Hakker, Dispatch 008:
I had a stolen car, stolen notebooks with phone numbers and e-mail addresses of Russian gangsters, some stolen cash... and three stolen plastic bags of heroin. Some days earlier I had come to the small town of V (a.k.a. "Shit-Pile"), in the hope of finding the local Toys 4 Eyes maintenance staff.
But since that town was in the grip of a bloody gang war - which meant cops, which meant too much attention - I had to split with nothing gained. Well, maybe something: one notebook listed a number of underage women the gangsters had bought in from Eastern Europe for forced prostitution (is it still called the "white slave trade"?) in Western Europe. Reading that, I felt much better about shooting those Russians before I split.
Safely out of town, when I tried to examine the local company server through the phone net, it turned out that server had been shut down. The cause: electromagnetic disturbances from sunspots. (At least I was pretty sure those sunspots were not EYE's handiwork.)
And winter had arrived. I couldn't run around at night as much as I'd done during summer. I spent a day in the car, making plans. This is how I plan: Take a bunch of Post-It notes, write down an idea on each one, and then toss them into the air. The notes fall down at random - but often they form an interesting pattern that inspires me. The Sensei taught me that, though he used poetic words on scraps of white paper. He wrote haikus that way.
One pattern caught my attention. The loose string of Post-It notes, with a word or phrase on each one, read like this:
CULT OF THE EYE - MAINTENANCE - HEROIN - SICK - GANG WARS - WHITE SLAVE TRADE
I got an idea! No, several ideas. One: turn the Russian drug dealers against Toys 4 Eyes, divert my main opponent for a while. Two: follow the mobsters as they tracked down Toys 4 Eyes facilities and employees. Three: use the heroin I'd found to drug a Toys 4 Eyes employee. All without getting any cops involved at any point. It'd be tricky, but less tricky than doing everything on my own...
I recall how my Sensei once said: "Randomness is the prime building block of reality. There is a system even in apparent disorder. You can make chaos work for you."
First, I made full use of the notebooks I'd stolen from the dead and dying Russian gangsters. I composed e-mails on my laptop, and sent them to the Russian addresses. All the mails were threats, outrageous claims, and demands for money. The "sender" was the Vice President and branch office of Toys 4 Eyes in St. Petersburg. The "sender" took full credit for recently massacring the Russians in the town of Shit-Pile, and gave off all the signs of being a crime syndicate with a "legit" front. (Which it might very well be, but I didn't know...)
The sum of those messages to Russian drug mobsters was: Toys 4 Eyes is after your profits and especially your turf all over Scandinavia - drugs, prostitution, the lot. And we're killing your people to prove it.
I had to laugh. Sensei would've been proud of me. Pretty soon EYE would have his/her hands full dealing with the Russian mafia. I might even, with a bit of luck and skill, get closer to finding Toys 4 Eyes employees and interrogate them.
I didn't stick around Shit-Pile county for long. The very next day I drove toward the big city of T. I checked the national newspaper sites for notices about a gangland massacre in the gravel-pit, but nothing turned up - I guess the good citizens of Shit-Pile had let the dead gangsters "disappear" under all that gravel.
Ditching the stolen car outside the city limits, I took the bus into T and bought a new change of clothes. I dropped by a laundromat in the afternoon and put my night-work uniform and backpack in the machine for a thorough wash. (Well, it's not really a uniform, but it's so practical... all those hidden pockets, protective pads, and the concrete-gray color with the special component that blurs out video footage.)
There was a surveillance camera in the laundromat ceiling, but I was wearing a (omitted, EYE may be reading this) and (omitted) in my (omitted). On my (omitted) I had a (omitted) stuffed with (you guess), to distort the shape of my (omitted). Would this fool EYE? Maybe not in the long run, but hopefully long enough that he/she wouldn't take notice until I'd moved on...
As I sat there watching the row of washing-machines, reading the newspapers and eating lunch (banana, apple, orange, Snickers bar, fried chicken, Pepsi with extra caffeine), I tried to collect myself, focus on the here and now. In a big city, I must stay aware of not attracting any sort of attention. Avoiding surveillance cameras.
I realized my hair needed a cut. (Cutting your own hair makes a really shabby impression after a few months.)
I saw a young woman heading for a corner of the laundromat, looking bored. I'd barely noticed her entrance. Only when I cared to watch her, I realized she was beautiful: fit, lean body, strong long neck, dark curly hair tied up in a tail behind her head. She wore simple, loose clothes, as if she'd just been out jogging. Her eyes were as dark as her hair, alive and restless. Thin, cool lips painted a dark brown. A straight, long Greek nose. The sports bra was holding a pretty impressive pair of tits in place.
The woman opened a machine and unloaded it into a sack. She might have been around my age, but there was a maturity about her poise... she was sitting like a confident, well-groomed fifty-year-old, not at all like a shy or lazy youngster. She caught my ogling her tits and her eyes flared up with anger.
"See anything you like?" she snapped, with only the slightest hint of an accent - Oriental maybe. Those eyes. Big. Intelligent. Passionate.
"There is much to like," I said, making a blank mask of my face.
"You know, you really ought to cut your hair." Ironic smile.
"Could you recommend someone?" Blank face.
She sat up from the bench and walked toward me. For the record: I'm straight. And no, this woman was not approaching a total virgin. Then again, it had been a long while since... so I did react with paranoia. Thought about asking her: "Have you got wires sticking out of your head? Do you work for Toys 4 Eyes? Do you know EYE?"
I noticed she was several inches taller than me. She put a hand on her hip and said: "I'm a hairdresser. I can do you right here. Tax-free. I gotta kill a few minutes anyway..."
I froze up at the thought of having sharp scissors put to my head by a stranger. She must've noticed how tense I got, for she said: "I really am a hairdresser. Wanna see my diploma?"
"All right." She dug in her wallet and produced a much-folded diploma. "There. You want a haircut or not?"
"Okay. Two hundred."
"Two fifty or forget it."
"Deal. Just sit there, I'll get my trimmer."
She went back for her gym bag, and returned with a battery-powered trimmer. Then she went behind my bench and told me to lean back and relax. I checked that she didn't have an accomplice waiting to steal my bag of stuff. If she tried anything, I had a small knife hidden in my belt.
The trimmer buzzed in my ears. It felt strange to have a woman's fingers touch my hair again... but I found myself unable to relax.
"Where're you from?" She asked, trimming away. "Just moved in?"
"How could you tell?"
"You're so pale. You from up north?"
"I'm not cutting too short, you don't want to look like a skinhead... do you?"
"Do I look like a skinhead?"
"No. So... where are you staying?"
I chuckled, even as I grew suspicious. Pretty curious for a hairdresser.
"Uh... I know some guy... you know..."
"What's your name?"
"I asked you first."
"Call me..." I looked at the shaved-off hair that was gathering around my feet. "Shaggy."
"Shaggy... People call me Inti. Done!" She held up a compact mirror to my face. The young man in the mirror had the mouth of a toad. Breakouts of acne concentrated around the chin and temples. His hard, worn eyes stared back at me from behind nerdy, thick-rimmed eyeglasses (the clip-on mirrorshades were in my pocket.) The false (omitted) and (omitted) in my (omitted) looked so utterly phony; I had to come up with a better disguise fast. The hair looked good, though. She was a real hairdresser.
"Nice haircut." I paid Inti, and added a hefty tip. "Thanks."
"Where're you heading?"
Damn. Was she coming on to me, or was this just wishful thinking on my part? It was too good to be true. No, she wanted information. Like... like she was expecting someone she'd never seen. Waiting for a traveler who'd need to use a laundromat. Asking if I were a "skinhead..." I got up and faced her.
"Look... I'm not staying here long. Whatever it is you want to know, you're asking the wrong person. I'm not who you think I am."
That got her. She quickly put away the trimmer and went to fetch the laundry, avoiding my eyes. When she'd stuffed the laundry in a plastic bag, she headed for the door. Some unconscious impulse made me rush for the door. We almost collided with an old woman who was coming in.
Inti spun and looked straight into my eyes. She seemed angry. I made my best effort to sound like a normal, everyday, non-dangerous person.
"It's a good haircut. Can I have the card to your salon?"
The old lady ambled past us, muttering about rude young people. The sinews in Inti's hands flexed like irritated snakes under her skin. She was stronger than she wanted to show.
"Haven't got any," she said. "Just started."
"Your number, then."
She hesitated: "Shaggy... I don't know you well enough to give you my number."
"Would you... like to know me? With this ugly (omitted) shaved off?"
I was scared. There are two sorts of courage: risking your life, and your ego. I felt I was risking both.
Inti gave me a long, hard look. Then she said: "Give me your phone number. I'll call you tomorrow."
At the moment I had no phone number I could share.
"I could be here tomorrow around lunch time," I said, making it up as I went along. "If you happen to be here then, we could..."
She cut me short: "Okay. Bye." And stalked off down the street, carrying her bags. I wanted to kick myself. But there wasn't time for that. This had to be the last time I ever saw Inti... something about that name sounded familiar.
I didn't come to the City of T by accident. I had an errand. Toys 4 Eyes had a local server and warehouse facility there. Not much to go on - found no listed employees - but worth a look.
After I'd stashed my stuff, eaten, stocked up on essentials, and found a place to stay, I prepared for a nightly expedition to the warehouse. In wintertime, you can't sleep outdoors or in empty/abandoned houses. So I'll have to find other accommodations.
Since I hadn't been in this town before and wasn't sure about surveillance, I used the "alternative hotel" system. I located one of the city's prostitutes (you don't know how to do that? Figure it yourself!), and paid her to just sleep over without having sex. I actually told the poor lady my fetish is to sleep over and sneak out. She didn't raise an eyebrow - guess she's heard much weirder requests. I got a small room at her place and set the alarm clock to two in the morning. She went to sleep.
I woke up, geared up, and went out the window... leaving my pay in the room.
Using a stolen bicycle, I pedaled a few blocks and walked the rest of the way. I'd wrapped a scarf around the cap and my head. The warehouse lay discreetly placed in a dark, quiet area at the outskirts of town. The block was quiet. It was not quite freezing cold yet.
I put on the cheap night-scope for kids (a Toys 4 Eyes product) and scanned the area from outside the fences. Spotted several cameras, but I could bypass those with my latest toy: a crossbow. Bought it from a shop for army and gun freaks. Much better than a gun - makes no noise, leaves no bullets that can be traced to the weapon. I'd spent many hours learning to use it.
I sneaked closer to one camera, put an arrow in the bow and shot out the camera. Reloaded, and took out a second camera. Now I had a few minutes, I assumed, to get in and out of the warehouse until the security guards would show up. (Then again, so far I hadn't seen ANY security guards around any of the few Toys 4 Eyes' buildings I'd scouted. Maybe the owners didn't want a normal human presence. Not even dogs? Weird.)
I loaded another arrow, found a ladder and climbed to the roof. The corrugated tin roof creaked under my Nikes. There was a window of semitransparent plastic tiling. I poured a little hydrochloric acid into the edges, and the tile ripped free of its screws when I bent it open with my umbrella.
The path inside lay open. Like a trap... which I didn't intend to walk into. From my backpack I took out the very, very small camcorder I'd bought earlier. It was taped to a thick electric cable, together with a flashlight. I lowered the camcorder-and-flashlight bundle through the opening, into the warehouse. The small viewscreen I had removed from the camcorder before, and connected to the cable. Thus I had the viewscreen at my end of the cable, and could follow what the camera saw down there. I twirled the cable between my hands, letting the lens spin slowly around.
I saw boxes of products, stacked in neat rows in an automated shelf system. A robotic forklift stood at one end of the room, waiting to pick put an order from the shelves. Very neat. Too bad I couldn't use the Zoom button from the roof.
But wait... the view scrolled across something organic. A row of soft-drink machines and food-vending cabinets stood in a corner... and a pile of emptied Coke cans and food packs near them. And a pair of feet, in shoes, lay on the floor by the pile of garbage.
Dressed in filthy clothes. Wearing some sort of small gadgets on his head. Hair hung in clumps from the scalp. He was dead... no, his chest moved. He was sleeping. Yes! I'd finally found a live employee! Now I had to go in and get him. Alive. I was gonna try and drug him.
From the roof to the floor it was only seven-eight meters. I attached a piece of rope to a screwtop on the roof, climbed down and dropped two meters to the concrete floor. The man remained asleep... or in a coma. I switched off the camera flashlight and used the night-scope to sneak up on him. The syringe with liquid heroin was in my pocket - not enough to knock him out, I hoped - just a small dose. I slid the needle into his arm and pressed the handle all the way in. He stirred as I pulled out the needle - I started back, prepared to use the crossbow. He slumped back. I let out a sigh of relief. He was skinny, probably malnourished, but too heavy to carry away on my own.
I took off the night-scope, shone the flashlight in his eyes and shook him. His cheeks were hollow with lack of food. His eyes... they were fake. In his eye sockets were false eyeballs with camera lenses inside, attached to the skull by small rods and wires, exposed through some unexplained mechanical error. The circuitry of the camera eyes was visible only because the "back" half of each eye-shell was transparent. Seemed like the eyeballs had rolled up inward, and were now stuck there. He was literally looking in on his own head. He moaned.
Damn. What the hell was I gonna ask him? Excuse me, are you a henchman? My mind went blank.
"Mmmm... hungry... I... help I... I, I, I..."
Then I got it. He said "Eye."
"Eye... help me, Eye... system failure... I'm blind..."
It was one of those absurd "Why not?" moments. I raised my voice, shook the drugged, starved man's shoulders and shouted in a robotic drone: "EYE AM! EYE... AM!"
His entire body trembled in my grip, squirming with terror.
"I'm so-orry... great Eye... I failed... please don't delete me..."
A shock of icy horror shot through me, and I released the damaged man. Delete... like I was deleted... or worse, deformed. I started to tremble myself... struggled not to stutter or panic.
"EYE FORGIVE YOU! TELL ME EVERYTHING!"
The blinded, drugged cyborg stuttered, drooled, and babbled away. Some of the things he said I cannot quote here, for reasons of personal security. Apparently the man - or henchman - had been in the warehouse on a routine job, when his newly implanted artificial eyes malfunctioned. (Who made the things? Where'd he get them inserted?) So he couldn't punch in the code to the door-lock, or call for help. His cell-phone batteries soon ran out... and the "IMD" he used to communicate directly through his mind (what the f*** is an "IMD"??)... with his "management" or whatever it was he worked for... that was screwed up with the eyes.
He'd been living on vending-machine food until it ran out. Other things he said I didn't understand... or he babbled too quickly for me to follow. But I turned on the camcorder and taped most of it.
Then I heard noise outside. Cars. Several cars. Motorcycles. It was time to leave. The man on the floor stirred, and grasped my forearms. Should've given him more heroin. He shouted that I wasn't EYE, and cried alert. I pushed him away and ran for an exit.
The exit was locked, of course. I took out a stick of dynamite from my pants, stuck it against the door with a box, lit the fuse, took cover and pressed my hands to my ears.
Blang! The door flew open. I cast one last glance at the man on the floor: he lay dead still. His body was starting to spout thick smoke: a stench filled the air - momentarily I thought it was acid, but it was the smell of crap. I rushed out, crossbow ready. A caravan of cars and vans were gathering around the warehouse, and a convoy of motorcycles. I had to hide behind a few barrels, and listened. The men who came out of the cars spoke English and Russian. Great... great! Just the right time for the mobsters I'd stirred up against Toys 4 Eyes to show up.
The motorcyclists were not with the mobsters. They spoke a mixture of Swedish, gangsta slang... and Arabic. All the voices were female.
I peeked out from my hiding-place and glimpsed the Russian mobsters surrounding the warehouse. They quickly proceeded to torch the building with petrol cans and Molotov-cocktails, shouting and laughing. I wondered how many other warehouses and offices were being attacked throughout Europe this night. This was going to cost the Toys 4 Eyes corporation a fortune.
Then the gang of female motorcyclists sneaked up on the Russians... I'm saying "sneaked up" but they weren't nearly as good at it as I am. The men spotted them and drew their guns, baseball bats and knives. I glimpsed what the women looked like, wearing typical full leather bodysuits and face-covering helmets. No symbols on their suits, but around their necks they wore checkered shawls, like the one on Yassir Arafat's head.
The girls attacked with handguns, clubs, throwing-knives and all sorts of home-made weapons with sharp spikes attached. One girl drove her bike past the parked cars and tossed her own fire-bombs at them. Cars went up in flames. Russians screamed and went down. Shots were fired. People died. Some were just injured. But not the biker girls. They ducked all gunshots and took cover so well, they must be professionally trained. I still didn't know what they were up to, though, and it was best to leave while they were preoccupied.
I moved toward the safety of the shadows... then I saw a man, in the bright firelight, stagger to his feet and raise a shotgun. He took aim at the girls, just as they were gathering to leave. He was bleeding but fully awake. I took aim and shot off an arrow. My arm didn't tremble. The arrow went in without a noise - and he fell down.
I was standing up as I shot the arrow. The girls spotted me. One of them addressed me in Arabic, and I froze up, unable to understand. She switched to a language I understood.
"Who the hell are you??"
I recognized her voice. It was the most fantastic coincidence.
"Quiet!" She was angry that I'd mentioned her name. "Have I seen you before?"
"Shaggy... you remember Shaggy?"
"Damn it! Let's get out of here. Follow me." She turned to the other girls. "You, go home! Change your clothes, and wash the smell out of everything! Hurry! And no gossip!"
She stayed behind as the other girls roared off on their fast Japanese bikes. Then she turned to me, her face still concealed by the helmet and visor. "You can sit on my bike. Or you got your own?"
"No..." I hesitated to trust my safety to anyone else. Inti put a hand on her hip.
"Wanna see my license? Come on!"
Ten seconds later, a bike with two passengers drove toward another city, on a small road, toward a ghetto of high-rise blocks known as "R-By."
Inti locked up the bike in a garage and returned to where I was waiting - in a shrubbery. I followed her into a basement, to which she had a key.
We went downstairs to a small room, next to the laundry room, and she got out of her biker suit and helmet. When she untied the tail of hair, it flowed over her shoulders. We both reeked of smoke and gasoline. She led me to a shower cabinet and undressed, urgently and without watching me. After she had stepped into the shower, I waited for her to finish. Fifteen minutes passed. Finally it entered my thick skull: she was waiting for me to join in. I undressed and entered the spacious shower cabinet, closing the plastic door behind me. Hot water steamed all around us.
We stood there, in the shower, looking at each other, for a while. Then we started to kiss, and soon we were pressed tightly together, ignoring everything else.
I can't remember how long it lasted. Maybe not that long. I woke up several times, thinking that it was a set-up, or a dream, or that this was too good to last. Everytime she pulled me close to her body, her lips, her hot breath... and I forgot my worries. For a while.
There was a make-shift bed in another room, just a pile of old mattresses really. We lay down on that bed. Sometime during that night, she asked me again: "Who are you... really?"
I pressed my face to her ear and said: "I had a name... once. It got deleted. Officially I don't exist anymore."
I thought she'd laugh, but she didn't: "I've heard about that guy... I thought he was just a made-up story. Right out of a dumb movie."
"There IS a spoon."
She laughed. With me, not at me.
"So what do I call you? 'Hakker?'"
"Call me anytime."
In the late morning - a Sunday? - I woke up, and she was coming back to bed, with some food. A radiator heated the room to a decent temperature. I stroked her face, gently, and asked: "Did you know I was going to be there?"
She opened her eyes and looked at me with clear, alert eyes. "No. It was sort of a coincidence. The rumors were flying, that there was big fight brewing betweeen the Russian gangs and that company Toys 4 Eyes..."
Eating, I asked: "Where'd you hear that? On the Internet?"
"You're such a nerd, Hakker. Before the Internet, people used something called 'gossip.' They still do."
"That was fast."
"Faster than the Internet," she said teasingly. "Word got out, that the Russians and that company got in a feud over the trafficking in women. There are people who know people who work in the freeway toll-booths. They saw the Russians driving in, and the news spread, and my crew heard about it."
"So you were looking for new strangers in town, and you spotted me? Do I look like a Russian?"
"We had people on the lookout for suspect newcomers. Maybe that phony mustache did it." (Damn.) "I was tipped off, since I'm kind if the leader of our crew, and I went to have a look while you were in the laundromat -"
"Maybe it wasn't all coincidence... I'll explain later. Go on."
"We tailed the Russian cars to the warehouse. I thought there might be kidnapped women trapped inside... that sort of thing has happened before."
"The white slave trade. Why's your gang interested in that sort of thing?"
"What the hell do you think? That we're slave traders? We wanted to free the women!"
"I see... so you're, like, feminist activists?" She didn't bother to answer that. "Inti, is that your real name?"
"Inti Fatah. My parents named me. After the Intifada."
(This is the closest substitute I have for the wordplay of her actual name.) That name didn't appeal to me. At all. I reached for my clothes and gear, and dressed fast. She sat up and watched me curiously.
"What are you doing?"
"I have no beef with you, but I don't get involved with fanatics of any kind. You have no idea what kind of trouble I'm in. Much worse than gangsters and prostitution. I've got a videotape of last night..."
"Oh, that one," she said. "One of my friends took your camcorder while we were in the shower. We wanted it as evidence of the prostitution business."
I snarled at her. "Give it back to me - now! Or I'll..."
Inti crossed her arms and looked sternly into a wall. "No. It's not in my hands now. Our movement's got the tape, and we're not giving it up. Our movement is made up of women who refuse to take any more orders from men."
I muttered something about being hounded by fanatics wherever I went. A quick check of my clothes and backpack proved that they had only stolen the camcorder. On an impulse, I stopped in the doorway, avoiding her eyes, and said:
"If you want to send me a message, you know where to do it."
I left through the door. Arab women in shawls glared at me as I paced through the laundry room. It was stupid of me to hope that Inti was going to rush after me, blubbering, and beg to see me again. Why would she bother? I had nothing more to offer her...
But... progress had been made. On both sides. I'd learned a lot. Can't tell you all of it yet. Each time I run into EYE's henchmen, they've evolved. Mutating, through trial and error, into... into what? And why?
Inti Fatah. Weird girl. Wrong camp to go sleeping in. I'll never run into her again. Or will I? The next few days ought to be interesting...
Continued in Dispatch 009..