Five prominent attorneys in Minneapolis have had their computer systems hacked and very sensitive case files stolen. Those attorneys are then contacted by an association of local whistleblowers known as NIMN and are quietly alerted that they have received those documents from an anonymous source. If those files are released, then not only will those lawyers be ruined, but it might even destroy the integrity of the entire Minnesota legal system. This group of lawyers turns to Private Investigator Holland Taylor with a simple directive: stop the disclosure any way you can.
But while the directive is simple, the case is not. To find the missing files and the person responsible, Holland must first dive into the five cases covered in the filesdivorce, bribery, class action, rape, and murder. While Taylor is untangling the associates and connections between the cases and families affected, things take another mysterious turn and the time before the files are released is running out. As the situation becomes more threatening, Holland Taylor is trapped in the middle of what is legal and what is ethicalbetween right, wrong, and deadly.
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We were surrounded by lawyers in a smoke-filled room found deep in the bowels of an intensely exclusive club located on the edge of downtown Minneapolis; one of those prestigious joints accessible only to the select few that possessed the money, personal connections, and social capital to claim membership. If it had a name, no one bothered to tell me what it was. I wouldn't have even known it existed except David Helin asked my partner and me to meet him there after business hours. He had thrown a lot of work our way, so, of course, Freddie and I arrived on time and sober. I wasn't told about the other attorneys until we arrived, yet I recognized them all. Each of their law firms had retained Fredericks & Taylor Private Investigations at one time or another.
Greetings were exchanged, and we were led to a bar. Helin served as bartender. I asked for bourbon, and two inches were poured into a squat glass. Freddie was content with water. That didn't tell the lawyers anything, but it told me plenty. Freddie was nervous. I didn't blame him. Forget that he was a black man in a room filled with rich and powerful white men. No one ever calls a secret meeting at night unless they want to discuss something that if not straight-up illegal is at least of questionable ethics.
Once we had our drinks, we were led to the leather chairs set around a large table made of shiny dark-colored wood.
"Cigar?" Helin asked. "They're from Havana."
The lawyers were all puffing away. I hadn't seen any of them smoke before, and I wondered if it was an affectation, if they were doing it simply because they could. The club didn't have employees per se, and it wasn't open to the public, so it wasn't subject to Minnesota's smoking restrictions. I suspected that a lot of laws went unheeded in that room.
Freddie and I declined the cigars and sat next to each other at the far end of the table. Most of the lawyers sat on the other end. Helin settled midway between us.
"Forgive the intrigue," he said. "We burned through God knows how many emails deciding where to meet until we agreed on this place. In fact, the only other thing we seem to agree on is that you're the guys for us."
It was meant as a compliment, and we were supposed to respond accordingly. "Thanks, fellas. You know we'd do anything for you"— something like that. Only I was as nervous as Freddie.
"Okay," I said.
"We've always been impressed by your professionalism, your resourcefulness, and most particularly by your discretion," Doug Jernigan said. He was the oldest of us and the only one in the room who seemed comfortable. Instead of a cigar, he was smoking a long-stem pipe. The tobacco smelled like cherry. Not too long ago, we had helped him successfully sue a sports bar that had overserved an underage drinker who rolled her vehicle shortly after last call by identifying eleven other kids it had sold alcohol to without first verifying their age. I think he won $258,000 in actual and punitive damages.
"Okay," I said again.
Some mutual staring took place after that, us at the lawyers and the lawyers at us and each other. Freddie sipped his bottled water, and I slowly rotated my glass on the table in front of me one quarter turn at a time. The cloud of blue-gray smoke above the table grew ominous. It seemed as if none of the lawyers wanted to be the one to explain why we had been summoned.
"Oh for God's sake," Scott Mickelson said. "Taylor, Fredericks, what do you know about an organization that calls itself NIMN?" He pronounced the acronym "Nim."
"Not in Minnesota," Freddie said. "Name of a website for whistle-blowers. Brands itself as a local version of WikiLeaks."
"Freddie is the smart one in the organization," I said.
"That's only because I use my computer for more than looking up porn."
"You can do that?"
"Everyone here has seen your Key and Peele routine," Mickelson said. "This is serious."
"How serious?" I asked.
Jernigan pointed his pipe at me.
"We're the ones they're blowing the whistle on," he said.
"I don't understand."
Cormac Puchner sighed heavily and looked up at the ceiling, the gesture suggesting that I should already be familiar with his problem. Puchner was a Harvard man. I had learned that within the first ten minutes of meeting him. Everybody learns that within the first ten minutes of meeting him.
"Taylor, Freddie," Helin said. "The computers in each of our law firms have been hacked. Information was stolen."
"What kind of information?" I asked.
"Do we need to draw you a fucking picture?" Puchner asked.
"If it wouldn't be too much trouble."
He glared at me.
I glared back.
Puchner didn't care for that, and I thought, usually he's pleasant company. What gives?
"Law firms hoard secrets," Helin said. "For corporate clients, we hold intellectual property and merger and acquisition data, secrets that can be used for insider trading. For individual clients, well, it can be pretty personal."
"Sadly, this is not all that unusual," Mickelson said. "There is no such thing as one hundred percent effective security anywhere. Insurance companies, banks, hospitals, even the federal government — they've all been hacked. It's not surprising that law firms would be hacked as well. What happens — it's like a smash-and-grab. Hackers steal whatever information they can get their hands on and analyze it later to see how valuable it is. Willie Sutton said that he robbed banks because that's where the money was. Breaching law firms is a great way to make money."
"What concerns us most, though ..." John Kaushal glanced at his fellow attorneys as if he hoped he was speaking for all of them but wasn't sure that he was. "We have an ethical obligation to safeguard our clients' information. Especially those secrets protected by attorney-client privilege."
Kaushal was the smartest man in the room as far as I was concerned, and if he was worried then I was worried. The last time Freddie and I worked for him was over a year ago, but only for a couple of days. He was defending a man accused of murdering his wife for her considerable fortune even though the woman's body was never found. He hired Freddie and me to basically shadow the investigators working for the Ramsey County attorney and interview every witness they interviewed to learn what they learned or didn't learn. Kaushal hated surprises. Four days in, though, he called off the investigation. I never did learn why. Now I was wondering — what secrets protected by attorney-client privilege?
"Why you?" Freddie asked. "Why were your law firms targeted?"
"Small and medium-sized firms typically operate with a minimal IT staff," Jernigan said. "That makes us more vulnerable. An easier hack."
"Speak for yourself," Mickelson said. He had a smug expression that, I suppose, came from working for a firm that had a worldwide presence. Puchner looked like he wanted to wipe it off his face, but then he was always ultracompetitive.
"In any case," Jernigan said, "it's not the size of the firm that matters but the sensitivity and value of the data that we maintain that makes us targets."
"Or not," Puchner said.
"What does that mean?" I asked.
"All lawyers have enemies."
"Look, we discussed this," Mickelson said.
"So now we're discussing it again," Puchner said.
"We don't know if we were singled out for a reason. We don't know that it's personal."
"Hackers are only interested in money or revenge or both."
"Then pay the man," Freddie said.
"Excuse me?" Puchner said.
"Pay 'im. You're not the first business that's been blackmailed by hackers, whose confidential information was held hostage. What was the name of that hospital in LA had to pay a ransom to get its computer system back?"
"Christ, Freddie. You don't think we haven't thought of that? I love making deals."
"How many bitcoins are they asking?"
"The hacker isn't looking for payment," Helin said.
"He's looking for payback," Puchner said.
"We don't know that."
"What do we know?" I asked.
"Think Panama Papers."
I connected the dots quickly.
"NIMN," I said.
"You see it now, don't you," Jernigan said.
"I'm beginning to."
"A couple of years ago, over eleven and a half million documents were leaked to a German newspaper," Helin said. "Financial and attorney-client information stolen from a law firm in Panama that demonstrated how wealthy individuals and politicians were using offshore banks to commit fraud, evade taxes, launder stolen funds, what else?"
"Hundreds of people were exposed," Mickelson said. "Presidents, prime ministers, top cops, government wonks, businesspeople, sports figures, actors — some very important and famous people. Governments fell; people went to jail; lives were ruined. The hacker was never identified. He said he leaked the information because he wanted to expose the injustices that the documents described."
"Do you think that's what's going to happen to your clients, that their privileged information will be revealed?" I asked.
"That's what we're afraid of, yes. You see, someone from NIMN contacted us each in turn. He sent emails to our personal addresses on Saturday."
It's Tuesday evening, I told myself. They waited this long before making a move?
Helin seemed to read my mind. "It took us this long to determine that the hack wasn't widespread, that it was just us," he said. "It took us this long to decide what to do about it."
"Of course," Mickelson added. "The hacker used an anonymous server, so the emails can't be traced back to the domain that sent them. The sender said he had received a cache of documents from an unidentified source."
"Fuckers probably hacked us themselves," Puchner said.
"He claimed that the documents demonstrate beyond a reasonable doubt that the legal system in Minnesota is corrupt," Mickelson said.
"Who knew?" Jernigan said. "Am I right?"
"That we — meaning the men in the room — were suppressing the truth. NIMN said it was going to post the information over the next couple of days as soon as it was verified to their satisfaction."
"Why?" I asked.
"To make us look bad, why do you think?" Puchner said.
"No, I mean why did they contact you? From what you're telling us, you might not have even known you were hacked if they hadn't called."
"They just want to see us twisting in the wind."
"Or drive up the price," Freddie said.
"I hope so," Kaushal said. "We're attempting to take legal action to prevent disclosure. Unfortunately, there's no name attached to the website. The way NIMN is structured, Freddie, it has no registered address or property in Minnesota. We don't even know where to send the cease-and-desist order. In any case, not even the Feds have had much luck dealing with WikiLeaks. I doubt we'll do better with these people."
"Your hacker might not even be in Minnesota. Could be some guy with a laptop in the Ukraine."
"We're convinced he's local," Helin said. "Using a local whistle-blower site. Local law firms being hacked. Local cases being singled out. We hired a team that specializes in cyber investigations. What they're telling us so far isn't very encouraging."
"I know some people, hackers themselves, that I could recommend," Freddie said. "People who are expert at combating hacktivism."
"Hacktivism?" Puchner said. "Do you think this is some activist promoting free speech, human rights? This isn't civil disobedience. It's cybercrime. He's not an activist. He's a thief."
"I stand corrected."
"If you think differently, then we're talking to the wrong people."
"Local cases?" I said. "You mentioned local cases."
Helin slid a USB flash drive across the table. Freddie caught it.
"Very specific cases," Helin said.
"Each case NIMN referenced is on the flash drive," Mickelson said. "We don't need to lecture either of you about confidentiality, do we?"
"Is all the information that was stolen on this drive?"
"Only what you need to know," Helin said. "Taylor, Freddie, we need you to find the hacker or whoever is running NIMN. Maybe Cormac is right. Maybe he's one and the same. I don't know. Whatever, we need you to stop the disclosure of this information any way you can. It's not just about us. Yes, we'll lose business if clients fear we can't protect their confidential data. But repeating what John said earlier, it's about our clients. Imagine the embarrassment and worse that they'll suffer if this information gets out."
"You once told me that you can find anybody," Kaushal said. "Remember?"
"Something else," Puchner said. "We need to keep this off the books. A law firm's reputation is built around confidentiality as much as anything else. If word got out that we've been compromised ..."
I honestly didn't see who slid them across the table, yet two bundles of one-hundred-dollar bills appeared in front of me.
"Twenty thousand to start," Jernigan said. "If you need more, call David."
They're paying cash, no signed contracts, and I bet they can all prove they were somewhere else tonight instead of in their secret clubhouse. The thought sent an electric charge up and down my spine.
Stop the disclosure any way you can, they said.
Off the books, they said.
Did they mean it or were they merely being theatrical?
I stared at the money. The money said they meant it. I could be wrong, though.
I reached out and covered one bundle with my hand and slid it toward me. I waited — one beat, two beats, three, four, five, six — and watched as Freddie did the same.
"We'll be in touch," I said.
* * *
The club was located in the shadow of Target Field in the Warehouse District, about a mile from our downtown offices. Yet with the way the streets were laid out and a stretch of Interstate 394 slicing through the neighborhood, it took us a while to walk back. Not that we were in any hurry. I, for one, could have used more bourbon.
I eyed the strip joint on Second Avenue. It had been one of Freddie's favorite hangouts right up until he married a Chinese American woman called Echo. I didn't think he'd been in the place since. He glanced at its bright neon signs as we passed, though, the way some men look at the parks where they used to play ball as kids.
"How much of our combined income was sitting in that room, do you think?" Freddie asked. "A third?"
"I was thinking closer to half. Maybe more."
"Which means if we don't come through, we're screwed."
"I got that impression, too."
"You know what they want us to do, don't you?"
"C'mon. 'Stop him any way you can,' they said."
"I heard what they said."
"We find this guy —"
"I'll bet you a nickel there's more than one."
"These guys, then. What would they be guilty of? Computer theft? Unauthorized computer access? That's not even a felony in Minnesota 'less there's a risk t' public safety, which in this case, there ain't. Lousy misdemeanor. Thousand-dollar fine."
"Hacking is a federal rap."
"Not if it don't involve interstate commerce. Not if it don't involve identity theft or fraud, some criminal activity."
"We'll need to look into it."
"My point being, if they don't actually go the blackmail route, if they really do plan t' just throw this shit up on the World Wide Web, there ain't a whole helluva lot we can say or do that's gonna scare 'em into stopping, is there? I mean legally."
"Twenty stacks they gave us, Taylor. These days only criminals deal in cash. You know who told me that? Douglas Jernigan, the lawyer who slid the money across the table at us."
"We took the money."
"Yes, we did."
"So are we gonna do it?"
"You know fucking what."
I stopped in the middle of the sidewalk and stared at him because, honestly, in all the time we've known each other first as rivals and later as partners, that was the dumbest question Freddie's ever asked me.
"Just checkin'," he said.
"So what are we gonna do?"
"First thing first, hire a hacker of our own."
"Someone really good. I don't know who the lawyers are working with, but I'd like someone I trust on the job."
"You know who."
"No. No, Taylor. Hell no."
"Who do we know better than Sara?"
I laughed because I thought it was funny. Freddie didn't laugh, but then he was the one who tried to seduce Sara into bed back in the day, not me.
"For all we know she — he — whatever — they're the ones behind it all," Freddie said.
"Nah, they would have taken the bitcoins."
"Yeah, that's prob'ly true. But I'm gonna make the call, okay? Set something up for tomorrow A.M. And I'm callin' Steve."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "First, Kill the Lawyers"
Copyright © 2019 David Housewright.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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