Most commercial GlobalNet connection devices used a three-stage authentication process. The first and easiest to beat was a unique user name and password combination, something that could be defeated with brute force and time, even when encrypted. Shel figured its weakness posed a minimum hacker skill test; if you couldn't beat a UN/PW, you had no business hacking. The second and third stages took considerably more effort, because they were the real security. They required physical access to a device registered to the user. Official excavators were allowed that access because legitimate connection devices made such access a requirement of the device's use as part of the licensing agreement. Unofficial excavators like Shel weren't given such easy access. Without physical access to the particular target's usual connection hardware, she would have to work on the assembly level, manipulating machine language to affect an entry. Her liquid mercury avatar would have to best multiple security bots in virtual combat to trick the system into believing her avatar belonged to the deceased. After her automated password attack had opened the first lock, she dove into the first level of security for the target's access point.

Shel reckoned on having at most forty-eight hours before the official excavators got to Arnold Cox's records, and busting the security bots and ICE layered on top of his connecting devices would take precious time she didn't have. So instead, she tricked the GlobalNet itself. Old school mobile devices like early-2k smartphones were still in use by the bones of the old Internet, though most devices ran on a network of cell towers the corporations had not bothered to lock down. To ensure these devices could still run with the GlobalNet, the network protocols allowed access to the ancient smartphones, with decreased security protocols because the ancient phones lacked things like retina scanners and fingerprint ID's. By spoofing her signal to appear as if coming from one of these phones, she gained access to Cox's greater profiles. From there, hacking the whole profile proved to be child's play.

Once inside, the real excavator's work began. Any hacker could bust account security. Only a select few could dig around in the bones of a person's virtual life, sifting through the mundane transactions, the everyday correspondence and the banal entertainments to find the real person. Tracking down every little path, every connection, every relationship whether personal or financial, all to write the coda on a person's life, a final eulogy as information dump. Shel had mastered the art long ago, weaving the connections together into a tapestry in high-definition.

Arnold Cox, born March 16, 1982, educated at the University of California in business administration, married at 26 to Mandy Southern, also a UC grad. From the friendships and acquaintances he'd made at college, he found himself a lucrative starting position as a middle manager at Katzen Associates, a small but successful accounting firm where he rose quickly through the ranks. By the time he'd turned 30, he'd made his first million through shrewd side investments that bordered on the uncanny. Various indiscrete emails revealed to Shel that he'd likely been betting on sure things thanks to scraps of insider information. Had his winnings been larger, they might have drawn the attention of the SEC but the years of regulatory neglect during the early 2k's had hidden him in plain sight, especially when compared to the rampant malfeasance of the giant financial services companies that prompted the Great Recession. At 32, he left Katzen to form his own accounting firm for the techoliterati, Zero Sum, a name she noted dripped with sarcasm. A year later the firm spun off a holding company that made numerous risky yet lucrative investments, winning more bets than losing, and often hedging against both sides of a transaction.

Shel became convinced early on that such bets made money not due to savvy investing so much as savvy networking with information-rich associates. In the late teens, the holding company had been investigated for such insider trading, paid a few fines and kept on with business, turning modest investments into slightly larger investments, continuing its growth and the growth of Cox's fortune at a steady pace. A picture of Cox as businessman began to form. He had been an intelligent man. He lacked the vision to go for the big scores, the kind of risky ventures that would elevate him to the level of super-rich but which carried the very real danger of getting caught committing blatant crimes or being left holding the bag when the risk proved real. In short, he was the kind of shrewd man who could live on less than the ultimate luxury because he realized that a comfortable life could be had without the danger of a fall.

His personal life was another story. As best she could tell Cox never had trouble with the ladies other than deciding which lady he wanted. Cox could have had any number of ladies as his wife. His choice of Mandy Southern didn't appear to have any serious conviction behind it. Shel could have imagined him flipping a coin to decide between her and a long-distance relationship he had at the time with a Tina Costas, who lived in upstate New York at the time of Cox's marriage. The marriage did seem to end the relationship rather suddenly, and he even appeared to remain faithful for a few years afterwards. A short dalliance ended with the birth of his first child, though a year later he'd found another girlfriend to share his bed. The birth of each child afterwards seemed to repeat the cycle of faithfulness followed by a return to infidelity. Girlfriends were frequent and well taken care of, often being set up in moderate accommodations on Cox's dime for the duration of the relationship.

Shel marveled at the man's finances. Many men in his position would have saved money with whores instead of girlfriends. Kept women cost as much as the highest-priced hookers one could buy in Los Angeles. Cox did seem to genuinely care about who he bedded. Shel's attempt at amateur psychologist deduced that his real aim might not actually have been the sex so much as the attempt to find some real connection, maybe something he never found in female companionship. He wouldn't have been the first man to favor sexual attraction over real emotional connection.

His personal finances were immaculately kept, as one would expect of someone with an entire accounting firm at his disposal. Girlfriend funds were kept separate from his household accounts, making it very likely that Mandy had discovered his infidelities from someplace other than credit card receipts. His fortune, though not excessive, was nonetheless considerable, spread across multiple accounts. At least two of the accounts were joint accounts with his wife, and Shel left those completely alone. Mandy likely knew about the girlfriend accounts, so Shel had to drain those accounts down to the agreed upon 25% level and then erase the trail. Other accounts appeared to be completely invisible to the estranged Mrs. Cox. The ones likely to be found easily by the official excavators she left with enough funds to be convincing, while the really hard to get at accounts she hid completely, moving the money into and across various dummy accounts established at Swiss and Caribbean banks that allowed such anonymous transactions. Automated runs through other tax havens would clean the money before re-depositing it in Ms. Anderson's newly created anonymous accounts in those tax havens.

Shel had spent most of the first day digging when she came upon the very last account. At first, it seemed rather straightforward. Though hidden well from prying eyes, Shel managed to trace the account with considerable effort. The transactions were few. Every six months, a block of corporate scrip would be purchased by a holding company that seemed to have no direct connection to Cox. He served as an advisory consultant on the board only, but further digging uncovered the truth. The holding company was a shell, with no employees, an empty office and no purpose other than to purchase that $100,000 block of corporate scrip. The scrip would then be used to buy another set of scrip from a different corporation, which bought another set of scrip from a third corporation. On and on through fifteen or sixteen transactions until the money's original trail would be so scrambled it would take someone of Shel's considerable abilities to even get close to the original source. Finally, the money would end up in an account at a small bank in upstate New York, another dummy account whose only transactions were automated bill pay transfers to things like a local utility company, an auto finance company and a landlord.

The amounts being spent were trivial in comparison to some of the other accounts, especially the girlfriend accounts. But the layers of secrecy intrigued her. Shel had time before the official excavators arrived on the scene, so she decided to feed her curiosity. She dove into the account, following the various data tendrils out to their destinations.