The Hanged Man's Song · Preview Chapters
Now the black man screamed No!, now the black man shouted, Get out, motherfucker, and Carp, a big-boy at thirty, felt the explosion behind his eyes.
They were in the black man's neatly kept sick-house, his infirmary. Carp snatched the green oxygen cylinder off its stand, felt the weight as he swung it overhead. The black man began to turn in his wheelchair, his dark eyes coming around through the narrow, fashionable glasses, the gun turning, the gun looking like a toy.
And now it goes to slo-mo, the sounds of the house fading the soprano on public radio, fading; the rumble of a passing car, fading; the hoarse, angry words from the black man, fading to inaudible gibberish; and the black man turning, and the gun, all in slo-mo, the sounds fading as time slowed down...
Then lurching to fast forward:
"HAIYAH!" James Carp screamed it, gobs of spit flying, one explosive syllable, and he swung the steel cylinder as hard as he could, as though he were spiking a football.
The black man's skull shattered and the black man shouted a death-shout, a HUH!, that came at once with the WHACK! of the cylinder smashing bone.
The black man spun out of his wheelchair, blood flying in a crimson spray. A .25-caliber automatic pistol skittered out of his fingers and across the red-and-blue oriental carpet into a corner; the wheelchair crashed into a plaster wall, sounding as though somebody had dropped an armful of pipes.
Time slowed again. The quiet sounds came back: the soprano, the cars, an airplane, a bird, and the black man: almost subliminally, the air squeezed out of his dying lungs and across his vocal cords, producing not a moan, but a drawn out vowel oooohhhh...
Blood began to seep from the black man's close-cut hair into the carpet. He was a pile of bones wrapped in a blue shirt.
Carp stood over him, sweating, shirt stuck to his broad back, breathing heavily, angry adrenaline burning in his blood, listening, hearing nothing but the rain ticking on the tin roof and the soprano in the unintelligible Italian opera; smelling the must and the old wood of the house tainted by the coppery odor of blood. He was pretty sure he knew what he'd done but he said, "Get up. C'mon, get up."
The black man didn't move and Carp pushed the skinny body with a foot, and the body, already insubstantial, shoulders and legs skeletal, small skull like a croquet ball, flopped with the slackness of death. "Fuck you," Carp said. He tossed the oxygen cylinder on a couch, where it bounced silently on the soft cushions.
A car turned the corner. Carp jerked, stepped to a window, split the blinds with an index finger and looked out at the street. The car kept going, splashing through a roadside puddle.
Breathing even harder, now. He looked around, for other eyes, but there was nobody in the house but himself and the black man's body. Fear rode over the anger, and Carp's body told him to run, to get away, to put this behind him, to pretend it never happened; but his brain was saying, take it easy, take it slow.
Carp was a big man, too heavy for his height, round-shouldered, shambling. His eyes were flat and shallow, his nose was long and fleshy, like a small banana. His two-day beard was patchy, his brown hair was lank, mop-like. Turning away from the body, he went first for the laptop.
The dead man's name was Bobby and Bobby's laptop was fastened to a steel tray that swivelled off the wheelchair like an old-fashioned school desk. The laptop was no lightweight it was a desk-top replacement model from IBM with maximum RAM, a fat hard drive, built-in CD/DVD burner, three USB-2 ports, a variety of memory card slots.
A powerful laptop, but not exactly what Carp had expected. He'd expected a something like... well, an old-fashioned CIA computer room, painted white with plastic floors and men in spectacles walking around in white coats with clipboards, Bobby perched in some kind of Star Wars control console. How could the most powerful hacker in the United States of America operate out of a laptop? A laptop and a wheelchair and Giorgio Armani glasses and a blue, freshly pressed oxford-cloth shirt?
The laptop wasn't the only surprise the whole neighborhood was unexpected, a rundown, gravel-road section of Jackson, smelling of Spanish moss and red-pine bark and marsh water. He could hear croakers chipping away in the twilight, when he walked up the flagstones to the front porch.
Right from the start, his search seemed to have gone bad. He'd located Bobby's care-giver, and the guy wasn't exactly the sharpest knife in the dishwasher: Carp had talked his way into the man's house with an excuse that sounded unbelievably lame in his own ears, so bad that he couldn't believe that the man had been trusted with Bobby's safety. But he had been...
Any question had been resolved when Bobby came to the front door and Carp had asked, "Bobby?" and Bobby's eyes had gone wide and he'd started backing away.
"Get away from me. Who are you? Who... get away..."
The whole thing had devolved into thrashing, screaming argument and Carp bulled his way through the door, and then Bobby had sent the wheelchair across the room to a built-in bookcase, pushed aside a ceramic bowl, and Carp could see that a gun was coming up and he picked up the oxygen cylinder.
Didn't really mean to do it. Not yet, anyway. He'd wanted to talk for a while...
Whatever he intended, Bobby was dead. No going back now. He moved over to the wheelchair, turned the laptop around, found it still running. Bobby hadn't had time to do anything with it, hadn't tried. The machine was running UNIX, no big surprise there. A security-aware hacker was as likely to run Windows as the Navy was to put a screen door on a submarine.
He'd figure it out later; one thing he didn't dare do was turn it off. He checked the power meter and found the battery at seventy-five percent. Good for the time being. Next he went to the system monitor to look at the hard drive. Okay: a 120-gigabytes, sixty percent full. The damn thing had more data in it than the average library.
The laptop was fastened to the wheelchair tray by snap clamps and he fumbled at them for a moment before the computer came loose. As he worked the clamps, he noticed the wi-fi antenna protruding from the PCMCIA slot on the side of the machine. There was something more, then.
He carried the laptop to the door and left it there, still turned on, then went through the house to the kitchen, moving quickly, thinking about the crime. Mississippi, he was sure, had the electric chair or the guillotine or maybe they burned you at the stake. Whatever it was, it was bound to be primitive. He had to take care.
He pulled a few paper towels off a low-mounted roll near the sink, and used them to cover his hands, and he started opening doors and cupboards. In a bedroom, next to a narrow, ascetic bed under a crucifix, he found a short table with the laptop's recharging cord and power supply, and two more batteries in a recharging deck.
Good. He unplugged the power supply and the recharging deck, and carried them out to the living room and put them on the floor next to the door.
In the second bedroom, behind the tenth or twelfth door he opened, he found a cable jack and modem with the wi-fi transceiver. He was disappointed: he'd expected a set of servers.
"Shit." He muttered the word aloud. He'd killed a man for a laptop? There had to be more...
Back in the front room, he found a stack of blank recordable disks, but none that had been used. Where were the used disks? Where? There was a bookcase and he brushed some of the books out, found nothing behind them. Hurried past all the open doors and cupboards, feeling the pressure of time on his shoulders. Where?
He looked, but he found nothing more: only the laptop, winking at him from the doorway.
Had to go, had to go.
He stuffed the paper towels in his pocket hurried to the door, picked up the laptop, power supply and recharging deck, pulled the door almost shut with his bare hand, realized what he'd done, took the paper towels out of his pocket, wiped the knob and gripped it with the towel, and pulled the door shut. Hesitated. Pushed the door pen again, crossed to the couch, thoroughly wiped the oxygen cylinder.
All right. Outside again, he stuck the electronics under his arm beneath the raincoat, and strolled as calmly as he could to the car. The car had belonged to his mother, a nondescript Toyota Corolla, a car that wouldn't get a second glance anywhere, anytime. Which was lucky, he thought, considering what had happened.
He put the laptop, still running, on the driver's seat. The laptop would take very careful investigation. As he drove away, he thought about his exposure in Bobby's death. Not much, he thought, unless he was brutally unlucky. A neighbor trying a new camera, an idiot-savant who remembered his license plate number; one chance in a million.
Less than that, even he'd been obsessively careful in his approach to the black man; that he'd come on a rainy day was not an accident. Maybe, he thought, he'd known in his heart that Bobby would end this day as a dead man.
Maybe. As he turned the corner and left the neighborhood, a hum of satisfaction began to vibrate through him. He felt the skull crunching again, saw the body fly from the wheelchair, felt the rush...
Felt the skull crunch... and almost drove through a red light.
He pulled himself back: He had to get out of town safely. This was no time for a traffic ticket that would pin him to Jackson, at this moment, at this place.
He was careful the rest of the way out, but still...
He smiled at himself. Felt kinda good, Jimmy-James.
HUH! WHACK! Rock 'n roll.
From my kitchen window in St. Paul, over the top of the geranium pot, I can see the Mississippi snaking away to the south past the municipal airport and the barge-yards. There's always a towboat out there, rounding up a string of rust-colored barges, or a guy heading downstream in a houseboat, or a sea plane lining up for take-off. I never get tired of it. I wish I could pipe in all the sounds and smell of it, leaving out the stink and groan of the trucks and buses that run along the river road.
I was standing there, scratching the iron-sized head of the red cat, when the phone rang.
I thought about not answering it there was nobody I particularly cared to talk to that day but the ringing continued. I finally picked it up, annoyed, and found a smoker's voice like a rusty hinge in a horror movie. And old political client. He asked me to do a job for him: "It's no big deal," he rasped.
"You lie like a Yankee carpetbagger," I said back. I hadn't talked to him in years, but we were picking up where we left off; friendly, but a little contentious.
"I resemble that remark," he said. "Besides, it'll only take you a few days."
"How much you paying?"
Bob was a Democrat from a conservative Mississippi district. He was worried about a slick, good-looking young Republican woman named Nosere.
"I'll tell you the truth, Kidd: the bitch is richer than Davy Crockett and can self-finance," said the congressman. He was getting into his stump rhythms: "When it comes to ambition, she makes Hillary Clinton look like the wallflower at a Saturday night sock-hop. She makes Huey Long look like a guppy. You gotta get your ass down there, boy. Dig this out for me."
"You oughta be able to self-finance your own self," I said. "You've been in Washington for twelve years now, for Christ's sakes."
Pause, as if thinking, or maybe contemplating the balances in off-shore checking accounts. Then, "Don't dog me around, Kidd. You gonna do this, or what?"
When all the bullshit is dispensed with, I am an artist a painter and for most of my life, in the eyes of the law, a criminal, though I prefer to think of myself as a libertarian who liberates for money.
At the University of Minnesota, where I had gone to school on a wrestling scholarship, I carried a minor in art, with a major in computer science. Computers and mathematics interested me in the same way that art did, and I worked hard at them. Then the Army came along and gave me a few additional skills. When I got out of the service, I went to work as a freelance computer consultant.
Overground, I was writing political-polling software that could be run in the new desktop computers, the early IBMs, and even a package that you could run on Color Computer, if anybody remembers those. I was also debugging commercial computer-control programs, which job was considered the coal mine of the computer world. I was pretty good at it: Bill Gates had once said to me, "Hey, dude, we're starting a company."
Underground, I was doing industrial espionage for a select clientele, entering unfriendly places, either electronically or physically, and copying technical memos, software, drawings, anything that my client could use to keep up with Gateses. The 80s were good to me, but the 90's had been hot: a dozen technical memos, moved from A to B, could result in a hundred-million-dollar Internet IPO. Or, more likely, could kill one.
All that time, I'd been painting. I can't tell you about whiskey and drugs and gambling and women, because those things are for amateurs and rock musicians. I worked all the time maybe dabbled a little in women. Unlike whiskey, drugs and gambling addictions, women, I'd found, tended to go away after a while. On their own...
As did the political-polling business. I sold out to a competitor, because I was losing patience with my clients, with my clients' way of making a living.
Politicians fuck with people. That's what they do. That's their job. Every day, they get up, and wonder who they're gonna fuck with that day. Then they go and do it. They're of not much use they don't make anything, create anything, think any great thoughts. They just fuck with the rest of us. I got tired of talking to them.
So the years went by, with painting and the computers, and now here I was, talking to Congressman Bob. I wheedled and begged, even pled poverty, but eventually said I'd do it truth be told, I needed a break from the fever dreams of my latest paintings, a suite of five commissioned by a rich lumberman from Louisiana.
Then there was my love life, which had taken an ugly turn for the worse.
Getting out of town didn't look that bad. That's why, for the past two weeks, I'd been working in the belly of the Wisteria.
The Wisteria was a casino and hung off a pier on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi, between Biloxi and Gulfport. Designed to look like a riverboat, it was the size of a battleship. Sweeping decks of slot machines, which would take everything down to your last nickel, sucked up most of the space. There were also three restaurants, two bars, and a poop deck for the low-return games.
Muzak, mostly orchestrated versions of old Sinatra sounds, kept you happy while you cranked the slots, and gave the place its class. All of it smelled of tobacco, alcohol, spoiled potato chips, sweat, cleaning fluids and overstressed deodorant, with just the faintest whiff of vomit.
I was inside for six hours a day, thinking about painting and women, while throwing money down the slot machines. The job was simple enough, but I had to be careful: if I screwed it up, some bent-nosed cracker thug would take me out in the woods and break my arms and legs if I was lucky.
Or, I should say, our arms and legs.
My friend LuEllen had come along. She actually liked casinos, and I needed the help. She was also doing therapy on me: she referred to my lost-love as Boobs, and had worked out a complete set of verbs and adjectives based on that root word. The day before, in the Wisteria's fine-dining restaurant ("The best surf-and-turn between New Orleans and Tallahassee") she'd held up a glob of deep-fried potato and said, "Now there's one boobilicious tater-tot."
"You give me any more shit, I'm gonna stick a tater-tot in one of your crevices," I said, with more snarl than I intended.
"You're not man enough," she said, unimpressed. "I've been working out three hours a day. I can kick your ass now."
"Working out with what? Golf? You're gonna putt me to death?"
She pointed a tater-tot at me, a little edge in her voice. "You may speak lightly of my crevices, but do not say bad things about golf."
The job: Miss Young Republican Anita Nosere, who was, from the pictures I'd seen of her, fairly boobilicious herself, got her money from her mother. Her mother was managing director of a syndicate that owned the Wisteria. Congressman Bob had been told that the casino was skimming the take, thus shorting both the U.S. government and the state of Mississippi on taxes. The skim was one of those simple-minded things that are almost impossible to spot if the casino does it carefully enough.
It works like this: the casino advertises (and reports to the tax authorities) a given return on the slot machines. If that return is even a little lower than the rate reported, the income increases sharply. That is, if you report that your machines will return 95 percent to the players, but you really only return 94 percent, and a million bucks a night goes through the slots, you're skimming $10,000 a night. In a few months, that adds up to real money.
Of course, you have to be careful about state auditors. For a politically well-connected company, in Mississippi, that wasn't a major problem: "Them boys is crookeder than a bucket of cottonmouths," Bob said.
The congressman could have hired one of the big independent auditing companies to do his research, but that would have cost tens of thousands of dollars. Me, he could get for free, and get a good idea if the charges were true. If they were, then he'd hire the big auditing company, do the research, and hang the Noseres, momma and daughter together, all in the name of democracy, justice, and the American Pie.
Exactly what we did was, we dropped dollars and quarters and nickels into slot machines and counted the return, and then ran the results through a statistics package. We wanted 98 per cent confidence that we were less than half of a percent off the true return. We therefore needed to take a large random sample of machines and had to run enough coins through each machine that we'd get a statistically accurate return on each.
I'd chosen the target machines the first night, using a random numbers program in the laptop I carried. We'd been at it ever since, dropping the dollars, quarters and nickels, doing the numbers at night, avoiding crackers with bent noses, and generally dancing around the possibility of acts of unfaithfulness, if that's what it would have been.
Can you be unfaithful to a mood, to a sense of guilt? I mean, the woman was gone...
But Marcy's departure had driven me into an emotional hole. A number of good women have walked out on me, and there's no way that I can claim it was always, or even usually, their fault. When the first bloom of romance fades away, they begin to pay attention to my priorities. Sooner or later they conclude that they'll always be number three, behind painting and maybe computers.
They might be right, though I still hate to think so. There was no question that as I got older, I'd become more and more involved in the work. I'd sometimes go days without talking to anyone, and become impatient when a woman wanted to do something common, like go out to dinner...
That was not a problem with LuEllen. I'd known her for a decade, spent hours rolling around in various beds with her, and still didn't know her real last name or where she lived. I knew everything about her but the basic, simple stuff.
At this point, we were not in bed. I don't know exactly what she was doing, in her head, but I was just drifting along, dropping coins, thinking about painting and sex and listening to the rain fall on the casino roof, the car roof, and the motel roof, thinking about getting back to St. Paul and the serious work...
LuEllen and I were staying in separate rooms at the Rapaport Suites on I-10, one of those concrete-block instant motels with a polite Indian man and his wife at the front desk, a permanent smell of cigarette smoke in the curtains, and a dollar-a-minute surcharge on the telephone. The place wasn't exactly bleak, it was simply nothing. I can't even remember the colors, which were chosen not to show dirt. My room was a cube with a can, a candidate for existential hell. And we couldn't get out.
Rain had been falling since the day we arrived. A hurricane was prowling the Gulf, well down to the south, but had gotten itself stuck somewhere between Jamaica and the Yucatan. The storm wasn't much, but the rain shield was terrific, reaching far enough north to cover half the state of Mississippi. We'd been kept inside, Noseres to the grindstone.
And life was looking grim for the mother-daughter duo. The numbers said they might be skimming two percent.
We had just finished a three-hour session with the slots, and after freshening up taking a leak, I guess LuEllen came down to my room, pulled off her cowboy boots, and sprawled on the bed to read a Barron's.
She's a slender dark women with an oval face, a solid set of muscles, a terrific ass, and a taste for cocaine and cowboy gear, to say nothing of the odd cowboy himself.
"Numbers?" she asked without looking at me.
"Yeah." I was sitting with my head thrust toward the laptop screen, the classic geek posture, and my neck felt like it was in a vise. "How about a back rub? My neck is killing me."
"You have not been very attentive to me and I'm not sure a back rub would be appropriate," she said. She turned a page in the Barron's. "Or any other kind of rub."
"You wanna do the fuckin' numbers?"
"I'm not getting paid the big bucks."
"Yeah, big bucks... "
She sighed, and tossed the Barron's on the carpet; she was basically a good sport. "All right." She popped off the bed, came over and went to work on my back. She has powerful thumbs for a small woman. "Wanna go out for a hot-fudge sundae?"
"Sure. Keep working, let me check my e-mail." She was knuckling the muscle along my spine, right at my shoulder, and I rolled my head and punched up the e-mail program on my laptop, and went out, at a dollar-a-minute, to see what I could see.
An alarm came up for one of my out-of-sight e-mail addresses. Spam, probably, but I looked. No spam it was the note from a man I didn't know, who called himself romeoblue.
The e-mail said, "Bobby down. Drop word. Ring on."
"Motherfucker," I said, as I read it. I didn't believe what I was seeing.
LuEllen caught the tone and looked over my shoulder. She knew about Bobby, so I let her look. "Uh-oh. Who's romeoblue?"
"I don't know."
"How does he know Bobby?"
I knew the answer to that, but I avoided the question. LuEllen and I trusted each other, but there was no point in being careless. "Lots of people know Bobby... Listen, now we gotta go out. I gotta make a call."
Bobby is the deus ex machina for the hacking community, the fount of all knowledge, the keeper of secrets, the source of critical phone numbers, a guide through the darkness of IBM mainframes. As with LuEllen, I didn't know his real name or exactly where he lived; but we'd done some business together.
The Gulf Coast could probably be a garden spot, but it isn't. It's a junkyard. Every form of scummy business you can think of can be found between I-10 and the beach, and most every one of them built the cheapest possible building to do the business in. It's like Amarillo, Texas, but in bad taste.
We ran through the rain from my room to the car, then trucked on down I-10 to the nearest Wal-Mart. We made the call from a public phone using a tiny Sony laptop I'd picked up a few weeks earlier. Dialed up my Bobby number: nothing happened; and that had never happened before. I made a quick check again of my e-mail, and had a second message, from a person named Polytrope. He said, "Bobby's gone. Out six hours now. Drop word. Ring on."
"Maybe they got him," I said to LuEllen, popping the connection. "The feds. I gotta make another call, but not from here. Let's go."
LuEllen's a professional thief. When I said, "Let's go," she didn't ask questions. She started walking. Not hurrying, but moving out, smiling, pleasant, but not making eye contact with any of the store clerks.
In the movies, the FBI makes a call while the bad guy is still on the telephone, and three minutes later, agents drop out of the sky in a black helicopter and the chase begins.
In reality, if the feds had taken Bobby, and had a watch on his phone line, they could get a read on the Wal-Mart phone almost instantly. Getting to phone was another matter that would take a while, even if they went through the local cops. In the very best, most cooperative system, we'd have ten minutes. In a typical federal law-enforcement scramble, we'd have an hour or more. But why take a chance?
We were out of the Wal-Mart in a minute, and in two minutes, down the highway. Ten miles away, I made a call from an outdoor phone at a Shell station, dropping an e-mail to two guys who, separately, called themselves pr48stl9 and trilbee: "Bobby is down. Transmit word. ring on." I sent a third e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org: "3577." The number was my "word," and I was dropping it into a blind hole.
"That's it?" LuEllen asked, when I'd dropped the word.
"That's all there is. There's nothing else to do. Still want that sundae?"
"I guess." But she was worried. We're both illegal, at least some of the time, and we're sensitive to trouble, to complications that could push us out in the open. Trouble is like a panfish nibbling at the end of your fishing line you feel it, and if you're experienced, you know what it means. She could feel the trouble nibbling at us. "Maybe chocolate will cure it."
The ring had been set up by Bobby. A group of people that he more-or-less trusted were each given one segment of his address. If anything should happen to him if his system went unresponsive we'd each dump our "word" at a blind e-mail address.
Whoever checked the address would assemble the words, derive an address, and go to Bobby's house to see what had happened. I didn't know who'd been designated to go. Somebody closer to Bobby than I was.
To keep the cops from breaking the ring, if one of us should be caught, we knew only the on-line names of two members of the ring. I didn't know until that day that romeoblue, whoever he was, was a member of the ring, or that he had one of my blind addresses. The guys I called, pr48stl9 and trilbee, didn't know that I was part of it; and I had no idea who their guys were, further around the ring.
Nobody, except Bobby, knew how many ring-members there were, or their real names all we knew is that each guy had two names. Two, in case somebody should be out of touch, or even dead, when the ring was turned on.
And the ring on thing if one of us was caught by the cops, and extorted into contacting the ring, a warning could be sent along with the extorted message. If the message didn't end with ring on, you'd assume that things were going to hell in a handbasket.
All of this might sound overblown, but several were wanted by the feds. We hadn't been charged with any crimes, you understand. They didn't even know who we were. They just wanted to get us down in a basement, somewhere, with maybe an electric motor and a coil of wire, to chat for a while.
"You think he's dead? Bobby?" LuEllen asked. We'd been visiting a particular ice-cream parlor, named Robbie's, about three times a week. The place was designed to look like a railroad dining car, but had good sundaes, anyway. We'd just pulled into the parking lot, to the final thumps of the Stones' (I Can't Get No) Satisfaction on the radio, when she asked her question.
I nodded. "Yeah. Or maybe unconscious, lying on the floor," I said. That made me sad: I'd never actually met him, but he was a friend, and I could feel that hypothetical loneliness. "Or... hell, it could be a lot of things, but I think he's probably dead or dying."
"What'll you guys do? He's always been there..."
"Be more careful. Take fewer jobs. Maybe get out of it..."
"I've been thinking about getting out," she said suddenly. "Maybe stop stealing."
I looked at her, and shook my head. "You never said."
She shrugged: "I'm getting old."
"Pressing your mid-thirties, I'd say."
She patted me on the thigh and said, "Let's go. We're gonna get wet."
The guy who ran the ice-cream parlor wore a name-tag that said Jim and a distant look, as though he was wishing for mountains. A paper hat perched on his balding head, and he always had a toothpick tucked in one corner of his mouth. He nodded at us, said, "The regular?" and we said Yeah and watched him dish it up. Lots of hot chocolate. The sundaes cost five dollars each, and I'd been leaving another five on the table when we left. Jim was now taking care of us, chocolate-wise.
In the booth, over the sundaes, LuEllen asked, "You think you could really quit?"
"I don't need the money."
She looked out at the rain, hammering down on the street. A veteran's convention was in town, and a guy wearing a plastic-straw boater, with a convention tag, wandered by; he'd poked a hole in the bottom of a green garbage bag and had pulled it over his head as a raincoat.
We watched him go, and LuEllen said, "Drunk."
"Seeing your old war buddies'll do that," I said. "World War II guys are dropping like flies now."
"Wonder if Bobby..." Her spoon dragged around the rim of the tulip glass; she didn't finish the sentence.
Bobby had a degenerative disease, although I had no clear idea of what it was. The ring had been set up to take care of things should he die or suffer a catastrophic decline. If he went slowly, the ring wouldn't know until the very end. At the last extreme, we would have all gotten files of information that he thought we might individually want a kind of inheritance and he would have erased everything else.
I had hoped that he'd go that way, in peace. Quietly. He apparently had not.
Of course, it was also possible that the feds had landed in a silent black helicopter, kicked in the door and slid down his chimney and seized him before he could enter his destruct code, and that they were now waiting for us in an elaborate trap, armed to the teeth with all that shit that they spend the billions on the secret hammers and high-tech toilet seats.
But I didn't think so. I thought Bobby was dead.
Back at the motel, I tried to work on the casino stats. I had a feeling I better get them done, just in case the Bobby problem turned into something ugly. Trouble tapping at the line. Every few minutes I'd check my e-mail. Two hours later, I picked up an alarm from another one of my invisible addresses: "Call me at home J."
"Gotta go back out," I told LuEllen. She was bent over the bed with a lightweight dumbbell, doing a golf exercise called the lawnmower pull. "Got a note from John."
"Is he part of the ring?" she asked, doing a final three pumps. She knew John as well as I did.
"I'd always assumed he was, but we never talked about it," I said. "He's not like the rest of us."
"Not a computer geek."
"I'm not a computer geek," I said. "Computer geeks wear pocket protectors."
"You've got five colors of pens, Kidd," she said, pulling on her rain jacket. "I saw them once when I was ransacking your briefcase."
"I'm an artist, for Christ's sakes," I said.
John lived in a little Mississippi River town called Longstreet. He and his wife and LuEllen and I were friends. I'd stop and see them a couple times a year, as I migrated up and down the Mississippi between St. Paul and New Orleans. LuEllen would stop if she was stealing something nearby.
I called him from a Conoco: gas stations with pay phones should get a tax break. He answered on the first ring.
"John, this is Kidd, calling you back," I said. Rain was hammering on the car, and I could see a discouraged-looking redneck behind the plate glass of the station window.
"You know about Bobby?" John asked. He had a baritone voice, calm and scholarly, with a trace of a Memphis accent.
"I know he's down. Are you a member of the ring?"
"I'm the guy who puts the words together. Do you have a pen?"
"Just a minute." I got out pen and found a blank page in a sketchbook. "Okay."
"Here's his address..."
"You sure you want to give it to me?"
"Yes. Just in case something happens... to me. Ready? Robert Fields, 3577 Arikara Street, Jackson, Mississippi 38292. Or it might also have been Robert Jackson, 3577 Arikara St., Fields, Mississippi 38292, except that there isn't a Fields, Mississippi, as far as I can tell."
"The name I had for him, the rumor I had, was that his name was Bobby DuChamps French for Fields."
"That's the name I had," he said. "What's an Arikara?"
"An Indian tribe, I think... did you try to call him?"
"Can't find a phone number."
"Yeah, well he might not have one of his own," I said. "He didn't need one, since he practically owned the phone company."
"That's what I figured. Listen... I checked airlines from St. Paul into Jackson..."
"I'm down by Biloxi," I said, interrupting. "Between Biloxi and Gulfport."
"Really?" His voice brightened. "Could you meet me in Jackson? You could be there in three hours, right up U.S. 49. It'll take me an hour-and-a-half at least. It's raining like hell up here."
"Down here, too."
"But I got bad roads. Kidd, I need some backup. We gotta try to do this before daylight."
I thought about it for a minute. This could be a bad move, but John was an old friend who helped us through some hard times. I owed him. "All right. Where do you want to hook-up?"
"I got a room at the La Quinta Inn which is just off I-55. It's what, almost ten o'clock now. See you at one?"
"Soon as I can get there," I said.
When I told her, LuEllen frowned, looked out the window at the slanting rain. "It's a bad night for driving fast."
"I gotta go," I said.
"I know." A couple of seconds later, "Shoot. I put some Chanel on. Now it's wasted." She stood on her tiptoes and gave me a soft peck on the lips, her hands on my rib cage. She did smell good; and I knew she'd feel pretty good. "You goddamn well be careful."
Some things to think about on my way north: sex and death.
The night was as dark as Elvis velvet, with nothing but the hissing of the tires on the wet pavement and the occasional red taillights turning off toward unseen homes. I listened to the radio part of the way, a classic rock station that disappeared north of Hattiesburg, fading out in the middle of a Tom Petty piece.
As the radio station faded, so did the rain, diminishing to a drizzle. I turned the radio off so I could think, but all I could do was go round and round about Bobby. What had happened to him? What were the implications, if he were dead? Where were his databases, and who had them?
Bobby had backed me up in a number of troubling ventures. People had died, in fact that they'd most often deserved it didn't change the fact of their death. Say it: of their killing. Bobby knew most of the details in the destruction of a major aerospace company. He knew why the odd security problems kept popping up in Windows. He knew why an American satellite system didn't always work exactly as designed. He knew how a commie got elected mayor of a town down in the delta...
He had worked with John. John had been a kind of black radical political operator all through the deep south, especially in the delta. He didn't talk about it, but he was tough in a way you didn't get by accident; and he had scars you didn't get from playing tennis.
So Bobby knew too much for our good health. He knew stuff that could put a few dozen, or even a few hundred, people in prison. Maybe even me.
Thirty miles south of Jackson I ran into a thunder storm what they call an embedded thunderstorm, though I wouldn't know it from an unbedded storm. The rain came down in marble-sized bullets, lighting jumped and skittered across the sky, and I could feel the thunder beating against the car, flexing the skin, like the cover on a sub-woofer.
I hoped John had made it all right. He had a treacherous route into Jackson, mostly back highways through rural hamlets, not a good drive in bright sunlight. I'd met John on one of my special jobs, set up by Bobby, a job that ended with me in a Memphis hospital. The scars have almost faded, but I still have the dreams.
Still, we'd become friends. John had been an investigator with a law office in Memphis, and, underground, an enforcer of some kind for a black radical political party and at the same time, an artist, like me. Instead of paint, John worked in stone and wood, a sculptor. He'd began making money at it, and had started picking up a reputation.
That last thirty miles of bullet-rain took forty minutes to drive through, and it was nearly two in the morning when I arrived in Jackson. I pulled into the La Quinta, stopped under a portico, and hopped out. Before I could walk around the car, John came through the door. He was wrapped in a grey plastic raincoat and was smiling and said, "Goddamn it, I'm glad to see you, Kidd. I was afraid you'd gone in a ditch." He was a black man, middles forties, with a square face, short hair, broad shoulders, and smart, dark eyes.
As we shook hands in the rain, I said, "Picked a good fuckin' night for it."
"If you don't have to pee..."
"I'm fine, but I'd like to get a Coke..."
He stuck his hand in his pocket and produced a can of Diet Coke. "Still cold. Let's go."
As soon as he'd come into town, figuring that I'd be later, he'd gone around to convenience stores until he found one that sold a city map. In his room at the La Quinta, he'd spotted Bobby's house, and blocked out a route. "We're a ways from where we need to be," he said. He pointed down a broad street that went under the Interstate: "Go that way."
I went that way and asked, "How's Marvel?"
"She's fine. Up to her ass in the politics. Still a fuckin' commie."
"Nice ass, though," I said. Marvel was his wife, but John and I had met her at the same time, and I had commentary privileges.
"True. How 'bout LuEllen?"
"She's with me, down in Biloxi, but we're not in bed. I've, uh, I'd been, uh, seeing this woman back home. She broke me off a couple of weeks ago. I'm kinda bummed."
"You were serious?" He was interested.
"Maybe. Interesting woman a cop, in fact."
A moment of silence, then, "Bet she had a nice pair of 38's, huh?"
We both had to laugh at the stupidity of it. Then I said, "What about Bobby?"
"I don't know," John said. "He sounded good I mean, bad, but good for him last time I talked to him. That was like two weeks ago, one of those phone calls from nowhere."
"No hint of this."
"Nothing. I tried to remember every word of what he said, when I was coming over here, and I can't remember a single unusual thing. He just sounded like... Bobby. Hey: turn left at that stoplight."
Jackson, Mississippi, may be a perfectly nice place, assuming that we weren't in the best part of it. The part we were in was run-down and maybe even run-over. Some of the houses that passed through our headlights seemed to be sinking into the ground. Driveways were mostly gravel, with here and there a carport; otherwise the cars, big American cars from the 80s and 90s, were parked in the yards.
The streets got bumpier as we went along and eventually we got into a spot that was overgrown with kudzu, the stuff curled up and down the phone poles and street signs. Water was ponding along the shoulders of the roads; street signs became hard to locate and, with the kudzu, even harder to read.
"Too bad you can't smoke that shit," John said. "Solve a lot of problems."
At one point, a big black-and-tan dog, probably a doberman, splashed in the rain through our headlights, looking at us with lion eyes that said, "C'mon, get out of the car, chump, c'mon..."
We didn't. Instead, John picked out streets on his map, confirmed it from one street sign to the next, and finally got us onto Arikara street. "He ought to be in this block, if the numbers are right." The street was bumpy, pot-holed, with trees hanging over it, and was lined with widely spaced houses with dark exteriors and dark windows. I'd brought a flashlight along with me, and John had it on his lap, but we didn't need it. We came up to a bronze-colored mailbox, the best-looking mailbox I'd seen all night, and in the headlights saw 3577 in reflecting stick-on numerals.
"That's it," he said.
I went on by. We looked for light, for movement, for any kind of weirdness, and didn't see or feel a thing. The house had a carport, but the carport was empty. Some of the houses had chain-link fences around the yards, but this one was open. A porch hung on the front of the place.
"Take another lap," John said. "Goddamnit. We shoulda worked out an alibi."
I shrugged. "Tell the truth. That we're old computer buddies of his, that we knew he was near death, and that he asked us to check on him if he ever became non-responsive."
"Yeah." He sighed. "I wish we had something fancier."
"At two-thirty in the morning? We were out looking for Tic-Tacs, officer..."
"Yeah, yeah. I just rather not have them run my ID through their database."
"No shit." The next lap around, I said, "I'm gonna pull in, unless you say no. You say no?"
"Pull in," he said.
I pulled into the driveway, up close to the house, and before I killed the lights, noticed a wheelchair ramp going up to a side door from the carport. The neighborhood was poor, but the lots were large and overgrown. The neighbors to the left could see us, if they were interested, and the people across the street might get a look, but there were no lights in the windows. Working people, probably, who had to get up in the morning.
When I stopped, John climbed out, with me a second behind, and we shut the doors quickly and as quietly as we could, to kill the interior lights. Dark as a tar pit, rain pelting down; the place smelled almost like a northern lake. We squished through the wet side yard to the porch, crossed the porch. John hesitated, then knocked.
Knocked again, then quietly, to me, "Jeez, I hope there's no alarm. I never even thought of that."
"If there is, we run." I tried the knob. "Shit."
"It's open. Don't touch anything. " I pushed the door with my knuckles, and immediately smelled the death inside.
"Got a problem," I said.
"I smell it."
The odor wasn't of physical decomposition, but simply of... death. An odd odor that dead people gather about them, an odor of dying heat, maybe, or souring gases, not heavy, but light, intangible, unpleasant. Something best not to think about. I was afraid to use the flashlight, because nothing brings the cops faster than a flashlight in a dark house. Instead, I pulled John inside, closed the door, groped around, found a wall switch, and turned on a ceiling light.
The first thing we saw was the wheelchair, and then what looked like a pile of grey laundry in a corner. We both stepped that way and saw the nearly weightless, egg-shell skull of a young black man, with a scattering of books around his head. There was no question that he was dead. His face had been wrinkled, maybe from pain, and though you could tell he'd been young, he had a patina of age.
"Ah, shit," I said.
"I would have liked to have met him," John said softly.
I'd moved over closer, saw the gun in the corner and said, "There's a gun," and then stepped over the body and saw the misshapen skull and the blood. "Somebody killed him."
"Somebody... " John stepped over, saw the blood. "Oh, boy."
"Let's check around," I said. I glanced at the wheelchair, noticed the tray with a series of clamps. "John, look at this..."
"Looks like a laptop set-up."
We both knew that was bad. We did a quick run-through of the house, and found a wi-fi router in a back closet, plugged into a cable modem. "No servers," I said. "I wondered about that."
"He seemed to have servers, but that would have made him vulnerable. So he has virtual servers. All of his stuff is... out there, somewhere. What wasn't on the laptop."
John said, "Let's see if we can find some gloves, so we don't leave fingerprints all over the place."
Bobby's house was a mix of old and new. The entire house had wooden floors board floors as in old southern farmhouses covered in the dining room by a semi-threadbare oriental carpet that looked as though it came from the turn-of-the-twentieth-century. But it wasn't cheap; it fit the room well and looked inherited. A dozen plants were scattered through the half-dozen rooms, including five or six orchids, one blooming with gorgeous white flowers like a spray of silvery moons. An upright piano sat in one corner of the living room, the keyboard cover up, sheet music for Cole Porter's I Get a Kick Out of You perched on the music stand. There was all the usual stuff a big TV, game cartridges, a stereo system with a CD player and maybe a thousand jazz and classical CDs, and a modern turntable for vinyl records, and three or four hundred records to go with the turntable. He liked Elvis Presley, I noticed, along with all the big Blues masters.
There were photographs. Framed photos of single faces, and groups of people gathered around cars or standing in front of houses, black people, all, smiling at the camera, dressed in suits and dresses as if they'd just gotten back from church, maybe a wedding; and the style of the photos, and the contents, judging from the cars that were visible, went back to the 1930s, and came forward, perhaps, to the 80s.
And there were books. Big piles of computer stuff, but also detective and thriller novels, and general fiction. A copy of Annie Proulx's That Old Ace in the Hole was split open over a chair that faced a wide-screen television. A comfortable house, a comfortable home, all come to a pile of laundry in a corner, with a starved-bony face and a pool of blood.
We found a tool box in a kitchen drawer, and a box of vinyl gloves: actually, three boxes of vinyl gloves, which suggested that Bobby had had allergies, as well as the problem that was killing him, whatever it was.
We spent an hour going through the house, working quickly, trying to cover everything. For practical purposes, the house was one-story no basement, and while there was an attic space, access was through a ceiling hatch, and Bobby couldn't have gotten to it. Anything important, we thought, would be on the main floor. We wanted computer disks, written files, anything that might involve Bobby's complicated computer relationships.
I spent a half hour going through two file cabinets, mostly income tax and investment records. Nothing, as far as I could see, that related to his computer work except for computer purchase records from Dell and IBM. I took those, dropping them in an empty Harry and David fruit-delivery box.
Every time we went in the frontroom, we curled our faces away from the bundle in the corner I saw John do it, and I felt myself do it. But there was the curiosity... what did the mysterious Bobby really look like? I couldn't touch him, didn't want to move him, but looking down at him once, forcing myself, I decided that he looked a little like photos I'd seen of Somalis on the ragged edge of hunger. He had been nice-looking, but there was not much left of him; and now he looked, deflated, sad, unready to be dead. He gave us a sense of silence and gloom.
Under some shoes in the bedroom closet, John spotted a board that looked out of place. When he rattled it, and then lifted it, he found a green metal box, and inside that, an expired U.S. passport with the photo of a teen-aged Bobby inside, a small amount of inexpensive, old-fashioned women's jewelry his mother's? and sixteen thousand dollars in twenties and fifties.
"Take the money?" I asked John.
"If we don't, the cops might," John said, looking at me over the cash. "I don't need it."
"What if, uh, he has a will, and wants it to go to somebody?"
"We find that out and send it to them," John said. "But I'm afraid that if we don't take it, it's gonna disappear."
We put the money in the Harry and David box.
The biggest find came in the front room, in a built-in book cabinet not far from Bobby's outstretched hand. It was hard to see it had been designed that way but the cabinet was deeper from the side than it was from the front. In other words, if you looked at it from the side, it was a full fifteen inches deep. If you looked at it from the front, it was barely deep enough for a full-sized novel. Some of the novels that had been in the shelves had been pulled out, and were scattered around the floor by the body.
I turned and said, "Come look at this."
John stepped carefully past the body and I pointed out the depth discrepancy. It took a minute to figure out, but if you pressed on one corner of the back of each shelf, a board simply popped loose. When you removed the board, you found a narrow little space behind the books. It was convenient, simple and mostly effective.
Inside were seventy DVD disks: Bobby's files. We put them in the Harry & David box. Working around the body, John said, morosely, "That smell, Jesus, Kidd, I feel like it's getting into me."
"Keep working. Don't look."
When we were done, we put our raincoats back on, put the Harry and David box in a garbage bag, and toted it out to the car. The rain was constant, but not cold, and I could hear it gurgling down drain pipes off the tin roof; a sound that was sometimes light and musical, but tonight sounded like Wagner. Before we finally closed the door and wiped the doorknobs, John said, "I hate to leave him like this."
I looked back at the crumbled body on the floor and said, "You know, we really can't. Somebody killed him and the sooner the cops get here, the more likely they are to catch the guy."
"So we call the cops?" John didn't like cops
"We call somebody," I said. "We've got to think about it. The thing is, we didn't find a computer and it looks like whoever came in, took it. That means that Bobby's main machine is floating around out there."
"You think... no." John shook his head at his own thought.
"Wishful thinking. I was gonna say, maybe this was neighborhood thieves, and he caught them at it, and they killed him. But then, if it was just a burglary, they would have taken other stuff. There was all kinds of stuff that thieves would take, just sitting around."
"Yeah. But they only took the laptop. That means that they came for it. And were willing to kill for it," I said.
"If we're lucky, he encrypted the sensitive stuff. Every time he wanted to send me something serious, I'd get the key, and then after I acknowledged it, the file would come in. If he whipped some 128-bit encryption on it, we're okay."
"But if we're not lucky and he didn't encrypt..."
"Then we could be in trouble," I said.