Payday. Wrap-up / The Nerd, Session Thirteen

Buddha: Berlin Ethnological Museum

On the day after New Year, Fronk cashed in eight thousand dollars worth of cryptocurrency. He scanned the sum in his account contentedly and, little by little, a feeling of serenity spread through his entire body. Now he could finally settle December’s overdue rent, possibly repay a few loans, and most of all just sit back and take it easy for a week or two. 3,600 dollars would go straight to Native. Fronk transferred the amount to his gaming account and typed a brief message for his colleague. “The check came in. Wanna chat?” Then he hit the enter key with his middle finger.

***

They agreed to meet in the coffeehouse in downtown Laguna Beach, by habit. Wearing a dark gray pinstripe shirt, C. J. lounged on the patio and kept lazily track of the events occurring on Main Street. A row of small two-storey commercial buildings, restaurants with spacious terraces, a white glass-roofed art museum. The place was actually pretty cozy, that is, if you weren’t there for business. Abruptly, C. J. was startled as a familiar face appeared in front of him. Native sported a yellow sun hat and a pair of slim streamlined sunglasses. A stroke of magenta on her lips. She flung herself on a chair opposite C. J. and frowned, friskily.

“What you looking at?” she asked.

“Um, you just seem different today, that’s all,” C. J. replied sheepishly.

“Ha! Look who’s talking,” Native said and gave him a funny look. “Real day tripper. New year, new me, ya know.”

C. J. gulped down his coffee and cleared his throat.

“Tell me everything,” he went on. “How did you trap the Rat? And what the fuck’s up with that horrible white room?”

Native had a sip of kombucha, then shook her head.

“One thing at a time boy,” she answered. “Let’s see. On Christmas Eve you disappear like a fart in the wind. I’m left with a single lead, the name of a street. Mystic View. So I go and check the place out. Only to bump into a bemused middle-aged couple. No doubt, the gang already cleared their shit and headed off. The old cat and mouse’s about to start all over again.

“‘What I do, what I do?’ I keep asking myself. Well, know their profile, right? A lost herd of conspiracy-gabbing far-right goons. Ya will find them basically on every other street of the City. And of course there’s all kinda forums where they go rambling on like hyenas over each other. So I look for my man and ask him a few questions, straightforward. Put Rat King’s pic on view and offer ’em a gem for juicy tip-off. Too bad though most of them are total dimwits of no help whatsoever.

“Around this time the Feds suddenly approach me. It’s a few days after Christmas. First, I’m obviously on my guard but the Agent—let’s call him Simpson—just keeps assuring me it’s all cool. Says you had a word with him about the gig.”

Native glanced irritably across the table at C. J.

“Sorry,” C. J. said.

“Anyway,” she went on, “I receive a fresh lead from Simpson. And believe me, I ain’t instantly in love with these guys or anything. Feds will be Feds, y’know. But take this clue, I mean, what else I got? Simpson tells me about the Flying Pig, claims it to be a popular hangout of the far-right. The Feds kept an eye on the place for a while already, he says. So I’m of course racking my brain, try to figure out why the hell they’re telling all this to me. Probably they simply suffer from the lack of resources. Or then they don’t wanna get their hands all dirty. Who knows really, am I right?

“Well, I decide to forget the suspicious thoughts for now and get to the Flying Pig. There, I accompany the biggest buffoon around—don’t wanna raise any doubts in the crowd—and for a moment just listen to the crap he’s got to say. Lively fucking imagination. I mean, you can’t make that shit up! So, play the game and tell ’em about my shared wish to see the whole damn system blown to bits. The gang gets immediately all worked up and starts going on about their own homespun master plans to take over the government, dropping the occasional name of fellow conspirator. ‘Jeez, cheers bros!’ I think to myself and propose a toast to our devious schemes.

“Ninety-nine percent of the stuff’s naturally complete bullshit. I lounge in the bar for a few long days hearing them out. This one guy babbles about storming the Capitol, another’s scribbling away at a warning letter to the White House, a third one plots a kidnapping of the governor of Michigan… And so on. Pretty twisted people. Ya get the picture. Then one evening a stranger shows up and wants to have a chat with me. The visor of his red MAGA hat covering his eyes, the guy likes to keep it low. He leans forward and whispers he knows a group that’s currently recruiting. For a real special mission. And I’m like, ‘Wow, this here sounds promising.’

“The guy slips me the name of the gang written on a piece of paper and then falls silent. Try to keep the conversation going but he won’t say another word. So I tell him thanks and grab my phone instead. Search for the group, send a request to join a private chat, waiting, waiting… and snap! The gang consists of about two dozen peeps, the young and cynical type. All naturally behind nicknames, it’s an extension to the Flying Pig, really. There’s some fuss about a lack of muscle for the gig and so it hits me that’s exactly why they wanted me in too. Soon I learn the nature of the gig and can’t help but send ’em a big fat smirking face. Wanna carry out a heist in the Feds downtown office on New Year’s Eve.

“I swallow my pride and tell everything to Simpson. Part of me’d love nothing more than seeing the pig’s nest burn but I keep a cool head and think about the mission only. So me and Simpson keep following the chat and they actually surprise us by proving not to be the utter dumbasses you’d expect after all. Using an instant messaging app with end-to-end encryption, very hard to trace. So far the gang’s not slipping too bad, gotta give you that. Nothing much to do but wait and see till the big day.”

Native finished up her kombucha and burped with pleasure. Then she continued her story.

“The time comes. I was placed on a maintenance team and supposed to meet the other two guys at four sharp at a warehouse in the outskirts of the City. Well, show up on time and spot a blue van out in the yard, just as told. A man with a thick moustache loafing in the driver’s seat, the guy next to him puffs at a cig. The Spanish radio blaring. All wearing the same navy blue coveralls. Give ’em a brofist and hop in the van.

“I’m not told shit about the gig beforehand. Nuthin’ but a common pawn and some cannon fodder, ya see. The chain-smoker next to me keeps checking on the ‘Pink Panther’, updating them on our squad’s whereabouts. Try to ask him some questions but the guy won’t tell me much. All I hear’s basically the Feds’ private network can be hacked from their own computers, allowing us to blackmail a shitload of dough from them. But I think the gang’s driven by something else too than just a fat paycheck. They burn with anger and resentment. Wanna be part of something bigger, y’know. Like a resistant movement that’s gonna shake the establishment real bad. And people like our Rat King are honchos at harvesting the poor guys’ wrath and using it for their own aims.

“So we ride to the parking garage located underneath the Feds office. The guard asking what’s on our agenda. And the driver replies we came to see the elevators just like we’re told. Soon enough, the barrier rises and we drive in. I hear the hacker’s already penetrated their computer system. We enter the building and head towards the higher floors where the staff’s offices are supposed to be. Halfway up the stairs, however, walk straight into the Agents’ ambush. Talk about some tough luck! I roll out and leave the others crouching in the stairwell, in crossfire of whizzing bullets and tear gas.

“Get out on the street. The Feds’ gorillas are already circling the block, tryna get ’em far-right suckers. I lift a motorbike parked near the office building and blast off, racing through downtown. Our Rat King’s no doubt lurking in a dark room somewhere around the town, leading the operation. Soon I get an update from Simpson a worm’s infected part of their network. That tells me they’re pretty much fucked now. A real playa never shows their cards unless necessary, y’know. Out of the blue, an idea flashes through my mind. Advice Simpson to broaden the manhunt to cover the whole City and surrounding counties, looking especially for any vehicle with the letter Q on it.

“Just a long shot. So, I’m cruising around the City and searchin’ randomly for a clue. Old Laguna Beach style. With the apparent difference it’s all scaled up by a hundredfold this time. Suddenly, the connection starts cutting in and out and for a fraction of a second the whole street view turns into a pixelated blur. Think the Feds got their hands on the code. Supposedly they’ve pulled the strings and put some heat on the software company. Pretty soon a cluster of red dots appear all over the map. And next Simpson telling me they tracked down every suspect out there in the megacity.

“Must be several hundred dots in total, dozens of ’em in downtown alone. Fly to the nearest one and quickly locate a black SUV on the spot. So I go and have a look at the vet clinic next door and then the brokerage on opposite side of the street. But don’t really smell a rat in there so I buzz off and head for the next dot. After a few misses, start studying the map more systematically. If I were a fascist dumbnut, where would I creep in to pull off a thing like this? For starters, you need a room of your own, plenty of quiet time, a crack connection…

“Narrow down the suspects based on these presumptions. Searching for hotels, rooms for rent, geek-appealing flats, studios, and the like. Just then a massive shopping, office and leisure complex in the Financial District catches my eye. I turn the bike around, take Wilshire and head back east. After a good six-minute ride, I face the 73-storey skyscraper and hotel with 889 guest rooms. Luckily, the receptionist is willing to hand me the master key which makes the job quite a bit easier. Working for the Feds sure comes with its benefits. Also ask her for a cleaning cart to borrow for disguise.

“Starting from the top floor, I storm in one room after another. No-knock warrant. The day’s slowly turning into night and so the folks getting already somewhat in celebratory moods. Busted in the middle of all kinda kinky affairs. Peeps having it doggy style, group snorting coke from the table, a gang bang, businessmen jerking off in a frenzy… you name it. And I’m like, ‘Oops… terribly sorry, ma’am’ or ‘My bad sir’, before continuing on my rounds to the next door. No regrets, yeah? These days it’s pretty much impossible to tell real people from bots, anyway.

“In retrospect, I pulled it off without so much struggle. On the fifty-eighth or fifty-ninth floor, catch a guy crouching over his computer. As the door to his room swings open, he glances back—and boom!—there’s really no question about his true colors. A big-ass Afro, pair of rectangular shades covering his eyes, a shiny piece of bling around the neck. That’s our man, dang sure. So reach for my Colt and blast him in the foot, then hurry to put the cuffs on him. Rat King won’t even fight back really. Just wondering how I ever dug him out. ‘Q led me,’ I say to him. ‘Oh shit,’ he chuckles. “Old gamer’s sin. Don’t pay enough attention to the so-called real world circumstances.

“I call up Simpson and tie Rat King up real tight so he can’t even let out a fart. Then I slump down at his PC and start going through the files. The guy’s caught red-handed. Which actually brings us to your second question. What’s that room you and the Agent were held hostage in? Maybe a more fruitful approach is to ask where. Can answer that one for ya right off. Far away from the City. Or not necessarily that ‘far’ but more like in a whole other dimension. As you probably already guessed. On the dark web. The room’s an onion site and thus pretty much out of the Feds’ reach, at least by ordinary means. At that point, we didn’t obviously know shit about the existence of any room; all we knew we had two staffers missing for several days. Getting hold of Rat King’s hardware then really set the ball rolling.

“And you’re already familiar with the stuff that follows. I bust you out from solitary…”

“And pop the Agent in the stomach,” C. J. cut in.

“And pop the Agent in the stomach,” Native admitted. “End of story. A bit later, I hear from the Feds the real identity of the guy who went by the alias Rat King. Sundar Singh. They claim he’s a phat programmer and cyber safety expert who’s worked for Meta in the past, among others. Later on he becomes radicalized and goes apeshit over the government’s acts. Repeatedly calling for less restrictions and more leeway for the IT biz. Apparently the purist ideas corrupt the old man’s mind for good. I say the motives behind the gig were ideological as much as financial. In the worst-case scenario the worm might’ve infected the Feds’ entire network and jammed it up for who knows how long. And if the heat went on, the chances were it’d cause some townwide mayhem. Pretty awkward for the Big Brother, eh? Maybe then they’d think again about getting cyber security services from the private sector.”

Native looked at the clock on her phone.

“Anyway, done my part already. Was quite sick doing a gig together once again,” she said and got up from the chair.

“Alrighty then,” C. J. mumbled and gave her a thumbs-up. “Five by five.”

Native frowned and hopped over a rope that separated the patio from the sidewalk.

“Till next time, dawg!”

***

A remote town hidden by grand mountains. In the daytime it was the ideal retreat as giant spiders and other creatures were lurking in the shadows. C. J. strolled down the main road in a relaxed way and glanced around him every few steps. A herder watched over his llamas grazing on the green lawn, the front wall of an adjacent house had collapsed in a nighttime ambush. This time, however, C. J. observed the town as if he was a mere passerby and the sight didn’t stir worry or a sense of obligation in his mind. During the eight days of captivity he had had time to reflect on his life and learned to see the daily grind from a somewhat different perspective.

He stepped inside the Mausoleum. “Hail to the Elder One,” C. J. greeted and bowed his head a bit. The Village Elder rested on a chair in front of him, stiff as a board. He walked before the mummy, stretching out his arms.

“This ain’t nothing personal chief,” he chatted, cool-headed. “It’s just recently I been feeling like reverting back to the childlike, ingenuous condition. Gotta figure out what’s the real meaning of holy again. Sometimes an institution needs a little shake-up, ya see.”

Having said that, C. J. grabbed the Village Elder’s bony torso with both hands, lifted it off the chair and placed it sitting on the floor next to him. Suddenly, the former object of worship looked much like a life-sized, hideous-looking doll. He let out a deep sigh and then seated himself in the now-empty throne. It was of course just another chair, a plain wooden piece of furniture, but at that moment, sitting there, C. J. felt lighter both physically and mentally than for ages. He couldn’t really say when he would return to the Valley the next time, if ever. Actually the very thought seemed irrelevant to him. C. J. closed his eyes and didn’t try to think about anything in particular anymore, only the ever-changing bodily sensations kept on flowing smoothly in and out of his consciousness.

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