Password

Short Story by JW Heacock

Password

Edgar thought they'd travel in a chartered jet. He'd never flown on one before, but he knew the Company used them when they needed feet on the ground ASAP. Cantor Fitzgerald was the Company's biggest client, generating millions in revenue each year, which he figured would make them charter worthy. Even though non-military air travel was grounded, everyone expected the ban to be lifted soon. If anyone could get an exception, it was the Company, whose chairman personally called the Secretary of Defense; he turned him down. The DoD had better hope NORAD’s software never crashes.

Instead, they rented a fleet of top-of-the-line Greyhound buses for the geek armada. Each bus had its Wi-Fi beefed up a hundredfold. The buses weren't only for transportation; they'd also be the team’s command centers. The Company allowed each person to bring two sets of clothes and no comfort items, which meant that they were expected to work around the clock, with breaks only to shower and change clothes.

Edgar was a veteran “security expert”—Company-speak for “hacker”—so he knew the routine. He could work three straight days without sleep, and the Company knew this about him as well, along with everyone else headed east. Their employment history, habits, and skills, were all noted in the Company's monstrous personnel databases, which contained every available metric on their clients too.

The Company knew their employees' talents, weaknesses, even their diets, which was why the underbelly of each bus was packed with Mountain Dew, Skittles, and beef jerky. With these provisions loaded up, the high-tech wagon train headed east for Rochelle Park, not twenty miles from where the Twin Towers stood the day before.

***

To justify the six-figure price tag for a phalanx of hacker-recovery experts, a lot of money had to be lost each day the system was down, which meant financial services or online gambling websites; Edgar saw little difference between the two. Internet poker attracted math and computer geeks, which also meant hackers; every few months, a site went down after some Eastern European cabal cracked its encryption. Financial services crashes were all the same: a trader brings a thumb drive to work—maybe with his fantasy football picks or downloaded porn (traders were invariably overcompensating testosterone-fueled bros)—plug it into his work computer, and voila! A backdoor has been left open by just a crack, which was more than enough for a debilitating hack.

He wasn’t usually called upon to figure out passwords—most companies could just ask their employees, even after a tornado or flood. He’d typically reconstruct files lost to sloppy backups or sudden catastrophes—only a natural disaster or a sophisticated hack would require a whole team on site. Edgar's last big project was in Santa Fe, for a Canary Island bank whose accounts hadn't been backed up before the long Memorial Day weekend; the bank's off-site (way off-site, in arid New Mexico) data center got damaged, by a flash flood hit after a security guard failed to close a basement door after a smoke break. Freak accidents were the rule, because when you have trillions of transactions a year, even one-in-a-billion events happen over and over.

This disaster was unique—terrorists turning the two largest buildings in America into ashes. It wasn't the first time that Edgar was trying to deduce passwords of the dead—a corporate bigwig had a coronary a few years back—but neither he nor the other veteran had dealt with death on such a massive scale. Nor had the rest of the country.

***

There was the usual adrenalized running-about once they arrived in New Jersey fifteen hours later—his grandmother taught him the Yiddish word “schvilkus,” or “nervous confusion,” which perfectly described the scene. Edgar slept as much as he could on the bus, so he was refreshed and ready to go. Three large tents had already been erected, and because the flaps were rolled up, he could see a crew moving in desks and laying fiber-optic cables. He claimed a desk in the front row, where he could see the array of dry-erase boards placed on a makeshift stage. He figured the sooner they start, the sooner they’d leave.

Edgar didn't have anything against the Garden State, but they weren't in bucolic western New Jersey. They were a half-mile from the ocean, with the attendant smells of seawater, gulls, oil tankers, and garbage barges.

Everything was unnaturally quiet. No jets taxiing overhead, waiting to land at Newark, JFK, or LaGuardia. Even boat traffic seemed subdued, even though he knew of no restrictions on their activity. It was as if the nation was putting everything in “sleep” mode while they figured out how to deal with yesterday. Although details were still coming in, it appeared that four planes hijacked by Islamic terrorists sought revenge for America’s support of Israel—three hit their targets. They clearly wanted to kill as many people as possible, but the impact on the economy was equally fatal. Commerce was on life support, and Edgar needed to perform fiscal CPR.

He didn't know anyone who was missing in the tower collapse, but Edgar had a lot of friends in New York. He didn't try to call them now—the phone lines were already overloaded, and he didn't want his curiosity to worsen the gridlock. It wasn't like he was going to get together with any of them for a drink this week. The best he could do was to try and return some normalcy to the sliver of the damaged world that he now inhabited.

In the absence of accurate information guidance, rumors swirled around the tent like cyclones. The estimated death toll changed by the hour, but since Cantor Fitz occupied five of the highest floors in One World Trade Center, many of their employees were assumed dead. Although the assembled hackers weren't literally working within the shadow of the destroyed towers, Edgar had seen a smoky haze lingering in the northeast when he got off the bus. His colleagues must have seen this too—this wasn't just another caffeine-fueled scavenger hunt.

Finally, Maria Contreras, a project manager Edgar recognized from previous jobs, walked to the front of the tent. “Yesterday has us all reeling, but no one more than our client, who has almost 700 employees still missing.” She paused, letting the magnitude of that number sink in. CNN was estimating that 5,000 had died in the collapse, so fifteen percent were from a single firm. “This horror will take time to process, but Cantor Fitzgerald doesn't have the luxury of time. If they are not functioning within days, a billion-dollar company and its thousands of employees will have been destroyed as well. We must prevent that.”

A hand went up to the right of Edgar. “I thought the stock market was closed. Why the urgency?”

“Our client doesn't just deal in the U.S. stock market,” Maria replied, “Cantor Fitz is a global presence that deals in government bonds, commodities, and hedge funds; a fraction of its activity is in U.S. stocks. Although several overseas exchanges have taken today off, the Nikkei, London, and all the commodity exchanges will be back up soon. The Company has promised Cantor Fitz that it’ll have an active system by week's end.”

Edgar read between the lines. Although the U.S. might still be reeling, savvy overseas traders saw an opportunity. Every day Cantor Fitzgerald sat on the sidelines was a lost profit opportunity; every client that couldn’t access their holdings, from corporate juggernauts to grandma and grandpa, would either panic at the drop in their portfolio's value or want to get back in, fast. Either way, Cantor Fitzgerald would be blamed for any bad outcomes.

Maria next explained the mechanics of the project. “You’ll be given customized lists of thirty names, broken into groups by business priority. The Group A people had active accounts or portfolios of over $1 billion dollars, Group B contains those with inactive accounts or sub-billion-dollar portfolios, and Group C is non-revenue-positive employees: receptionists, runners, and HR or compliance specialists.” Maria continued. “The key is to work both smart and hard. We have to be methodical and strictly follow the classifications. You must complete all of Group A before moving on to B; ditto for moving from B to Group C.”

Maria gestured to a group of young women, who started distributing Manila envelopes. “We estimate that team members will be able to find half of the names through targeted analysis; we'll get the other half from brute-force searches on the big mainframe. We're running every combination possible in a random, rolling substitution, but since Cantor Fitz had a minimum password length of eight characters, it will take days to try the quadrillion possible combinations.”

Edgar did a rough calculation in his head, and her figures were a decent estimate, based on the stated assumptions. But if assumed only letters and numbers, a mere thirty-six characters possible—adding special characters and symbols like # and @, it could be more than 100 quadrillion variations. “The second you crack a password, let us know so we can take it out of the mainframe calculations.”

***

The internet was still down, so Maria and a cadre of assistants handed out paper copies of the assignments and search protocol. Cantor Fitz had a series of separate yet interlinked networks and internal databases, and although each employee used a single password to log into the computer system, this generated a series of sub-passwords based on each person's work habits. These daily passwords expired at the close of each day, but a built-in algorithm allowed the last used version to be retrieved once the initial password was found.

Edgar thought it was an ingenious way to keep Cantor Fitz's network secure by dividing it into structurally separate units, but without each person having to remember and update dozens of passwords. His favorable opinion was influenced by the fact that he was on the team that first came up with the idea, nearly a decade ago when he'd been hired by the Company straight out of college.

He hadn't actually graduated from Morehouse, mainly because an asinine computer science teacher had given him a B-minus, despite Edgar clearly knowing more than the professor. Rather, the Dean had asked him to take a “voluntary leave of absence” after accessing the prof's embarrassingly public home server to steal his school credentials, and then hacking the school's network to correct his grade to an A-plus. The university had been doing research for the Department of Defense, so Edgar’s hack almost lost it a security clearance and millions in government contracts. Morehouse should have been grateful for revealing their system's weaknesses; they were not.

The college fiasco only burnished his resume in the Company's eyes. That was in the early, Wild West days of computing, when they would hire talented dropouts and not the stodgy MBAs who now ran the show. Edgar still got called in for special projects, where his intuitive understanding of networks and programmers' coding tendencies allowed him to see gaping holes where others saw hairline cracks. And he took every job offered, for the intellectual challenge as well as making a year's salary in a month.

Technically, these jobs weren't “hacks.” Sure, he might skirt firewalls to obtain access to files that he hadn't technically been authorized to see, but most of the time, clients were so desperate that they flung their files wide open. In truth, classic cryptography and pattern recognition skills were more important than hacking skill. The same sort of mind that can scan a hundred lines of code and days later recall a sequence from it could also spot patterns and details no brute-force search would detect.

That's why the Company used to make solving a Rubik's Cube a notorious part of its job interviews—if you couldn't see the toy's solution leaping out at you, how were you supposed to spot a lone DOS command that gave you access to an entire system?

***

Once he got his thirty-person list, Edgar absently began jotting down words and phrases that could be constructed by rearranging the letters in their names. Most people weren't as obsessed with acronyms and palindromes as he was, but once a person discovered an apt or funny rearrangement, it became part of their passwords forever. He reviewed the available personnel documents, taking note of spouse and kids' names, schools attended, and hometowns—all of these ended up part of the passwords people used each day, and thus became intertwined in who they were. He made a note to check social media sites for the names of pets.

It only took a few minutes to realize that the names on his list had also been given to other people. It was simple math: fifty project members, each with a list of ten employees divided in A, B and C groups, meant 1500 people listed; there were almost 700 Cantor Fitz employees missing or not accounted for, so every person was on two lists. Given the high priority given to Group A, it was more likely that three or four team members were chasing down that group's passwords. Just the Company's way to ensure competition, playing mind games to milk the last drop of productivity out of their workers.

Five minutes later, this was confirmed to Edgar when Maria announced, “Sandra has cracked Mr. Walter Taft's password.” He heard the woman to his right mutter “damn” and scratch a name off her list. So, the Company had built in redundancy.

Edgar solved four of his Group A passwords before his first nap-and-shower break, thirty hours into the project. He realized that a trader who'd attended the University of Virginia for both undergrad and business school might use a variation of “cavalier” or “wahoo” or “cav.” It turned out to be as simple and subtle as “Wahoo4ever.” Most of the traders had attended Ivy League schools, so many that the basic algorithm had already done an initial search for the school names. Apparently it hadn't done variations on Ivy League school mascots, because the second password Edgar decrypted was for a Harvard grad who'd gotten his law degree at Yale, which he memorialized as “CrimsonEli95.”

The women were more likely to use the names or dates of their kids' births. Once he learned that Lacey Jemison gave birth to fraternal twins Chloe and Braiden on June 1, it was a matter of time before he came up with the right combination of initials and numbers. Cantor Fitzgerald passwords could be as long as fifteen characters, although most kept it at the eight-character minimum. Lacey used her full allotment, and the only tricky part was the order—Edgar assumed the boy had come out first—“Braiden61Chloe.”

It wasn't so easy with Sharon Brown, who had seven children, all born within the last ten years—he'd nicknamed her “Superwoman Susan Brown” for her ability to manage that. Edgar tried combinations of all seven names and DOBs. He felt both stupid and saddened when he discovered that it was based on the youngest, little Avery, born exactly two months before the towers falling. Her mother had an office on the 81st floor, so she was almost certainly killed, although that had not been confirmed. Sharon's password was considered “heavy” because it contained capitalized and lower-case letters, numbers, symbols, and was not organized in a recognizable fashion: “July11!yrevA.” Edgar wondered if she did this for all of her children. The Cantor Fitzgerald password policy required them to be updated only every year, so Sharon could have just kept swapping out her progeny.

That afternoon, a blast email circulated instructing the team to scratch “Wilson Jacobs” off their lists because he was alive. The story emerged that Jacobs had taken an unauthorized day off and played hooky in Atlantic City. He'd spent most of September 11 playing blackjack inside the artificial universe of a casino, and it wasn't until he emerged on the morning of the 12th that he'd learned of the disaster. Understandably embarrassed about explaining his whereabouts to his employer, Jacobs reluctantly contacted his Cantor Fitz higher-ups on the 13th. Edgar hoped Mr. Jacobs appreciated his good fortune as the luckiest man to ever walk out of a casino.

Although there was no logical reason to do so, Edgar used the Jacobs story to pretend that Superwoman Sharon had managed to defy fate similarly. They say the human mind can't conceive of any number larger than five; above that, every number was just a clump of those numbers combined. The same way, Edgar couldn't grasp the enormity of thousands of lives being snuffed out in an instant. But the thought of seven kids sitting at a table for Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner, with an empty chair for their mother?—that image was incredibly easy for him to envision. He hoped with that Superwoman Susan Brown had found some way to live up to her nickname and magically escape from the fallen towers; if she did, she really was a Superwoman.

***

On the evening of Edgar's second day under the tent, they had a visitor who didn't appear to be a Company executive. A gray-haired man in a wrinkled, black Brooks Brothers suit walked to the front, paused for a moment and surveyed the crowd. He said in a subdued voice, “My name is Lawrence Polk, I'm one of the directors of Cantor Fitzgerald, and I just wanted to thank you for all of your efforts.”

The woman to his right tapped Edgar with her pen. “He's their chief information officer,” she whispered. “Or was.” She wrote on a scratch pad, “Kid had a school assembly that morning, late to work.” She sighed softly and said, “Sad, lucky bastard.”

The older man continued. “I know that you are focusing on certain people based on whose passwords we need most critically to retrieve. They have no bearing or relationship on the quality or importance of their lives,” and here his voice broke, and he looked down at his shoes. His eyes shimmered as he looked up, but he finished his thought. “I don't personally know every one of the almost 700 Cantor Fitzgerald employees that are missing, but I know a lot of them. You need to be aggressive in seeking out information about these folks, but don't forget that they were people. Remember that as you talk to their friends and family, who will be a great source of information. This job may look like a fun puzzle or a game, and you are the best in the world in cracking puzzles, but it's not a game—it’s real life.”

As she guided the older man to the tent's exit, Maria appeared to be a little annoyed, probably because the entire team had stopped working for several minutes to listen to Polk’s speech. Edgar tried to imagine the kind of pressure she was under from her bosses, but he nonetheless reminded himself that as much as this resembled a scavenger hunt, it was no game.

***

Edgar didn’t know if Polk’s anti-pep talk motivated the team to work harder or not, but they were certainly working more quietly. You could barely tell when a password was found now, just an embarrassed hand raised and the Manila envelope handed back to a supervisor. He preferred this more somber approach.

His fifth and sixth successes had been a product of accessing Facebook pages of the deceased—or rather “not available right now”—Cantor Fitzgerald employees. Both were men in their forties and married, but you'd never know from their online profiles, which were awash in pet photos. Landon Hodges doted on his three purebred Siamese cats, and Edgar guessed the order on his first try. It took less than ten minutes of guesswork to find the phrase that Landon typed in every morning at work: “MoLarrySam<3.” Got to love the <3 heart thing.

In contrast, Samuel Davis showered his affection on his twelve-year-old bloodhound Benny. It took Edgar two hours to figure out how the dog's name would appear, and when he finally figured it out, he high-fived Jennifer, who seemed more annoyed than impressed: Sam's $75 million portfolio of institutional and hedge funds could only be accessed after typing “BadassBenny#1.”

By day three of the project, the team had cracked 90% of the Group A passwords, which took a lot of the pressure off. Most of those had come on the first day, as the low-hanging fruit was plucked: weak backwards passwords like “drowssap” or someone's last name in reverse, or the occasional incorporation of “CFsucks”—a corporate drone’s half-hearted act of rebellion against a company where the average salary was $200,000.

Gradually, the clattering of computer keyboards was replaced by the murmurs of phone calls to family and significant others. The mood also shifted. Fewer fist pumps, and more of “I'm sorry for your loss,” even though everyone was bending over backwards to avoid saying that there had been a loss for certain. But with each passing hour, the belief in that an employee would be found alive abated, until even hoping for miracles felt like an anachronism.

Edgar's emailed script reflected this pessimism by officially changing the instruction “express hope for their loved one's safe return” to “express your condolences during this difficult time.” The team was told to emphasize the deceased's special importance to the firm, with the suggested line, “We hate to disturb you during this difficult time, but because of [Insert Employee’s Name Here]’s great value to Cantor Fitzgerald and the critical importance of his/her work and clients, obtaining their email passwords is of the highest priority.” This egalitarianism only applied when speaking with the deceased's family. The standing order that Group A was top priority remained.

Edgar's last three Group A names looked like they would require calling friends and relatives of the missing employees. But he got a last-minute reprieve: one of the names, Scott Vitale, got scratched off everyone's list because he had been fired the week before, but the personnel records hadn't updated yet. Sometimes you can't tell whether a major event in your life is the worst, or the luckiest, day of your life. Right, Scott?

Thinking that he was down to only two remaining names, Edgar enjoyed the luxury of a two-hour nap. When he returned to his desk, Maria strolled over and handed him a slip of paper. “Here's a re-class. This Bridgewater guy gets bumped all the way from Class C up to A. This attorney must have been working on a merger or something, not the typical due diligence or compliance paperwork. Something that's worth real money to Cantor Fitz, I guess.”

Edgar accessed some newly released online Cantor Fitzgerald files for his remaining three Group As, including the re-classed lawyer. He combined this data with social media info from Myspace, Friendster, and Facebook available through search engines. He and other crew members could pull archived material easily, proving the hacker's adage “once on the web, always on the web.” They were also able to dredge any emails routed through the Company's site or affiliate partners, due to a provision buried in the User Agreement that most people click “Agree” on without reading.

That final tool enabled him to determine the passwords for names nine and ten, because part of that information included their usernames and logins. While neither had foolishly used the exact same password for their work activities, a clear violation of the firm's policies and could result in termination, minor variations on them led to their Cantor Fitz passwords.

***

He wasn't so lucky with Jason Bridgewater. His online presence was mainly newspaper stories about his lacrosse career at the University of North Carolina, where he'd been All-ACC and 3rd Team All-American as a midfielder. He hadn't been very large, as most of the photos showed him sneaking around much larger defensemen to score a goal, so he must have been fast and tenacious. He'd made 3rd Team Academic All-ACC, where he was recognized for his slew of gentleman's Bs that resulted in a 3.1 GPA in sociology. Impressive for a jock perhaps, but not for anyone else. Edgar spent a few minutes running variations of “UNC,” “lax,” “ACC,” and even “Duke sucks/sux.” The Tarheel-Dookie animus was strong in Carolina.

The rest of his information could have come off a resume: two years playing lacrosse professionally, if you could call it that—the league folded after eight years, and most players only made around $20,000 per year. There was an almost three-year gap when Bridgewater worked as a bartender at various places in Manhattan, then he enrolled at Fordham Law School. Edgar assumed that he'd done well on the LSAT because a 3.1 from UNC wasn't going to impress the admissions director at even a third-tier law school. Fordham was on Long Island, and they do love their lacrosse on Long Island. Permutations of “Fordham,” “FUSL,” and “Long Island” all got him nowhere.

Whatever his scholastic aptitude, Bridgewater seemed to have hit his stride at Fordham. He graduated in the top ten percent and earned Order of the Coif—the law school version of cum laude—as well as several smaller accolades. He captained the mock trial team to a runner-up berth in a national competition, and he was President of the Criminal Law and Long Island Litigators clubs. So how did he end up as a corporate lawyer at one of Wall Street's snootier firms, especially with a blue-collar bloodline? Edgar wondered if Bridgewater had married well.

The Cantor Fitz health insurance records showed that Bridgewater had a wife, the former Audrey Leigh Jackson, and a daughter, Emily Suzette. Both names were sufficiently unique that testing passwords containing “aud” or “suz” would be expected to garner some hits if their names had been used. Maybe there was a nickname he used for them; Edgar tried every variation he could imagine, to no avail. Bridgewater's parents had died more than a decade ago, so he couldn't call them, and their names and initials were equally useless. He found no obvious friends online—no lacrosse teammates, Facebook friends, pictures with other Cantor Fitz employees. In desperation, he even tried grandma's Yiddish: “schvilkus,” “chutzpah,” “mensch,” “schlemiel.” Edgar reluctantly realized that he was going to have to call the dead man's wife.

***

He gingerly dialed the home number listed, as if a gentle touch on the keys would soften the impact of the conversation. A woman answered, and Edgar read the suggested opening line, verbatim: “I am so sorry to disturb you at this difficult time, but I am contacting you on behalf of Cantor Fitzgerald. As you may have heard, the Cantor Fitzgerald work family was devastated by the tragic events of several days ago. Do you have a few minutes to speak with me?”

“Yes, thank you for calling. Do you know anything . . . definite about Jason?”

“Unfortunately not, ma'am. That's not really my department.” Edgar retreated to the printed page in front of him. “Your husband was a very important part of the firm, and he will be sorely missed, both personally and professionally. The reason for my call is part of the process of helping the Cantor Fitzgerald family get back on its feet.” They had been told to use broad, encompassing words like “us,” “our” and “family” as much as possible, and especially not to disclose that they were working for the Company—technically, they were independent contractors, so it was easier to say “we” and not feel like it was a lie—the blurrier, the better.

“Of course. Cantor Fitz was always very good to us.” In the background, a television was on—Edgar thought that it sounded like Sesame Street. Something calming and educational.

“Ma'am, my role in helping rebuild Cantor Fitzgerald today involves trying to access his files by determining his computer passwords. Did he happen to indicate to you in any way what he might use for a work password?” The team members had been reminded to never say “tell you his/her passwords” because it might be construed as suggesting that the employee had improperly disclosed confidential work information.

“I'm sorry, but we never discussed work issues. In fact, in the nine years he worked there, I don't think we had a single conversation about what he did at Cantor Fitz, despite the long hours he put in there. Of course, I knew he worked in the legal department.”

“Mrs. Bridgewater, do you know any of his other passwords, something that might help us reconstruct his Cantor Fitzgerald one?” This was straight off the script.

“Please, call me Audrey.” Her friendly tone froze suddenly. “We are all grieving over here right now, and I'm sorry if this sounds rude. But I am not going to tell my husband's work passwords to a total stranger over the phone.” He could tell she was getting angry. “I may not have gone to law school or worked at a big Manhattan company, but I'm not dumb.”

Edgar knew that he had screwed up, so he tried a different approach. “You're right, of course. Let me put your mind at ease about that, Audrey, Audrey Leigh, I think it is. Your husband worked on the 81st floor, between the office of General Counsel Walter Trunow and his secretary, Rhonda Marsh. He was born March 22, 1974, and his social security number is 709-35-6343. I wouldn't know all of that if I wasn't acting on behalf of the firm, would I?”

“No, I guess you wouldn't.” The edge lifted from her voice. “You don't understand, I've seen so many things on TV about identity theft and scams, people taking advantage of families at their weakest.” Her voice diminished to almost a whisper. “That's where I am right now.” Edgar didn't know how to fill the gaps in their conversation, so he remained silent, and the silence stretched until it filled the void. “I don't know where I find the strength to draw each breath without Jason.”

Before he had time to think, Edgar spoke. “I'm not going to pretend I have any idea what you're going through. All I can say is I have never in my life been so sorry that I had to make a phone call, and I don't want to do anything that makes you feel the smallest part worse.”

He heard her take a deep breath, and as she inhaled through the tears, he could hear a shudder. “No. I'm sorry, it's just your job. I like talking about Jason, it makes it seem like he's still here.” Edgar fought off the impulse to say something falsely reassuring about how he might have made it out okay. False hope only postponed the pain, which would swell with the delay. If there were going to be any miracles, they weren't coming from the 81st floor. “I'm so sorry for mistrusting you, what can I do to help?”

“Well, I know a lot about Jason from company files, but it hasn't helped me to reconstruct his password. I tried some things related to lacrosse, did your husband play on a rec league team or anything after he quit playing professionally?”

“No, when he walked away from lacrosse, he walked away for good. I might have seen him pick up the stick three times since we married. If it helps, I do know that he only liked STX sticks—he mentioned that on our first date.” Her voice seemed to drift off a little, as if she were imagining herself with him that first time. “It's funny that I remember that, after all this time.”

“If you don't mind my asking, how did you meet?”

She laughed softly and said, “Believe it or not, he was my patient. He cracked some ribs in a lacrosse game, and they were worried he might have bruised his kidneys; he was in for a few days' observation. I was an RN.”

“Do you work now? Maybe he used your job in the password.”

“No, I had to stop working after Emily was born. That's probably why Jason had such long hours, we had to make do on one income.”

Edgar picked up on a word that she used. “Mrs. Bridgewater, I noticed that you said, 'had to stop working.' If you don't mind my asking, why did you have to stop?”

“I don't mind. Our daughter was born with something special, that requires extra attention from us.”

Audrey suddenly realized that from now on, she'd be a single parent, and she corrected herself. “I mean me. Emily has Cerebral Palsy.”

Edgar suddenly realized that he had seen an unusually large number of health care documents for Emily. “Did she have a lot of illnesses as a child?”

“Oh yes, she was in ICU a dozen times before she was three—lung issues, kidneys, eye problems. Thank God the insurance at my hospital was great, but it was all the other expenses that started to weigh us down. She needed special classes, braces, therapy day in and day out. The co-pays were really high, and any really decent therapies would be classified as 'experimental' by the insurance company, so they'd deny the claim.”

“Is that why you quit working, to take care of Emily?”

“Yes, and that's also why Jason stopped bartending and trying to play lacrosse professionally. He made pretty good money tending bar, and we were happy with our life together. But Jason always said that he couldn't properly take care of Emily and me on tips. So he started law school.”

“Well, it certainly looks like he had a gift for law,” Edgar said.

“That's funny that you say that. Jason was such a charmer, one of those folks that has never met a stranger. That's why he did so well as a bartender, and we all thought he'd make a great courtroom lawyer—I used to call him 'my Tom Cruise,' from that movie, A Few Good Men—you know that one?”

“Of course,” Edgar said, “the one with Jack Nicholson.” Edgar tried a weak Nicolson imitation, reciting the famous lines, “You don't want the truth—you can't handle the truth!”

“That's it,” said Audrey, laughing for the first time. “Let me tell you, Jason was just as handsome as Tom Cruise, and he could talk your leg off. But he always complained that law school exams didn't make any sense to him. I used to spend evenings quizzing him on New York law to prepare for the bar exam. By time it rolled around, I bet I could pass it myself.” Edgar could almost hear the smile spreading across Audrey's face.

“From what I can tell about you from this call, I bet you could too. Was that a favorite movie of his, so that he might use that name or 'Cruise' in his password?”

She laughed again. “Oh no, he hated that movie. He said it was 'full of melodrama but devoid of meaning’—I think those were his exact words. I only liked it because it reminded me of him.”

“Is there anything you can think of that might help me guess his password?”

“We were very family oriented, so it must be something along those lines. My parents passed away five years ago, and his were gone before we ever met. Emily was named after my mother, and Suzette was because Jason's mother was Suzanne. It was like he and I had a secret agreement that we would rebuild our lives and families together, just him, and me, and Emily.”

Edgar was reluctant to ask, but he had to. “Are there any other children?”

Audrey paused for several seconds and answered as she sighed. “No, the three of us. He and I both had genes that made it very possible we'd have another child with CP, and that was just too much for us and Emily. We had talked about adopting in a few years, but now . . . . ”

Edgar could hear her softly sobbing, and he knew that he had all that he was going to get tonight. “Mrs. Bridgewater. I am so sorry for your loss. So very, very sorry.” Edgar hoped that the phrase didn't sound trite; he sure didn't mean it that way. “Your husband sounds like a wonderful man. I wish I could have met him.”

“I wish you could have too,” Audrey answered. “You’d have liked him, I think.” There was a girl's voice in the background. “I'm sorry I haven't been of more help, but I have to go now. Emily has been going crazy not seeing her father these last few nights.”

She hung up, and Edgar knew that Jason's password would have to do with the two women in his life. He began generating search algorithms that used their names, birthdates, zodiac signs, hometowns, and so on. As he ran each one, he was sure he'd finally come up with the right combination. It wasn't about the money or competition now. Edgar wanted to feel like he knew one of these people whose name sat on his page, at least until their passwords were found and they were crossed off the list.

***

After seven days, when everybody knew what had happened on the 11th, and the families of 658 Cantor Fitzgerald employees knew that their loved ones were “not available right now,” they cracked Jason Bridgewater's password using the mainframe to try billions of variations. In retrospect, the Company team could have discovered it, along with several others, if they'd supplemented their alphabetic algorithm by substituting common symbols used in place of letters: a 3 for E, 0 for O, $ for S, and so on.

If so, they'd have known Bridgewater's password in hours, because he had made ample use of these basic substitutions. The tricky one was substituting an “8” for “ate”; not the first time someone did this, but it was something you were more likely to see on a vanity license plate than in a password. Bridgewater hadn't made it easy.

Bridgewater's password was so simple and to the point, Edgar laughed out loud when he saw it. It was a daily reminder of why Bridgewater was at Cantor Fitzgerald so early on 9/11 and every other morning, at a job that kept him away from his family, and why he worked so hard doing something he merely tolerated.

The password was Jason's mantra: H8L@w43$<3.

Which translates to “Hate law, for ES ♥”

About the Author

JW Heacock

An attorney for twenty years and a veteran of two tours in Iraq, JW Heacock retired from the military, earned a Masters in English at Belmont University, and left the practice of law to write full time. JW has been published in The Esthetic Apostle, Kestrel, and the Fredericksburg Literary and Arts Review, and was a finalist for the Iowa Review Jeff Sharlet Memorial Award. JW was NPAF Artist-in-Residence at Gettysburg National Military Park in October 2019, where we began "Freeing Gettysburg's Ghosts," a combination of short fiction, creative non-fiction, and poetry addressing the legacy and mythology of slavery and war.