The Good – Chapter 1 – “Chats”

Prologue | Chapter 1 | Chapter 2

“As far as technically illegal deals with lobbyists go,” Martin Bridge’s staffer told him as he left the office, “this one’s a no-brainer.” Martin walked down the steps to the black Escalade that always awaited him. Jerry, his man from the Capitol Police, held the door open for him and waited for the representative from Nebraska to slide into the back before he took his own seat behind the wheel and asked, “Where to, sir?”

“The Lincoln Memorial, please, Jerry.” If the bodyguard chauffeur was surprised, he didn’t show it. The car rolled off.

Martin sat in silence and brooded the whole way there, fingers at his salt-and-pepper temples. As a rookie congressman he appreciated his experienced staff, but the word ‘illegal’ still sent a shiver down his neck. He had no personal knowledge of lobbying laws but from the number of times they reviewed the procedure with him he had an idea of the price of indiscretion. He needed some fresh air. And a hot dog.

The April day was breezy and the cherry blossoms were in bloom as he walked down one of the arcing boulevards near the memorial. Miguel’s stand wasn’t in its usual spot in the shadow of the columned temple. Why, he asked himself, did everything in Washington have to be so complicated? He came here to do some good for his fellow countrymen, but he found out quickly just how many twisted rings one had to leap through to walk in a straight line in Washington, DC. If anyone was to listen to his proposals, he needed leverage; leverage was a synonym for money, and for money, was to find out how he could help an American subsidiary of an international body representing Middle East oil interests. It’s just the way it works here, they told Martin over and over. And now even his favorite simple lunch spot had moved, as if some minor political deity decided he ought to eat like an elitist if he was to make a backroom deal that afternoon.

“Are you lookin‘ for Miguel, sir?” called a voice from behind. He turned to see a tall young woman in a confectioner’s uniform with her own hot dog stand identical to Miguel’s just a few feet away.

“I am, actually. Where is he?”

“He wasn’t feeling well. Food poisoning. Ain’t it ironic?” She flashed a thousand-watt smile.

“Well, maybe you can help me-

“You’re hungry,” said the woman. She spoke with a slight Southern twang.

“Ravenous.” He grinned. He described the type of dog he liked and she went to work preparing it. He was about to admonish her for adding too much mustard, but like Miguel her ratios were perfect. He pressed his lips together, impressed.

“I’m proud of bein’ good at what I do,” she offered when she saw his reaction.

“So am I.” She raised a questioning eyebrow. “Why, I’m actually,” he said, the words still novel, “I’m actually a congressman.”

“That’s amazin‘,” she said. “Where from?”

“Nebraska.”

“Wow. I always wanted to live in the countryside. Did you grow up on a farm?”

“I grew up in New York, actually, before my parents moved out west. I was a Brooklyn boy.”

“Brooklyn?” she said, and handed over what to his astonishment was a perfect hot dog. Cherry trees billowed overhead against the clear blue sky. “One of my best friends is from Brooklyn.”

 

 

Roger sat in a dark room, drinking pop and waiting for the boss’s e-mail to slide onto his screen. He browsed as he waited, not in the Roman market of the new Internet, full of order and structure, a million cries for attention out on the cobblestones. No, his world was the catacombs, the mossy, dank underbelly of the ‘net, where people walk quickly, hooded and suspicious, one hand always on their knives, afraid to draw attention to themselves, each involved in his own important business.

He read the words of a thousand different types, of hackers and dissidents and madmen and people just looking for sick laughs. There were dwarves down in those tunnels, stout men of bold heart who chiseled works of stunning beauty from the foundations of the city; there were gnomes, slight and disfigured and afraid of every living thing; there were dark elves, fierce warriors who worshiped dark gods of violence; there were trolls who harried all travelers. The denizens of this dark realm were united only by a disdain for the world of sunlight; the surface dwellers had no inkling of who truly ruled the city.

Roger was raised in those hallowed halls, and he strode them with the confidence of a man at home. He loved the freedom, the wild creativity, the potential of the human mind set free in its beauty and its obscenity. By the time he was twelve, there was no depraved thing in the world he had not seen, and his school friends couldn’t hope to compete with the merry band with which he shared his nights, raiding and pillaging and laughing until sunrise. He was the youngest hacker activist, a squire of the night.

Until the boss found him.

He was herding back in those days, gathering hordes of computers into his employ, mostly for Denial of Service attacks but also for The Big One, the fruit of long hours’ toil. The idea came to him during one of his marathon all-nighters (many become hackers and end up staying awake through the night; he was an insomniac since toddlerhood and ended up hacking): a new method for brute-force attacks, to run on a distributed network of slave machines. A means to an electronic zombie apocalypse.  It was beautiful, it was powerful, it was secret.

He received an e-mail about it.

He didn’t realize the nature of the message at first; it was encrypted, a slice of random-looking information. He assumed it was some kind of error, a postage mix-up. It certainly wasn’t encrypted with his public key, which would allow Roger, and only Roger, to read the message. He forgot about it. It languished in his e-mail for weeks until, on a whim, he tried to decode it using his private key. The one nobody knew but him and that could only be pried from his dead, callused, fingers. It worked. The encryption unraveled. He tried to trace the e-mail, cold sweat dripping down his brow, but the address was utterly anonymous. It could be from some Chinese kid in an internet café, or a hacker collective in Belarus, or the old lady down the hall. His system had been violated by a stranger in the wind.

It made him shudder to think of the childish, violent e-mail he’d sent in return. If he had known the type of person he was insulting…

A metallic ping surfaced through the electric blare of his music to interrupt his thoughts. He switched to his inbox and found the message, terse as always:

FNET/#hax/HELLIX/SHTDWN

He smiled a predator’s smile.

 

 

Willie Stewart flattened himself against the brick wall of the alley, cushioned by his empty backpack. The passerby on Fulton didn’t need to see the three of them huddled closely and speaking to each other’s shoes. “What about the homeless guy?” he asked.

“You’re kiddin‘ me,” spat Jamal, twice Willie’s size and almost twice his age. “He’ll be scared out of his mind. Don’t say you’re running home to your momma now.” He wasn’t Willie’s friendliest uncle.

Willie shook his head. “Just tell me again why I’m the one going in.”

Jamal swore. “How many times do I have to tell you? You’re the youngest. You have a face that says you never committed no crime.”

“I really never did,” said Willie.

Jamal ignored him. “They’ll never see it coming. Now take this.” He produced a nice matte black .22 from his pocket, pulled up Willie’s t-shirt, and shoved the pistol into the teen’s waistband. Willie looked like he just swallowed something terrible that was about to come back up and tugged down on his shirt hem. “We’ll be right behind you,” said Jamal. He grinned. “A couple of hours from now you’ll be pickin‘ out new shoes.” Willie’s head bobbled in affirmation and he lurched out of the alley before he could think of everything that could go wrong with their plan.

He tied a black bandana over his mouth, pulled up his sagging jeans, and pulled open the drugstore door. Bells tinkled overhead. The small store was cluttered and stuffy. On the once-white tiled floor next to the door lay a coarse round red mat, on which a brown mutt awoke, raised an eyelid and twitched its nose, and went back to sleep. Willie approached the deserted counter with its grubby sign informing shoppers at what age they could buy tobacco; it showed a date three years before he was born. Where’s the storekeeper? he wondered. He must be in the back. The chair in the corner near the coffeemaker where the homeless man sat was also empty. His heart ratcheted in his chest.

“Good afternoon, Willie.”

He spun. His gun leapt into his hand. He pointed it into the face of Homeless Guy, who blinked in surprise and took a step back. “Down on the ground!” yelled Willie, voice breaking. The old hobo obeyed, sinking to his knees, hands behind his head. The young robber glanced at the man’s ruined teeth and gnarled dreadlocks and calm face before turning around and vaulting the store’s counter. Cash register: open; Money: into his pack; no sound but his own gasps. Dog: Still asleep; Homeless guy: still on the ground, staring at him. Bag: zipped; Gun: back in his pants. Over the counter. Three steps from freedom.

“Willie,” said the derelict. The teen took his hand off the door and let it swing shut. The bells jingled lightly. He knows my name. The thought caromed around his mind, looking for an emotion to incite. “I know about your uncle,” said the scruffy man, voice a rough slur. Willie’s first instinct was to yank the gun on him again. But then, what? Shoot him?

He knows my name.

“I’m not going to stop you walking out that door,” said the old man. “I’ll never tell anyone who robbed this store. I even sent Mr. Gupta out for a smoke so there’d be no other witnesses.”

“How-”

“Not ‘how.’ Why. Why are you doing this?”

Something in the man’s voice compelled him to stay, though Willie’s every instinct screamed for him to run. The question wasn’t a demand or a rebuke; it was an honest inquiry, and dark patient eyes waited for his answer beneath a wrinkled brow.

“I’m sorry,” he said, feeling like an idiot. “We need this money.”

“I know,” said the hobo, voice thick. He seemed to Willie to visibly slump. “Your mother has cancer, and y’all can’t afford the medicine. Your younger brother goes to special private school. Jamal and his gang want to help, but they don’t have the cash.”

Willie gaped behind the bandana. Who is this guy?

“I wasn’t asking what your reasons are,” said the hobo. “They’re good reasons. I asked why you’re doing this. Do you see the difference?”

Willie was surprised he didn’t hate the question. Sweat dripped into his eyes. He shook his head.

“You have your reasons, but you’re not forced. You do as you please. This is your decision.”

“What choice do I have?” Willie croaked.

“You have all the choice in the world,” thundered the old rasping voice. “You are responsible for what you do today. Whichever way you decide, it is your decision, not your uncle’s or your mother’s. It will not be decided by economic or political forces; it will not be decided by what you watch on TV or who your friends are. Now, Willie Stewart, don’t tell me what you have to do; tell me what you will do, and own it.”

“We need the money.”

“Maybe you need a clear conscience.”

“I’m going.”

“I’ll be here.”

Willie turned and opened the door into the bright light and the fresh air. He ran across the street to Jamal’s waiting car, threw his pack in, and jumped into the back seat. The Pontiac squealed into the flow of traffic. “Any trouble?” asked his uncle, unzipping the pack and examining the cash.

“No. The owner wasn’t even inside. Just the dog and the homeless guy.”

“What’d he do?”

“It was like you said,” Willie lied. “He was scared.”

“Of course he was,” said Jamal. “Ain’t no messin’ with a man with a gun.”

 

 

When Roger peeled back Hellix’s security like a can’s lid and the user’s private information cascaded into his lap, he felt the thrill of finding a good friend in some marketplace halfway around the world. This is what he lived for, once; the hunt, the scam, the theft.

Getting into the machine was like saddling a wild horse: First, the adrenaline of exposure to danger, like a brass section playing high notes in his brain. Then tentative steps, weighing the creature’s intentions.  Next, unwavering, he imposes his will; sweet freedom only comes to those who aren’t afraid to be in control, who don’t mind swinging the saddle over that proud back. Slowly, in the face of his strong will and agile mind, the animal calms, its bucking wanes. It shudders and slumps and surrenders.  Because, deep down, the animal wants to succumb; it needs a master.  And Roger was a master.

His eyes saw Hellix’s real name, address, social security number, and location. His fingers, full of potential energy, waited to harness the data. This was his rebellion, when he took every feeling of alienation, every long, lonely, painful night, every inch of his angst, and shoved it back in the face of the world. It was a nearly unbearable, and when he couldn’t stand mocking his prey any longer, when he was ready to show them just how badly they’d messed up that night, he’d free their information in some nightmarish scheme straight from his imagination and watch their growing panic with satisfaction.

Yes, he lived to hack.

Hellix seemed to be a typical loser, a clone of a thousand other people he could attack, but then, Roger rarely understood the boss’s choices. He’d dig deeper and deeper, cycle through contacts, looking for something, anything that made his mark special. Then he’d give up and do his job.

“Hideous,” he typed into the chat screen as he idly rifled through Hellix’s hard drive. The man (though male was always a safe assumption, Roger had been surprised on that count before, and made sure, for curiosity’s sake, to glean the info from mark’s files) was a typical IRC troll, devoted to harassing anyone who’d lend him attention, more stupid than average for hanging out in a hacker’s chat room. Perhaps there was a mutual arrangement in which the hackers got entertainment and protection from prying eyes (no decent person could spend much time reading anything Hellix typed) while the troll didn’t need to fear the electronic attacks sometimes pressed against his ilk. The thought made Roger click through to his own status program, which monitored his stealth and defenses during jobs. It showed all clear and in the green.

Hellix responded with a volley of obscenities and a link that Roger recognized to a shock site full of terrible, unsettling images. The two of them were the only active chat users; it was the middle of the afternoon, when the unemployed hackers slept and the employed ones worked; their pet ogre watched over the chat room. Roger drew his blade.

“It’s fun to come online anonymously and pretend you’re fourteen years old and don’t care about anything,” he typed. “Let’s you rampage. Release your stress. Some people around these parts even say it’s the healthiest thing; they don’t know how their friends cope without the outlet.” His suddenly thoughtful tone and proper spelling would themselves put Hellix on the defensive. He’d be rushing to figure out how to turn this around and make fun of it, the troll’s only defense. His predictability rendered him harmless to Roger, a hulking video game boss who attacked and retreated in patterns.

“But you’re not anonymous, Eric. You’re a person, just like me. What would your daughter Kaylee say if she knew the things you said on here?” Roger could practically hear the tinkling sound of insurance salesman Eric Spellman’s (alias: Hellix) blood turning to ice.

A pregnant pause ensued, followed by swearing. “Wut r u, the morality police?” he tried to mock.

“I’m gonna have to put that on the list of your quotes I’ll mail to your wife and daughter in Scottsdale.”

“Please don’t do that,” said Hellix, politeness and grammar surfacing as one.

“Relax. I didn’t hack you so I can ruin your life. I hacked you to get your attention.”

“What do you want?”

“I want you to explain to me why Eric Spellman is the real you and deserves to live, and why Hellix deserves to die.”

Hellix swore again. “Is this a joke?”

“No. You don’t realize it, but this is as serious as it gets. Stop worrying about all the hackers in here reading the chat logs and finding out your name. Stop worrying about your wife and daughter. It’s time to make a decision.”

“And what’s that?”

“Who do you want to be?” asked Roger, shoving his sword into the belly of the beast.

 

 

Martin laughed as she nearly tripped up the steps of the Memorial, where he sat eating his third heavenly hot dog. “You sure are a hungry congressman,” she said, arranging herself a few feet away, allowing tourists to pass between them as they spoke.

He dabbed his lips with a napkin. “I had a busy morning and the afternoon’s shaping up to be a wallop as well,” said Martin.

“Tsk, I bet it is. I wish…” she trailed off, looking over the long reflecting pool, hair brushed by sunlight.

“What is it?” asked the congressman.

“I wish I had such an important job. Then I could make people’s lives better, you know?”

“Well, now, I don’t know how much better this’ll make you feel, but you fix up a mighty fine frankfurter.”

“Thank you. I just wish I was free to help people. I have to live paycheck to paycheck, and I have my little brother to worry about, and, well, I just don’t have time to think about too many people other than myself, I’m afraid. I probably shouldn’t even take breaks to speak to dashing politicians.” The smile again. Martin couldn’t help but grin in response.

“Is there anything I can do to help you?” he asked.

Her back tightened and her head snapped around to face him. “No,” she said. She stood up, dusted herself off, and stepped down, back toward her abandoned snack cart.

“Hey, wait,” Martin called after her, confounded. “Is something wrong?”

She whirled. “You politicians are all alike. You think everythin’ can be bought. I don’t need your help, or anyone else’s. I’m not some animal to stable and feed.” She marched off, leaving the confused congressman to clutch at his hot dog wrapper and ruminate at Abraham Lincoln’s feet.

 

 

In a dark room in the Midwest, a cellphone buzzed. A hand crumpled an aluminum can, threw it in the trash, and answered the phone, pressing it to an ear. Thirty seconds later it grabbed a black coat, turned a doorknob, hailed a cab, and was gone.

 

 

In the nation’s capital, a cellphone buzzed. Red lips pursed as a message spoke through a curtain of red hair. She laid a small stack of cash inside the snack cart for Miguel, and a minute later evaporated into a crowded Metro station.

 

 

In a dusty New York drugstore, an ancient phone rang. Its shrill mechanical trill woke a dog, who shook herself off and went sniffing for treats. Mr. Gupta answered, and handed it over the counter to an old fellow he never expected to stay longer than a night. The recipient didn’t say anything the entire call, just listened, and slowly handed it back to the store owner, an indecipherable look on his face. Gupta placed the receiver on its cradle and asked, “Is everything alright?”

“Fine,” rumbled the old man. He sat down on his stool and rummaged in his pack for something. He produced an old, coverless paperback, and began to read.

“What do you have there?” asked Gupta.

And Then There Were None, by Agatha Christie. Ever heard of her?”

“No.”

“Her endings are inevitable.”

“Sounds boring,” said the store owner, and began to wipe his counter.

“No,” he said, though he seemed to be speaking to himself. He turned the page and eyed the door. “You never see them coming, ‘till they do.”