Outward: Chapter 20: Follow the Money

Raskin stared up at the ceiling as he lay on the hotel bed. The brief glimmer of hope of finding something useful was fading quickly, as the trail that had brought him to Wall Street had once again grown cold.

The line of thinking had been tenuous at best, he had to admit, but no more promising leads had presented themselves. They were, after all, jumping to the conclusion that the two unexplained MOJO firings were directly related to whatever was left of the Mackinelly Device hiding out somewhere on Earth. None of them had been able to come up with any other explanations for why someone might want to fire a high-energy beam at two nearby stars. MOJO didn’t come cheap.

Which is where Raskin had found himself roped into things. It was at least more interesting than keeping a desk chair warm in Washington, where he’d be twiddling his thumbs waiting for money to arrive in between budgetary meetings to decide what to do with it once it finally showed up. At this point in time, he could handle that just as well from anywhere, as long as he could find a couple hours every day or so to dial in to a conference call.

Raskin sighed. It always came down to money, in the end.

It’s what brought him to this hotel room, certainly. Finding out about the MOJO incidents had opened up two leads. The obvious one was to track down the location where the requests had been made. The jury was still out on how fruitful that would be. Raskin was no expert in networking, but he knew there were all kinds of ways to give digital forensic investigators headaches.

The other lead was all his. MOJO didn’t come cheap, and the money had to have come from somewhere. Find whose pocketbook it came out of, find the person responsible, and then maybe you could figure out what was going on.

Apparently in the aftermath of the incident with the Mackinelly Device, AFEXOCOM had gotten some expanded authorities when it came to suspected alien activity on Earth. At least, that’s how Raskin assumed Col Newmeyer was able to get his hands on some of Forney Junip’s financial records. Once MSgt Abernathy was able to decode enough of the MOJO logs to figure out how long and at what energy level the satellites had been fired, it was a simple matter of multiplying by the fee schedule to calculate the dollar amount that had been transferred to Forney Junip’s accounts each time. The amounts were unique enough to stick out readily in the transaction history.

The money had been laundered through an intermediate bank account, based on its transaction history, since the money had entered and left the account in a matter of days. Not laundered effectively enough to hide the fact that it had come from an investment account associated with Jupiter Dynamic Financial Trading LLC.

Which is where Raskin had found himself stuck. He reached over to the end table and picked up a glossy marketing brochure he had taken from Jupiter’s offices before their security guards had escorted him out. He flipped through it for what felt like the hundredth time, hoping to find some nugget of useful information buried within the marketing drivel.

Jupiter was one of the many high-frequency trading firms that had sprung up like weeds over the past decade and that now dominated the proverbial trading floor. Raskin had gone to see the New York Stock Exchange’s trading floor that morning before his attempted meeting with Jupiter. He wasn’t surprised that the trading floor these days was mostly there just for show. It seemed like an awfully inefficient way to trade stocks.

Jupiter’s basic approach, like the other high-frequency trading firms, was the exact opposite: lots and lots of servers automatically buying and selling stocks according to proprietary algorithms kept behind more closed doors than nuclear launch codes and Coca-Cola’s recipe combined. The machines could select and execute millions of trades in the time it took a sweaty guy in the pit to flash a single hand signal to a fellow trader.

The firm’s claim to fame was its market prediction algorithms. The marketing brochure claimed they were able to predict changes in the price of a stock over the next ten seconds with 99% accuracy. Reading between the lines, Raskin guessed that Jupiter predicted when a stock was about to go up in price a fraction of a cent and bought it first, then re-selling it to the would-be buyer a second later, pocketing the difference. An individual trade would be worth next to nothing, but executed billions of times a minute, it wasn’t surprising that the quant who invented the algorithm at the core of their business now had a nine-figure income at the age of twenty. The algorithm’s introduction six months ago had propelled Jupiter to the lead position in the world of high-frequency trading.

The sources of data Jupiter used to predict the market were the stuff of rumor amongst day traders on the Internet. It was pretty widely assumed Jupiter paid huge sums of money to get real-time market feeds from all of the world’s exchanges. From there, the veracity of things got a lot more dubious. Some people said Jupiter paid (or possibly bribed, depending on who was telling the story) exchanges to let it see the trades queued by other market participants and allow Jupiter to slip its own trades in front of them. Another popular and oft-debated rumor was that Jupiter had given Twitter lots of free bandwidth and rack space in its server room, just so it could see what people were saying about the market before any of its users could.

The more he had learned about the world of high-frequency trading, the more Raskin seriously considered abandoning the stock market entirely and sticking all his investments in Treasury bonds. If Jupiter’s algorithms ever thought a market crash were imminent, it would no doubt liquidate all its holdings in the blink of an eye, precipitating precisely the market panic it had predicted as other investors saw the sudden drop in share prices across the board and dumped their investments as well.

But more to the point at hand, high-frequency trading looked like a money launderer’s dream come true. Col Newmeyer had traced back the payments to Forney Junip for MOJO back this far because the money was transferred between accounts in discrete, easily understandable amounts. But here, there would be no conceivable way to follow the money trail back any further, since it would be split up into billions of trades over millions of stocks. He could easily imagine someone setting up hundreds or even thousands of investment accounts with Jupiter, passing money back and forth between them in a nigh-untraceable manner millions of times a day.

Even if Jupiter kept transaction logs for all the trades its algorithms were making, and even if Jupiter were willing to disclose them to anybody, it would still take years of dedicated analysis to try to figure out what was going on. Jupiter was a dead end.

The information Col Newmeyer had been able to dig up about the account itself was of no use. The name and mailing address were readily seen to be bogus. The phone number was the first ten digits of pi, and the domain name in the e-mail address was a string of fifty gibberish letters and ended in .aq, the top-level domain for Antarctica. Evidently, all that Jupiter worried about when someone created an account with them was that they had money.

Raskin concluded he was wasting his time out there. Unless the people in charge of Jupiter had a sudden change of heart when it came to protecting privacy — and the fact that no personal contact information for any of its leadership or the miracle quant who coded their magic algorithm could be found on the Internet suggested that wasn’t going to happen anytime soon — there was nothing else he could do there. He might as well return to Washington and try to push the early-warning system plans forward as much as possible.

He tossed the marketing brochure to the floor and picked up his phone off the table. He dialed.

“Air Force Exosolar Command, Master Sergeant Abernathy speaking,” answered the voice on the other end.

“Sergeant, it’s me,” Raskin replied.

“Good afternoon, sir. Did you have any luck?”

“Does bad luck count?”

“I suppose it was a bit of a long shot,” MSgt Abernathy admitted.

“There’s no way I’m going to be able to get any information out of Jupiter, actionable or otherwise,” Raskin said. “But then, I’m just an independent consultant for you. You guys are the ones with all the authority.”

“They didn’t knuckle under after we threatened them with the National Security Act as amended bit. The Colonel and I are debating whether it’s worth it to try to compel them to comply, but we’re not sure there’s a strong enough case that the matter falls under our jurisdiction.”

“And Jupiter no doubt could hire every lawyer in New York to defend them.”

“Exactly. Besides, the Colonel doesn’t want the sudden publicity that kind of action would bring to us.”

“In any event,” Raskin said, “I’m planning on taking the first flight out of here tomorrow morning back to Washington. If anything comes up down there that might be any help to you, I’ll let you know, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.”

“No, sir, I won’t.”

“Anything else new?”

“Well,” MSgt Abernathy began, presumably to choose her words carefully. “We’ve learned through the grapevine that our mystery person had placed another request. Third target, same pattern as before. I can give you the details later, though. They denied it this time, though.”

“Any reason?”

“Not sure. My guess is that their people are worried something’s up and are trying to play it safe.”

“Easier to accidentally take the money than knowingly take it.”

“Something like that. Also, I’m still working on figuring out the rest of the logs. I’ve got some suspicions, but I want to double-check a few things before I say anything.”

“Well, don’t wait too long to speak up,” Raskin advised. “Remember how quickly things nearly got out of control last time.”

“Very well, sir.”

Chapter word count: 1,730 (+63)
Total word count: 35,186 / 50,000 (70.372%)

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