by Tony Bove
Copyright © 2003, Tony Bove, All Rights Reserved.
The body was never found. Perhaps there never was a real body in the churning cataclysmic waters of the Golden Gate that day, underneath the bridge. It may have been another cyber-joke like the hackers do with their benevolent viruses, only played out in real life. And if it were a hoax, very few people would know, perhaps only the man who had supposedly occupied that body.
Rob Smolder popped into his wife Rachel's study, energized, like out of a scene of Ozzie and Harriet, checking himself in the mirror more than once, trying to paste down a stubborn shock of his wild curly brown hair. A Beatles album was playing.
Everybody had a hard year
Everybody had a good time
Everybody had a wet dream
Everybody saw the sun shine...
-- Beatles, "I've Got a Feeling" (Lennon/McCartney)
"Hello goodbye," he announced to her, across the room.
"Don't you sound perky," answered Rachel unconvincingly. She was a beautiful woman with an angular, ruling-class face and sharp features, undermined by a plebian shock of red hair. She looked up from her crashed PC with a strained look of worry. The Aggregate Networks Recovery CD was stuck in some routine, repeating its sad message about reconstruction.
"For once, things are clicking," he said, checking his digital cell phone. "Even my worthless gadgets are starting to work again." He was announcing this, as if to hidden recorders in the room.
She put on a brave face. They were both acting now. "I was just reading about some worthless gadgets. The Internet Vegas show preview. But the computer crashed. Again."
"It's been a bad year," Rob chuckled, walking over to her and putting his arm around her shoulders, then massaging them, while his eyes darted around the room, perhaps searching for video cameras. "Stop worrying. Everything's going to work."
"Everything's going to work," Rachel repeated, also looking around, as if waiting for a director to yell cut. But nothing happened. She stiffened, and continued with her lines. "Are you all set? Everything's in place? You're wearing the right clothes? You're going to get rid of that gadget?" She was referring to his phone.
"All set." He turned off the phone and left it conspicuously on a table, then smiled that Ozzie smile.
"Don't forget to take that notebook with you. You know how you always forget these things." Rachel had lapsed back into the emotionless Harriet again.
"It's been so long since I wrote in a paper notebook..." He frowned at her, then grinned back, the timing as perfect as a TV sitcom. "Don't worry, I'll remember."
"Well, before you go, maybe you could help me with this PC. It's stuck in recovery."
"Just hit the Escape key."
She did, but nothing seemed to happen. He came up to her and kissed her on the cheek.
She frowned up at him. "Long live the Media Liberation Front," she announced ruefully to the room, to whoever was watching or listening.
He smiled, but this was his own smile, out of character. He whispered to her while pretending to kiss her ear. "Take care. Remember, 'You know my name, look up the number' and all that."
Then he was gone. She hit the Escape key again, and sighed. She resolved not to think about what was going to happen.
* * *
A few minutes later, Rob Smolder roared out of his Sausalito garage in a red convertible Ford Mustang. The day was bright, sunny, the kind of day that if you reached high enough into the clear blue sky, your fingers would come back blue. He popped the CD of the Beatles' Abbey Road and advanced to track 7, start of the "second side" of the original LP. The top was down; he turned up the volume. He raced up the hill to 101 and towards the tunnel, the tunnel to the Bridge, his only escape route by car out of Marin County and all that it meant to him.
Traffic congealed inside the tunnel. How fitting: an escape in slow motion. Drivers were beeping their car horns at each other to the rhythm of "Shave and a Haircut -- Two Bits". Smolder's car blared out the voice of Paul McCartney singing "Golden slumbers fill your eyes". Rob was singing, and as he crept forward into the tunnel, he realized he wasn't the only one. The beeping had faded out and people were singing along with him, singing with wild abandon, like Greeks on a holiday. As they segued into "Carry That Weight" Rob could hear voices in and out of tune, in and out of rhythm, wavering and unwavering, falsetto and soprano, but enough in unison to recognize the song. As the Beatles slid into the guitar solos the horns started again, this time punctuating each guitar riff. "The End" was in many ways a much easier tune to play car horn with than "Shave and a Haircut". Blaaah-Blahp! Blaaah-Blahp! Over and over Then, without warning, the CD skipped back and repeated, and repeated, stuck in time The song never reached its corny ending.
Smolder was laughing like a maniac, his eyes wide and his mouth wide open, as he exited the tunnel into sunlight. As he approached the Bridge, he chose the "death lane", the lane in the middle that was separated from oncoming traffic by flimsy plastic orange markers. He switched CDs as his car crept onto the Bridge, as if his traffic-mates were still listening.
Everybody having a good time
You were talking about the end of the world
-- U2, "Until the End of the World"
At the other end, he got off at the first exit, and doubled-back to the east-side parking lot. Smolder then parked in slot number 26, farthest from the rest rooms, closed his convertible top, and left the car.
The FBI agent following him was momentarily distracted and got off on the wrong exit. By the time he reached the parking lot, Smolder's car was there but Smolder was gone. The agent thought he saw him going up the pedestrian ramp, but when he ran up to the Bridge, Smolder could not be found. As he searched, a Golden Gate Park Police car stopped in the middle of the Bridge, responding to call from a tourist who thought she saw someone jump. The agent returned to his car and left the scene.
The Park Police hit the red button to summon the rescue boat, which searched the waters underneath. About a half-hour later, the tourist called the Park Police again, saying that she got it all on videotape. The tourist, Rosemary DeSantis, a blonde woman about 35 with a striking figure, so befuddled the officers that they forgot to give her a receipt for the tape.
She had been panning her camera at that moment searching for a better shot of the Marin Headlands. She would eventually pan back to the Bridge, and catch someone looking like and dressed like Rob Smolder, walking to the midpoint of the Bridge on the City side, facing the City and the East Bay.
It seemed such an ordinary day, a man walking among tourists on the Bridge, then turning to face the side of civilization. San Francisco: every reason to live right in front of him. But he jumps. As dramatic as it seems, the jump looks like a practice run of a special effect or a scene from the dailies for a movie, because there is no sound track but wind noise on the microphone. There is no build-up, no climax. The body already looked lifeless, and seemed to be dragged over the Bridge's rail and then dropped into the raging sea.
Later that night thieves slashed the convertible top of Smolder's car and broke in. A man returning from the bathroom dialed 911. As the Park police arrived, less than a minute later, the first thief jumped out and took off, carrying a notebook and a CD. The second one zigzagged off on a different route than the first. The second one was caught. His name was Pico, lived in an apartment near 22nd and Valencia. They held him until the San Francisco police arrived.
The Park Police found a note on the passenger side front seat with a Web address: http://www.smolder.com/death.html. They estimated that the car had been there since early afternoon. The suicide experts from homicide arrived, took a look around, and said to forget it, the rescue boat hadn't found anything and had already returned to dock. They considered the whole affair either a prank or a lost cause. But they'd have to wait until morning to make sure, and search along the shores of the Pacific outside the Golden Gate, as a body would have floated out to sea with the outgoing tide. They collared Pico and took him to the precinct jail. The car was towed to a police impound lot.
* * *
Raymond Cheney, FBI special lieutenant in charge of high-tech operations in Northern California, heard about Rob Smolder from his agents in San Francisco by secure wireless phone as his unmarked black helicopter traced the hills north of Lake Sonoma. The pilot pointed to a column of smoke rising from a nearby slope, about five miles from the nearest pocket of civilization (a Native American casino), and the helicopter banked into a turn to pass over low. Men with DEA jackets were standing around a large pile of fresh-cut marijuana plants, and in the middle a fire was crackling. They were all leaning into the smoke, inhaling shamelessly.
"That's an affirmative," he barked into the phone. "Proceed to the Santa Rosa airport for repairs. Copy." He waited to hear them repeat what he said. "Affirmative. Over and out." He hung up and turned to look at the bureau chief sitting behind him in the helicopter. The bureau chief wore the traditional FBI uniform, white shirt, blue tie, dark blue suit, and black shiny wingtips. Cheney, in flannel shirt, blue jeans, and cowboy boots, scrambled into the back of the cabin where they could talk more easily.
"We lost another one," Cheney said and shrugged. "Gyro's out. What's a helicopter cost these days?"
"Nothing to us. They're on loan as part of the war on terrorism. And believe me," the bureau chief leaned into Cheney to make his point, "these Pot Page anarchists are terrorists. They're in cahoots with Earth First, and they're responsible for the attack on Northwest Lumber's Web site."
"Just as I thought would happen," said Cheney.
"This is incredible, unbelievable," said the bureau chief, wiping his face with a handkerchief. "This year has been one disaster after another. We don't have enough to worry about with terrorists from the Middle East, we have to now worry about our homegrown ones."
"Not really. These people are harmless," said Cheney nonchalantly.
"You think selling pot from a Web site is harmless?" The bureau chief was livid.
Cheney cleared his throat and changed the subject. "The real problem is the encryption software they were using. If real terrorists get their hands on it "
"Theory?" asked the bureau chief, softening up and reverting back to FBI training jargon.
"Fact," replied Cheney. He said this as if to prove that despite his appearance he was nevertheless an FBI lieutenant. "An underground encryption group engineered the site attack. These are hackers that worked on the Pot Page, but they had some help from an important encryption expert, Mort Gill, who has done work not only for the CIA, but even for us." He paused to let that sink in. "Not only that, this expert has a smart friend, a former computer industry entrepreneur by the name of Peter Moaning, who profited from the stock's downturn. A variation on the 'short and distort' operations the Mafia conducts. They short the stock, then hit the company. The stock takes a dive, and they profit from the difference."
"Hmmm," said the bureau chief, nodding. "Well at least that makes some sense. But what is the goal of this encryption group?"
"They are trying to set up an alternate Internet, one that is not penetrable by law enforcement. To make it secure, the encryption keys are changed randomly by special key operatives who can access, by fingerprint, a software key that updates the encryption algorithm instantaneously across the network, transparently."
"I don't understand, how do people use it? How does this thing spread?"
"The software is distributed in a number of different ways. It can arrive as an email attachment. It could be encoded into a song or video clip. Or you can visit a site to download it, just by clicking on something. Only you think you're getting something else."
"But wouldn't it be easy for your team to just get the software and follow the links to the source?"
Cheney gave him that piercing glare he was famous for. "It's a cultural virus, spread by the underground. Enforcement people are generally not hip enough to understand how to use it."
The bureau chief shook his head, letting the insult pass, and asked, "so who do we look for to be this key operative?"
"They call them conduits." Cheney turned to look out the front window.
Cheney scanned the horizon out the helicopter's side window. "Affirmative. We expect them to be well connected with the hacker community." He stopped talking long enough to try the digital binoculars with night vision, but the device wasn't working, and he threw it back on the seat. "But they have probably dropped out of everyday life altogether. The conduits could be anywhere in the world, staying in touch by securely encrypted email. We have to find at least one of these conduits."
"You have someone in mind?"
"Yes," Cheney smiled. "Yes I do."
* * *
At about the same time Smolder drove across the Bridge, Andrew Tinker shuffled into the sparsely furnished conference room of Electric Onion, a software company specializing in enterprise-level network security. His unkempt look made him seem out of place even though he wore standard pressed chinos and dress sneakers. But the black t-shirt with "No More Slogans" in white across the front suggested that he came from the creative side of marketing. A vice president in a black suit stood in the corner, trying to make his cell phone work. Senior managers sat at the conference table staring at a set of color prints of a new logo for the company.
A designer from a Seattle firm explained each logo design, emphasizing its finer points. "This one has a sweep that suggests frivolty," he said, sweeping his hands through the air at the bemused managers, "yet at the same time there is a solid base of support, sugggesting firmness and longevity," he concluded, forming a rectangle in the air with his hands. "While this one," he quickly added, knowing well that most people will listen for only 17 seconds before thinking of something else, "suggests not only frivolty, firmness, and longevity, but also cleverness, as the round shape reminds one of a bulls-eye, a target, which has always been a symbol of success. It is important for a company to convey not only success, but also its own corporate culture, when promoting its brand. Especially when promoting its brand with a multimillion dollar ad campaign," he smirked. "The name suggests something electric, dynamic, always changing, and charged with electricity, while also offering just a slight whiff of something different." The managers murmured to each other while associates took notes.
"Tinker, look at this one." His boss, one of the direct reports, favored the second one, a design of concentric circles. The entire cost of design and production for the logo side of their new branding effort had now risen to about half of Andrew Tinker's yearly salary. This flimsy designer in Seattle was milking this project for all it was worth.
"I think it looks like a hubcap," Tinker said sheepishly. The room suddenly went quiet; everyone stared at Tinker. He avoided their stares and quickly left the room.
An hour later his friend Charlie O'Brien called on him at the office. Charlie was early for the reception that Electric Onion was putting on across the street at an art gallery. Tinker went outside rather than have Charlie come upstairs to see his miserable desk, wedged into a corner and surrounded by dead machines -- PCs, printers, a scanner, several ancient disk drives, etc. His corner of the floor looked like a high-tech graveyard. It hadn't changed in five years while the industry had accelerated around him.
They walked two blocks until Charlie looked up into the windows of an ancient brick warehouse in the south-of-Market section of San Francisco. The building had been revamped in the previous decade to hold the offices of a dot-com, its decoration consisting entirely of exposed pipes, gleaming chrome desklamps, and gray swivel chairs. The building's offices were now empty, with for-rent signs in the windows and the look of anxious poverty.
"They haven't even rented this place yet. It's been, what, eight months since I was laid off? Still nothing's happening here." Charlie always stood with his weight on his right leg advancing forward, headlong into the world. "The CEO used to say 'failure is not an option.'" He seemed an unlikely sort to be spouting doom from street corners, wearing an alligator shirt (the alligator replaced by the logo of the Grateful Dead) with pressed chinos and dress sneakers. No rings or Rolex watches, but he sported a cultivated air about him, and his hair was long but neat and usually tied back. His piercing eyes suggested malevolence. "This place used to be a gunpowder factory. Imagine failure in that context. The entire South of Market goes up in smoke."
Tinker hovered and bounced around Charlie like a balloon ready to pop. "I have a pretty long record of failure in this business," he bragged. "I have a black cloud following me around."
Charlie regarded Tinker with slight contempt. He metaphorically tugged at Tinker's line, bringing the Tinker balloon back down to eye level. "You picked the wrong horses, that's all."
"Yeah, remember 'interactive television'? Right after I join the Web was invented. Bye bye ITV. Then the imaging company, after only a year working there, the company goes out in a hailstorm of criticism about its porn customers. Then the game company, so far ahead of its time it makes the cover of Fizz. I join, and it disintegrates two months later."
"Yeah, that was a quick one, wasn't it?"
Tinker glared at him. "Just this year I thought I was making the right move, into enterprise security. With all the network attacks this year, the stock was destined to go up. Now, just one month before I get my first options, this deal with Aggregate goes through, and the stock takes a dive. I may even lose my job." Electric Onion was about to become part of Aggregate Networks as a subsidiary, hence the need for a logo change.
Charlie smiled. "And here you are, about to attend your job's funeral. While we're at it, let's celebrate the loss of the public domain, and the absence of any decent music from the record labels. This party," he was referring to the cocktail reception just starting up, a few doors down, in one of the recently abandoned art studios, "is like Nero fiddling while Rome burns."
"Our copyright-protection software is the best in the business," responded Tinker quickly. Too quickly -- he regretted saying "our". He added, meekly, "It's not the fault of the company if the technology is misused."
"You mean it's not your fault. And you're right, 'cause you are about to get canned." Charlie laughed like he did everything else, hugely. "So Aggregate Networks locks up everything, just like record labels did with music. And uses your company's software to encrypt it. And the result of all this control? Nothing available but crap."
"Well I'm not one to defend Aggregate," said Tinker. "I just hope I still have a job tomorrow. I think I blundered today. I think upper management noticed me."
"Bad news. You don't want them to notice you, or they'll think you're a key part of the corporate culture, which they have to assimilate or eliminate with the acquisition. And they can't use someone who represents the old culture." Charlie smiled and stared off into the traffic lining itself up for the Bay Bridge. "And that's the problem right there. Competent people like you get in trouble if you're noticed. Anyway, they expect you would have moved on in a few years, so they make it happen faster. There's no heart and soul in this industry anymore."
Tinker deflated and stopped hovering. He tested the sidewalk for signs of softening. "Look, I don't need more negative thinking. I'm about to lose everything I worked for, the dream I worked so hard for. We were going to buy our first house next year with this stock. But it's not gonna happen, and I'm probably gonna lose my job as well. I know everybody's having a hard year, but I've had this black cloud following me around for years."
Charlie shrugged in disgust. Just what he needed right now, for this reception -- a morose sidekick. "Don't tell me about no fucking 'black cloud'. It's all in your mind."
"Yeah, you can say that, you've gotten used to being unemployed."
Charlie just smiled that smile he borrowed from W.C. Fields, as if he had just thought of something. His eyebrows popped up and down and his eyes twinkled. "Don't worry, Tinker my boy. It's time to think big. You know what they say about changes, transitions. They kick you into high gear."
Tinker shook his head. "I'm too old for this." He instantly regretted saying it.
"I understand the feeling," said Charlie in mock sympathy. "You're in your late 40s, and you feel trapped, enmeshed in the grinding gears of everyday life." He lit a cigarette the ex-con way, hands encircling the match. "Well, I got plans. Big plans."
"I don't wanna hear your half-baked plans," Tinker fired back as they headed down the street to the reception. "You've been out of work, what, eight months? All you could think of doing is that Pot Page, and you almost got busted for it."
"Got away with some bodacious Mendo bud," Charlie grinned. "Imagine, you can sell just about anything, legal or not. I'm getting my best bootleg recordings out of the closet. If it was possible to sell pot from the Web --"
"And get caught," interrupted Tinker.
"But not for six months! And it will be much harder to find and shut down a music site."
"Not true," said Tinker. "The recording industry's hackers are better than the DEA's hackers. I mean, if you had a choice, music industry or drug enforcement "
"Depends on the money and the fringe benefits," said Charlie. They both laughed. "Still, no one's shut down my radio stream yet. I must be below their radar."
"You won't stay in business long enough to make a profit," said Tinker.
"Bullshit. Music is recession-proof, like porn and drugs. There wouldn't be such a big market if people didn't want it." Charlie poked Tinker in the shoulder. "And what about my porn site? We're getting paid subscribers. It's about to make a profit."
"Yeah, but you make your girlfriend do it," Tinker laughed.
"She wants to do it," Charlie exhaled cigarette smoke. "It's her thing, she gets off on that voyeur thing."
"I don't wanna go there." Tinker arched one eyebrow, curiously, like Star Trek's Mr. Spock. They went inside to a reception that was aglow with grace and style. Bright lights danced on tops of computer displays arranged around the edges. Shrimp, vegetables, cheeses and wines were arranged in the center, surrounded by people dressed in the latest high-tech clothing, with twinkling lights in their ears and scrolling messages across their chests, blinking sneakers, chirping cell phones, PDAs dangling from belts. Neo-punks in full regalia mingled with white-shirt finance guys with short, cropped hair and tiny earrings. Charlie and Tinker strode into this scene like conquering heroes.
The last of the rock stars
When hip hop drove the big cars
In the time when new media
Was the big idea
That was the big idea
-- U2, "Kite"
The place was jumping with ambition and bluster, and everywhere Tinker looked, confident people were engaged in spirited conversations or off in corners concocting deals. Tinker muttered to Charlie, "Who are these people?"
"You were once like that," Charlie retorted. "Don't you remember? Twenty years ago. They're your children. Don't you recognize them?"
It took a while for Tinker to focus on individual people. He eventually spotted Eric Mauer, a college buddy of Tinker and Charlie, from UC Berkeley. Tinker moved closer to Charlie and pointed out Eric, then asked him, "Where's Rob Smolder tonight?" Tinker always felt easier in the company of very powerful men and women when Rob was on hand. Rob, another UC Berkeley buddy, always graciously introduced Tinker as an important industry writer.
"I don't know, but there's Ted Anson," hissed Charlie at Tinker's ear, referring to another friend from UC Berkeley days, not really part of the O'Brien-Tinker-Mauer-Smolder axes, but located somewhere on a higher plane, where Smolder spent considerable time raising funds. Anson had evolved from a pseudo-socialist mindset of the early 1970s into a considerably influential venture capitalist. "I have to talk to him tonight." Charlie O'Brien sniffed the air nervously like a horse waiting to jump from the starting gate. "Ahhh, this place is alive with possibilities. Dreams are made here." Then he went off to try to position himself for a schmooze with Ted Anson.
Charlie watched as Ted Anson, a fortyish executive in regulation blazer, white shirt and school tie, chinos, and oxfords, strode purposefully over to a crowd of journalists hovering over the shrimp. Charlie had connected in conversations with him over the years since college and actually considered him a friend, but now he just marveled at the way Anson walked, with the supreme confidence of the very wealthy and powerful, as if every step mattered. People turned to watch Anson stop to talk to a reporter from the Wall St. Journal. Charlie would read the quote the next day. Charlie's gaze followed him as he shook hands with people. It was not just luck. Ted Anson was smart, had gone from UC Berkeley back to their mutual hometown, Philadelphia, to the Wharton School of Business. He knew angles that Charlie knew nothing about.
Charlie stood near the cluster of people at the end of the table, next to the cocktail napkins. Sooner or later, Anson would need a napkin for his shrimp-stuck fingers.
Ted Anson took the napkin from Charlie, then looked him up and down, sizing him up in a rather obvious fashion. "Charlie O'Brien. How are you." Anson didn't really ask this as a question, just stated it as a fact. Anson spoke with the slight whine of an educated Easterner, drawing out his syllables and flattening his "r"s like a Bostoner, always with an ironic grin of self-deprecation, as if he didn't deserve his good fortune.
"Fine," rasped Charlie. "What's the next step, do you think, with Mort Gill's encryption software?"
"Have you talked to Peter Moaning yet?" Anson leaned in, speaking directly to Charlie's face, and Charlie couldn't help thinking that Anson was doing this to keep the conversation private -- no zoom microphones could pick it up, and no one could read his lips.
"No, haven't heard from him in a while," Charlie lied. Actually, Moaning was a silent partner in his porn site.
"You will. Most likely tonight," Anson said, and he glanced at his watch. "In fact, you should leave now. There's going to be an incident of some kind here, with the authorities, in about fifteen minutes. Don't tell anyone, just leave " Anson looked over his shoulder, then back to Charlie. "And don't tell anyone that I gave you this advance warning."
Charlie was about to ask something, but Anson put a finger to his lips, motioning silence. Then Anson said, in parting, "We'll stay in touch." Again, it was not a question, it was a statement.
Charlie tried to amble back to the group around Tinker without showing any nervousness. He thought, could it be that I really need Tinker? Andrew Tinker Charlie had known him since high school and they'd gone to UC together. No one called him Andrew or "Andy". It was just Tinker, and Tinker seemed to prefer it that way. As a sidekick, Tinker was more like a Gilligan than a Tonto. Should Charlie break his promise to Anson and tell Tinker to split? Charlie looked back in the direction Ted Anson had taken, but did not see him, and couldn't find him anywhere in the room. Feeling a bit guilty, Charlie snuck out a side entrance.
A lively conversation had grown around Tinker, who stood there looking perplexed. An acquaintance, Andy Ames, had a habit of popping up in conversation with just a word or company name, first thing out of his mouth, usually a trend or hot company, stopping conversation in its tracks. "The Aggregate judgement," he announced, and sure enough, conversation stopped.
Mal Contour, a journalist, addressed Ames. "Aggregate made a deal with the enforcement agencies to adopt the new encryption standard, so that all the other smaller companies, like our host, the one our friend here works for," he said, pointing at Tinker, "have to either adopt the same standard or go out of business. Which stifles innovation, no question about it."
"Innovation's no longer the issue," asserted Tinker. "Encryption should be free, for everyone, without government interference." But the moment after he said it, he regretted it. He didn't want to get into this discussion. What did he care about politics? What Contour said was true, and he was probably going to lose his job anyway.
"Yes, and there are ways to defeat that," asserted Eric Mauer in his slightly affected German accent. "You can use the latest open source encryption software." He said this like it was a call to arms. "You can make yourself a new personality, feed them bogus data. You can use ICE and protect yourself from anything." Eric spoke with authority, but was greeted with a frosty silence with the mention of Mort Gill's ICE, the free encryption software that was the lone wolf of the industry defying the government standards. No one wanted to think about how much privacy had been, and would forever be, invaded. No one wanted to challenge Eric's opinion.
Andy Ames broke the silence. "That's what I think that new site uses, y'know, have you seen it? Escapewithyourlife.com?" Someone giggled, but Ames pressed on. "That's what I think it is, the 'moment of truth' the site talks about "
"Hush," said a shapely blonde in a long slinky outfit, grabbing Andy Ames' arm and cuddling with him. "You're not supposed to talk about it," she said to everyone, grinning wickedly.
The group murmured approval and started to break up into little clumps, with people muttering to each other, "Have you been there yet?" and "Nah, I haven't done it yet. What's it like?" and "I'm a little bit afraid of going there, what will it do to my system?" and "It messes with your cookies, that much I know."
Tinker listened attentively. He had not been to the site yet, and he started to feel a bit paranoid. Should he have? And then, as if conforming to a textbook description of a reverse paranoid reaction, reality shifted gears. Suddenly, heralded by subtle movements in the crowd, there were cops everywhere.
A woman screamed but was just as instantly muffled, and the crowd murmur turned to a roar that asked the question, what is going on? Tinker got stuck between a young woman with orange hair and a National Guardsman, a thirtysomething banker from the Peninsula holding an M16 assault rifle. He thought, did this have anything to do with that Web site Ames was talking about? But it couldn't be; they were surrounded by soldiers.
The officer seemingly in charge spoke through a bullhorn. "Stay where you are, don't panic. Please do not leave the building. We are conducting a search, but there is no need to panic."
The party hushed, tensions eased slightly. Tinker was not particularly afraid for his life because the place was under control and was not likely to blow up. At the same time, there was a fatalistic stab to his gut that suggested that the world had just gone to hell. Fire engines were racing everywhere, and perhaps the entire City was turmoil.
Later Tinker learned that someone had attacked the Electric Onion Web site, and the FBI had been called in. Tinker had wandered around outside after each civilian was searched and let go, but couldn't find Charlie, or any of his other friends. They had all melted into the foggy night. Tinker remembered that night, the night Smolder did not show up, the night the Electric Onion reception was closed down, the night Charlie disappeared without warning as the start of the meltdown of his life. Some kind of fog had crept into all their lives like a shared hallucination, or a bout of collective, selective amnesia. Yes, it had been a bad year, but the world seemed like it was not working at all; the agencies of comfort and security were out to lunch, and the replacement trainees were incompetent. The brakes had failed and Tinker's life was careening out of control.