” Jessica pleaded.

“This is more serious than data syncing. The media is involved. I am getting calls from Channel 9 news.” Malek’s countenance contorted in worry.

“Has anyone seen Hong? I need to go over some changes with him, and he hasn’t responded to my emails.”

“He hasn’t come in for two days. He hasn’t called in either.” Meena, the receptionist, was up-to-date on Hong’s schedule.

“You mean Hong is also missing?”

“First Rufus and now Hong. I think it’s the water!”

Chapter 3

Jessica spent the night wondering about the events from the last two days: the news of Rufus’s murder, Hong being missing without warning, Malek’s strange overseas accounts, and the possibility of a security breach within the company. She couldn’t shake off the feeling that all the events were connected, and that when one issue was resolved, the missing pieces would fill in the holes.

Next morning, Jessica walked into a media fair. Channels 4, 5, and 9 were clamoring to speak to Malek. The conflict conscious Jessica tried to avoid any attention and quickly locked the door to her office. It was actually her 29th birthday today. Her inbox was flooded with 200 new messages! She scrolled down, and after the 150th message, squeezed in between the Nigerian Bank spam message and “Happy Birthday” from mom was a mail from Hong. She quickly clicked on his message.

He explained that he was in the ER the last two days due to a fractured arm. While in the hospital, he had completed the initial component level testing of her check-ins from last night, along with a completed test plan with over 100 detailed testcases. He explained that he would return by mid-afternoon today and go over the results of last night’s smoke test and regressions. Jessica was quite impressed with his hard work and wished him a speedy recovery. She sighed with relief that he was not hurt.

As she made her way to the printer, she was stopped by the Francine, the Channel 5 reporter. “You’re Jessica Munsey right?”

“That’s right.”

“Malek mentioned that you’re one of his top employees. Mind if I ask you some questions? You know what happened here right?”

“No, as a matter of fact, I don’t.”

“Malek didn’t mention anything to you?”

“Why? Is he in trouble?”

“Malek? Why do you think that?”

“Listen, I don’t know anything about those documents. I was just getting some coffee.”

“Ah so you know about the missing documents?”

“Well no. I don’t.”

“Do you know what documents went missing from here?”

“No. Actually I’ve just been in my office, quite oblivious to what goes on out here.”

“Well, three days ago, there was a security breach here. Several corporate confidential documents were leaked on Facebook. After careful investigations, the culprit was found to be a Rufus Iskarous. He was collaborating with Syrian nationalists and selling corporate secrets to a rival company.”

“What? I had no idea. Is that why he was found dead? Was this connected to his death?”

“His death was actually accidental. He was an avid hiker and rock climber who just had a fateful fall. But when the police searched his pockets and his car, they came across some highly confidential information. When we confirmed with InfoDataSystems, a security breach was declared. In order to protect the privacy of your customers, we could not release further information about the contents.”

“Wow. So his death was not a murder.”

“No – but Malek will have to explain why the security measures were violated by Rufus without alarm. I mean you can check his Facebook account and find tons of data about what’s inside InfoDataSystems.”

“Really – I wish I’d noticed it sooner. I spend so much time on Facebook. Did he not think he’d get caught?”

“I guess he was overconfident.”

Jessica walked over to Malek’s office. His head was bent low, and he covered his face with his hands.

“I just heard. About the security breach.”

“I should’ve adhered to the strict measures. I trusted Rufus. I never thought he would turn out to be a crook.”

“It’s good that the matter resolved quickly and without scandal.”

“Yes. Apparently, he was quite the hacker.”

“He is dangerous with personal data.”

“Well he has access to all kinds of information here right. It’s not hard to figure out passwords with so much personal data.”

“Any information just feeds the habit, a person’s bank accounts, their wives, girlfriend’s names…”

“By the way, I’m buying a vacation home for Meena in the Caymans. It’s a real nice contemporary style condo.”

“Oh how nice! She must be thrilled.”

“Ya – my options had matured, and I’m ready to retire.”

“Don’t let this place get to you. You’re still young.”

“It does sometimes. Listen, today’s your birthday right? Why don’t you take the day off? Go celebrate. Have fun. I’ll handle the reporters here. It’s going to be chaotic.”

“Oh Malek, you remembered! I still have some requirements left to complete.”

“I know you’ll get it done. But today’s a special day for you. And you’ve been working some crazy late hours these past few days.”

“I promise I won’t stay so late! Today, I’ll maybe take a half-day. Thanks.”

“Sure. And, hey Jessica.”

“Yes Malek?”

“Have a Happy Birthday!”