By midnight, they had changed planes in Minneapolis, flying from San Francisco, bound for Jamaica. Moaning had paid for a round-trip ticket, but Charlie wasn't going to use the return flight. Without telling anyone, not even Tinker, he had made up his mind to disappear for a while, leaving his girlfriend in the lurch and his business teetering on the edge of bankruptcy.
'Cause it's time for you and me
come to face reality.
-- Jimi Hendrix, "Straight Ahead" (Hendrix)
Things were about as bad as they could be. And he had been rendered powerless, mostly by attaching himself to people who adjusted their lives to the beat of things. If you are constantly adjusting, you will fall victim to the whimsical aspirations of others. Life then goes by at such a rapid rate that there is no time to plan your own moves. This is Tinker's problem, not Charlie's. Like Neal Cassidy the Prankster bus driver used to say, you've got to zig before they zag.
As the plane lifted off from Minneapolis, remorse settled in. He shrugged it off, staring into the Minneapolis rain, a purple rain indeed, as this was the land of The Artist Formerly Known as the Artist Formerly Known as Prince. Gloomy, actually murky, tense with dramatic guitar flourishes, out of nowhere a beat. Charlie didn't even know Prince's music but he could hear a kind of frozen, emotionless funk in that rain that he would always associate with Minneapolis at night. Jimi Hendrix was the most obvious influence on Prince's guitar style. Both of them had been described in their times as the inheritor of the Robert Johnson myth, of the devil at the crossroads. Now Charlie was flying across that great haunted blues land, tracing backwards the route of the bluesmen from the southern Delta who moved north to Chicago.
I got stones in my passway
And my road seem dark as night
Jamaica once served as a way-station for the slave trade, like Haiti, a trade dominated in part by Irish sailors manning ships that set out from Liverpool to Africa loaded with Western goods to trade for natives. The ships brought slaves to the Caribbean and eventually to New Orleans, where they were traded for tobacco and cotton in a marketplace also dominated in part by Irish-American settlers in the Deep South. These ships would return to Liverpool, completing the circuit, carrying the latest American potions, inventions, and poisons back to the Old Western World. This circuit was later established with music: Africa, Jamaica, New Orleans, and back to England. The hypocritical Irish Catholics of that era were Charlie O'Brien's ancestors.
Thoughts of his ancestors kept him awake all the way, while Tinker fidgeted in his sleep next to him. Charlie could never sleep in an airplane, and he arrived finally in Montego Bay in a sour mood. He trudged bleary-eyed through the immigration line, sweat crawling under his clothes in the humid airport terminal. Outside, in the unrelentingly bright yellow haze of Jamaica, a short black man with a quick smile told them to follow him. So Charlie and Tinker schlepped their bags through the hot trash-strewn parking lots, hopping over smoldering tires, literally making a leap over a small canal... to get to this man's car. All the way followed by six or eight black hustlers repeating "yah mon" over and over. With the smoky haze and the irritating smell of burning trash, the location could have been Cape Town, or Watts.
Once inside the hot car, with his bag tucked away by the short black man (whose name, it turned out, is Tutu Ford, head of Ford Tours of Negril), he felt safe. So did Tinker, who handed a dollar to a small black boy that had helped with one bag. Right away, like a swarm of vultures, the hustlers gathered at the back door of the car while Charlie swung into the front passenger side, and Tutu gunned the engine. A swarm of beggars surrounded the car.
"Don't ever do that, man," yelled Charlie, as Tutu edged forward. "Don't ever tip these people." Some of the people were now rocking the car as it moved.
"The kid helped with a bag," was all Tinker could say. Without realizing it, he'd stumbled into the role of the ugly American.
"Man, you don't know," Charlie said. "Just watch me. Do what I do." Tutu nodded with him, as if he understood. They broke free, and Tutu drove furiously through the muddy streets of Montego Bay, then headed west along the northern coast. After about a half-hour of nausea-inducing highway weaving to and fro, passing trucks and slow tourist buses, Tutu pulled over at a beer shack. They tumbled out into the hot sun, and Charlie gratifyingly downed a cold Red Stripe. He was starting his second when Tutu passed him the biggest spliff he had ever seen.
It could have been a minute, an hour. The nausea was gone. Beautiful black teenage girls danced languidly in the sunshine on the edge of the lush jungle. After a while they were driving, and he daydreamed in the back seat gazing out at the beaches, absorbing the reggae culture.
Take the blinkers off your eyes,
The power's in your hands...
There ain't no heaven, and there ain't no hell,
Except the one we're in, and you know it too well.
-- UB40, "Don't Let It Pass You By" (UB40)
"Yo man," Tinker laughed, "Why are we listening to some British group that picked up on reggae, instead of the real thing?"
Tutu laughed back. "Y'know mon, what 'UB40' stands for, in the English? It's the name of the unemployment form." He laughed again. Jamaica is somewhere between the second and third worlds, with enough tourists and culture to keep the revenue flowing. Negril is a tourist town, and the beaches are sparkling and beautiful, and the local people are friendly as they hustle you for everything from guided tours to gigantic spliffs. The mix of European, Japanese, and American tourists keeps the prices high and the choices broad. Every night there's a live music party on the beach.
That night, perhaps it was the lack of sleep for 24 hours, or the sudden rush of a laid-back attitude, but whatever it was, it acted like a switch on Charlie's soul. He no longer felt the melancholy of the road. He danced on the beach to the reggae and soka and carnival music. The next day he learned how to snorkel. He floated above the coral, sea water so consistently blue it seemed virtual, like you could fake it in Photoshop. Schools of shimmering fish swimming by, in swirls of pink and blue unimagined even by the designers of special-effects filters.
* * *
On the third day in Jamaica the group got together for a planning session. Peter Moaning rented a huge yacht -- enough to hold 40 tourists -- for a meeting of six and a support staff and captain. They piloted the yacht around the western tip of Jamaica and along its southern coast for a while, far enough to glimpse the Blue Mountains in the distance, framing the area around Kingston; then headed back to Negril. During that time Moaning and crew had established goals and milestones for setting up a high-volume server farm in Jamaica that would host the OtherNet sites. The six were Charlie, Tinker, two Jamaican hackers, Ted Anson, and Moaning. Tutu, his wife, and his young son prepared the food and served everybody.
Not just tall but large in every way, Peter Moaning could intimidate when he bellowed instructions to servants and announced his plans. He could just as suddenly turn into a charming, erudite, worldly host, speaking with the native patois, coming on like he understood. The locals sensed that he was a piece of work, and they catered to his every whim. The taxi drivers would jump in their cars, referring to the big man as "Beeggs! Hey Beeggs!" to try to get his business.
Moaning gave a speech on the yacht about his dream. "We are here to exploit the offshore situation to set up the OtherNet." He paused to let that sink in. "Jamaica offers a temporarily secure site away from prying eyes of U.S. enforcement agencies. But it is only temporary -- there are a lot of small islands off the coast of the Florida Keys, and between Jamaica and Cuba. We can reach them from here. An operation on any of these islands would be offshore, and wouldn't have to comply with American laws."
"Yeah, but --" Tinker started to say something, but Moaning interrupted
"Laws about indecency and censorship, for example."
"All this just for offshore porn sites?" Tinker asked incredulously.
"Laws against gambling," Moaning went on. "Money laundering. Spamming. Encryption software." He looked directly at Charlie now. "Free music downloads. Pirate Net radio. Whatever," he said.
"How're you gonna do this?" Charlie asked with renewed interest.
"It's done." Moaning shifted in his seat. "It's an infrastructure for a completely free network. Whatever you wanna do -- set up porn sites, gambling sites, music downloading, political mischief of some kind somewhere, get some money laundered -- I can help get it done, with a base here in Jamaica and the islands off the Keys."
"I don't get it. Why do it? Why take such chances?" Tinker asked.
"No pain, no gain," Moaning chuckled. "It's more money than you've ever seen. You can get out if you want. You have a free return trip to the USA. Only we'd have to kill you," he laughed. The others reacted with uneasy giddiness. The boat ride was mostly shrimp, beer, and architectural plans for the server farm. Restless, ever dissatisfied, impatient with little concepts and little people, Moaning was serene but never at peace. Jamaican grass seemed to have little effect on him, though he smoked it voraciously and kept several large stalks of the plant in a dry vase on his balconey at the beach resort. Moaning had picked Jamaica for a lot of reasons, but to Charlie there seemed to be two important ones: Moaning needed some time to relax, and he needed to get laid.
Moaning himself said the reason was the food. But there was really only one dish he wanted -- jerked chicken, with red beans and rice, the staples of the Jamaican diet. He'd made contacts in Negril to find the best chef with the baddest jerk sauce, and he set up a video crew to get footage of making the stuff, to use in his database of video recipes. It somehow must have escaped his awareness that jerk sauce was historically used, like the Cajun spices in New Orleans cuisine, to mask the unpleasantness of old meat.
* * *
The steady sensual thick beat of reggae served as a soundtrack for the bumpy jeep ride, with each bounce off the seat in counterpoint to the rhythmic base lines. Tinker and Ted Anson were in the back of one Jeep, driven by Charlie, following hot on the heels of the other Jeep carrying Moaning and the two Jamaican hackers, driven by Tutu.
As they approached a roadblock outside Negril, Tutu swerved into the oncoming lane, motioning Charlie to follow -- which he most certainly did, this being a foreign country and all. For one alarming moment, Charlie thought the guards were about to shoot at them as they unshouldered their carbines. But the guards used the weapons as batons to control the traffic and waved at Tutu as he drove through. With a bit of hilarity Charlie waved back as he drove through. Tinker was shocked, but Ted Anson looked on with admiration.
They were on their way across the Great Morass east of Negril and up into the hills near Grange. A pilgrimage to a pot farm, in Moaning's words. Everyone was a bit paranoid, on edge, wondering whether this pot farm trip was as important as everything else and worth the risk. They stopped in Grange at an intersection, pausing to take sips from a large hot cauldron of soup on a pushcart driven by an old Rastafarian. They ate beef patties and drank Red Stripe in the morning sun.
Cause everything's gonna be alright
-- Bob Marley and the Wailers, "Three Little Birds" (B. Marley)
"Hmmm," Tutu murmured to Moaning with a mouthful, pointing up the street. "Beeggs, wha's dat?"
"Don't worry," said Moaning, shielding his eyes, looking up the street at a beige Toyota Corolla, parked in the shade. "They're probably DEA. They know exactly where we are going and what we're doing, but it's OK. They won't hassle Ben, they just want to identify the middlemen."
Tutu shivered, looked away. "Some, those middlemen, friends, I-mon," he said to Charlie, who could only avert his eyes. Here was Charlie, once again in the role his ancestors relished, helping fat Yankees exploit the local black population.
In a short while they were bouncing again, this time up roads that no one would follow, rutty steep curves negotiated only with four-wheel drive, all the way up into the mountains, to a point where even Jeeps could not go. After stashing the Jeeps under huge fronds, they proceeded up a steep trail, over a ridge and down along a waterfall, where a guide met them and took some of their provisions on his back. They hiked another two miles huffing and puffing up the slope, to reach a small green valley nestled in the sunny hillside, an indentation of green paradise, lined with row after row of fragrant flowering tops of ganja.
They all breathed in, with gusto, as if they could inhale this paradise. Immune to the civilized world, ensconced within this nurturing expanse of nature, they settled down in the cool shade of a large mango tree. A Rastafarian in dreadlocks to his knees, shorts, and nothing else, came out from a hidden shack to greet them. Ben the Rastaman, sharecropper manager of this pot farm, hadn't had visitors in a year. Turns out this hermit had a college education and had lived in LA before dropping out altogether and moving back home, stepping outta Babylon forever, forever loving Jah in all his ways, raising the lovely ganja and working with the Mother Earth. "Respect!"
"Yes, respect!" They each touched fists with him the Rasta way, up and down and then together. "Love Jah!" all around, and then the ritual rolling spliffs. Ted Anson was rolling them thick, saying over and over, "It's the killers! The killers!" Referring of course to the pot, with his way of saying killer buds. "We came up here, man, and we got the killers!" Everyone was laughing at this line, so he kept saying it. But they were laughing at his nasal whine, and the spectacle of such a stiff, upperclass white guy in these surroundings, crouched pensively on a dirt trail getting wiped out by ganja. Ben watched for a while, frowning. Why did the other disciples, for they must all be disciples of the great Beeggs Man, treat this one so disrespectfully?
After what seemed like an eternity of spliff smoking, coughing, laughing at Anson shouting "the killers!" and staring at the countryside view, Moaning asked Ben about his situation. "Ya Beeggs," Ben said loudly to Moaning and to everyone, changing his mood to one of philosophical contemplation. "I-mon, everybody have a bad year. Badly in need of da money y'know, I-mon don't have even 'nough for new pair of pants, d'ya hear?" He giggled, showing off his holy shorts.
Turns out Ben was getting about 700J (Jamaican dollars -- about $20) for a pound of his regular ganja, about 800J for the finest, 'lamb's bread' sinsemilla. The middlemen were selling it for more than 20 times that amount -- about $400 a pound -- to American and European smugglers who thought that was cheap enough, and to the beach sales force that charged about $100 an ounce retail, but risked arrest every day. The middlemen also skimmed an ounce per pound to donate to the local security and police to keep them interested in the whole game.
Ben didn't like the economics, and Moaning sympathized with him, winking at Charlie. "You saw those cars down there, in town. They are bad for business in one respect, but good in another. These little monopolies they got going, among the middle tier -- they have to bribe the police or get wiped out by the competitors who will. Of course, the police win no matter what, and competition rules."
Charlie just looked at Moaning with contempt. "Man, you got it wrong. How does any of that help Ben here?"
Moaning had that look like he'd done his homework. "No, you don't understand. Whenever the police act, it changes the buyer-seller relationship. Ben can dictate new terms each time it happens." He turned to Ben. "Man, pretty soon you'll be able to tell the forces of Babylon that your prices have gone up," said Moaning. "I'm going to help you become the Voice of Jamaica!"
"Ahh, yah mon! I-mon the Voice of Jamaica, the voice of the E-Rastaman!"
"Sure 'nuff," Moaning replied in a mocking, but friendly voice, just busting his balls a little. But it turns out Ben has a story, and a "voice" to speak with; he's not only well versed in Rastafarian history, he also draws the connection of Jimmy Cliff's character in The Harder They Come to the Stagger Lee (or Stackalee) myth that permeats the black post-slavery culture. He goes on about the Second Coming of Stagger Lee, an apocalyptic vision of a Babylon civilization forced underground after the revolution, when the Jah brothers institute a thousand years of peace. Stagger Lee comes back to wreak havoc on this peaceful utopia, subverting the status quo, bringing us back to the bad old present, where guns and money rule, and the Man, black or white, no matter, He would sooner kill you then let you have His Stetson hat.
Charlie listened with interest, shushing Tinker whenever Tinker blurted out things like "he's got it backwards, the underground must be good guys, not bad guys," and so on.
Ben went on talking about the never-ending struggle of good and evil, while Tutu had gathered up stuff and was motioning for everyone to get it together, let's go. Moaning pulled a wad of Jamaican dollars, about 2500J or so (about $50), and handed it over to Ben, who stopped his story abruptly and began thanking him over and over. Moaning had just overpaid completely for a bag that was only about a quarter of a pound, as Tutu would laugh about later with his wife; but it didn't matter, because Ben was happy, and that made Moaning happy as he stalked down the path, his entourage following him, and Tutu bringing up the rear.
* * *
They walked another mile or so, over the ridge and through another plantation managed by Ben, to a place completely hidden from the air, a steep ravine, which they entered cautiously. Eventually they reached a trap door, and everyone went down into the lair. They climbed down a ladder past thick conduit that brought electricity and high-speed data lines all the way from a hidden link to a transfer station on the south rocky coast of Jamaica where some very rich Jamaican aristocrats kept their summer homes. No one in that neighborhood was suspicious when it came to high-speed lines, as they all had them in order to link to their pals in government.
The link, established by one of Ted's partners in a huge US network services firm that recently opened a branch in Kingston, went for miles and miles through the backwoods and up the mountains to this very spot in the remote highlands above Grange, surrounded by pot plantations. Inside was a digital video and audio editing suite and computer lab. The engineers were mostly Jamaican natives; some of them had worked at Island Records in Kingston, and at the Channel One studio and Bob Marley's own studio in Kingston as well as at Compass Point in Nassau. They had the latest equipment, and a test version of the 'server farm' located on a remote island off the coast of Southern Florida. The server farm hosted thousands of Web sites in a completely lawless territory, yet the domain was only a single step away from the Caribbean Internet backbone and control point.
Tinker, Charlie, and Ted got a complete tour of the place. Moaning was happiest when demonstrating the technology he had to play with. Underneath the earth, in that air-conditioned electronic bunker, the equipment hummed, the reggae boomed out from speakers, jasmine incense filled the air, and programmers clicked incessantly on their keyboards. It could have been London, it could have been Toronto, it could have been the Cote d'Azure, it could have been Santa Monica, it could have been the moon; for these people, it was all an inner environment of displays, keyboards, white boards with flowcharts, toys.
But when they went outside, into that blinding Jamaican sunshine, they stepped into a wilderness paradise amidst a seemingly never-ending field of ganja plants.
* * *
Heading back to the coast in the Jeep with Charlie once again driving, Tinker finally found satori, which felt more like a warm belly full of beer than anything Eastern. He stared off into the dark thunderclouds, lurching from pothole to rut as Charlie steered around the cows and tried to keep up with Tutu, who drove the other Jeep as fast as someone on the lam. But for Tinker, the acceleration was a quiet uplifting feeling of well being, like everything in the world was going to be all right.
One Love! One Heart!
Let's get together and feel all right!
-- Bob Marley and the Wailers, "One Love" (B. Marley)
Why not move out here? Why not set up a new life here in Jamaica? With his wife and kids? How about without his wife and kids? Jeez, did he really think that? He sat there buzzing in the back of the jeep, legs vibrating, all the way back to Negril. This was it. A moment of truth in a long, not-so-invigorating life. The knee-shaking, stomach-plunging, handwringing decision: to join Charlie and his merry band, or to return to a life of responsibilities, stressed-out job situations, and so-called progress back in Silicon Valley.
"I don't know " Tinker started to say to Charlie when they got back to the resort.
"See, that's just what I can't stand about you," wheedled Charlie. "You cop out right at the wrong moment. You get into some kind of befuddled mess, and I show up with the right solution, but I gotta sell it to you because you're so befuddled."
"Wha " Tinker responded in the latest generation's version of the Cheech and Chong call and response routine, inherited of course from Groucho and Chico, and Laurel and Hardy -- the dull, stoned voice of Chong's "Dave's not here Wha's happenin, man?" back to the mortally wounded voice of Stan Laurel's "What's the matter?" (But of course abbreviated in this fast, modern age to "Wha ").
"Yeah, great partnerships come to mind," Charlie steamed on. "Great partnerships we're modeled on. The Skipper and Gilligan. Rocky and Bullwinkle."
"Peabody and Sherman," replied Tinker with a blank frown.
"See what I mean? You don't get it," replied Charlie impatiently. "Moaning's already put you at great risk, and you ain't getting squat for it. He told me all about his connection with this guy in Amsterdam, Grogan. Man, he's on his own with this, and it's way out shit, something to do with helping terrorists. Real terrorists. Man, this shit is serious."
Charlie let that sink in for a moment, then went on. "This is not what Mort Gill had in mind, and it's not what I signed up for. We should be spreading this encryption software to promote freedom, not to help terrorists or help Moaning rake off millions. Whatever happened to hijacking starships?"
"What about survival?" Tinker had blundered into this situation and he wanted nothing more than to blunder his way out of it.
"What about it?" Charlie was incredulous. "Are you gonna go back home, with the FBI chasing you? What are you gonna live on? Do you have some offshore bank accounts or something? What're you gonna do if Moaning makes good on his promise to pay? You can't deposit that money in a bank back home. You can't even use the Internet to transfer it. This connection to terrorists could screw us up for life. We need a plan. We need to set up our own accounts in the Bahamas, Switzerland, somewhere. We need to get a plan."
"I thought I would just ask Ted for some advice," said Tinker, tryng to calm Charlie down.
Charlie looked at him with an arched eyebrow, but said nothing. Ted Anson was probably the smartest man on the island at that moment, despite his momentary lapse of reason back on the farm shouting "the killers." Anson was the only one of the group that Charlie truly feared. They started up the beach passing a joint between them, but there was too much tension in the air, dissolving the euphoria as fast as it formed.
Tinker brought up the subject of Rob Smolder again. Charlie stopped, turned around, and put his arm on Tinker's shoulder. "You obviously haven't read the documentation you carry around in your laptop, about that encryption software," he told Tinker.
Charlie explained the concept of Conduits. To make the OtherNet secure, the encryption keys are changed randomly by a Conduit who can access by fingerprint or voiceprint a special piece of software that updates the encryption algorithm instantaneously across the OtherNet, transparently, so that users don't even know it happens. A Conduit should be unreachable, incorruptible -- especially outside the reach of the law. In fact, Conduits couldn't have any real contact with the Internet or any conventional networks without being compromised. Gill stipulated that there had to be multiple Conduits to keep everyone honest.
"You're saying Smolder may have dropped out to become a Conduit." Tinker was catching on fast.
"I'm saying I don't know, but it's possible. It even makes sense."
"So where is he? Here in Jamaica?"
"He could be anywhere," Charlie said smugly. "What does it matter, his physical location? That is, if he is indeed a Conduit right now."
"The Conduits, aren't they weak points in this whole system? What if one of the Conduits works for the Man?"
"That's highly unlikely."
"Well, what if one of them is caught?"
"The current Conduit, the one that controls the security of the OtherNet, changes randomly. There are several key individuals serving as Backup Conduits on call."
"Backup Conduits! Who makes the call?" Tinker wanted to know.
"That's another subject altogether," said Charlie. "The point is, people can do whatever they want using this encryption. It puts them on the OtherNet, where they can't be traced. So of course, there are important people who know about it."
"Yeah," said Charlie, impatiently. "You know, the NSA, the FBI, the CIA, the PLO, the Taliban, Osama bin fuckin' Laden," he spat. "You name it, anyone really interested in security knows about it. It's like the opposite of a back door that lets enforcement in -- this is one that lets subversives out."
"Y'know," chuckled Tinker nervously, "I understand how we went from being punks on dope to nerds hacking on phone lines, and from there to rich yuppies with stock options. So how did we turn into criminals in exile?"
"It's just the new economy," replied Charlie. "Everything happens faster."
* * *
The clubs up and down the beach were gearing up, with live music at De Buss and at Margarita's, and a crowd of rowdy Americans wearing World Cup t-shirts were eating jerk chicken at the adjoining restaurant (with the sign "Hard Rock Café" but "Rock" crossed out and replaced with "Reggae"). Anson had already gone to bed, the "killers" having gone to his head. Charlie saw Peter Moaning cruising with the local hookers, guzzling from a bottle of Wild Turkey.
"Ragga ragga ragga," sang Charlie to the music. "This is wild. Look at Peter! Let's get some women "
Tutu pointed at the Americans in the World Cup t-shirts. "They all checked in last night, at a resort not far up the beach." He looked concerned. "They don't look like real tourists. They wear the same t-shirts, mon. Same shoes, too. They act like tourists but they're not tourists."
Charlie stopped chortling at the women long enough to take a long look at World Cup guys. "Black wingtips. Black shiny FBI shoes," he said. Tinker jumped. "Don't worry, Moaning's got it under control. I think. As long as we're here, on Jamaican soil, they can't do anything to us." He turned to Tinker. "I'm working on a plan, don't worry. Just enjoy the vacation."
"Ah " Tinker shook his head, demurely. He left Charlie and the rest and walked slowly back to the resort in the moonlight.
The next morning Tinker went off to get some condoms. All this danger and excitement had increased his sexual appetite. But he didn't understand the quantity or the Jamaican money, and the clerk put an entire box of 50 on the counter and rang it up. Two local girls waiting in line were giggling, and he didn't see any other choice but to pay and get out of there.
Back at the resort, he threw the box on the picnic table, to a riot of laughter.
"Tink, you think you got enough for one night?"
Red-faced, Tinker tried to put on a smile. "I just I just thought it might be right for you guys to be protected. Take as many as you like, I don't need any. Hell, leave 'em for the G-men."
They all laughed again, and the box of condoms sat there through the afternoon rain. But later that evening, Tinker stumbled upon a local seamstress on the outskirts of the beach party, someone he recognized from earlier that day, selling baskets. She had smiled mischievously at the shy American, and now, without hesitation, she grabbed his arm and led him off. He did not protest, even though his sexual tension had dissipated in fear. She took him to a shack close to town, a driveway off the main street, as she was in a higher-class of beach people, in a position to do retail business with tourists. But still it was just a shack, no electricity or bathroom, just a pot to pee in, rough cloth for window shades, a tin roof, and a mattress, which they settled into. The hooker took his cock out, and he wasn't ready. He fumbled with the condoms, taking out two for extra protection. She gave a short laugh and went down on him, putting both condoms on with her mouth as she did. It was almost too absurd for him to get hard, but eventually he did, and eventually he came, feeling more drained than satisfied.
A little later, Tinker lay awake while she snored, thinking about his great adventure that had ended so pitifully. At daylight, he was supposed to grab a cab to Mo' Bay, catch the next flight, and meet up with Charlie at the Atlanta airport with a rental car, using his blemish-free California license. Charlie had made plans, and Tinker needed to follow through. To truly drop out, one had to do more than live for the moment; one had to expand that moment to encompass the recent past, the present, and the foreseeable future. It was time for Tinker to take on a new role, a paleface version of Stagger Lee. These kinds of encounters, as with this black woman of the tropics, were just props for the movie.
He got up, trying not to make any noise, but she rolled over and smiled. He no longer recognized her; or more truthfully, he now had seen too much of her, too closely. She was probably thinking about money. He gave her some before she had a chance to ask for it, before it would have been embarrassing for her. It was the least he could do for her, seeing as how he had played so nicely the role of the Ugly American.
* * *
Jamaica was fine this time of year. FBI Lieutenant Ray Cheney adjusted his fake ponytail, tucked in his Earth First t-shirt, and stubbed out the spliff he'd been smoking while catching the action at an outdoor boombox party. He then headed into the office of the Jamaican secret service in Kingston.
A hurricane of law enforcement had gathered on the island, or so it had been reported to Cheney. Word had leaked out about Moaning's operation and Cheney had reluctantly stepped in to take charge. Reluctant because he really didn't have a problem with the concept of the OtherNet flourishing in this region, attracting some real dangerous groups. His department could then monitor these groups more easily. But his bosses didn't think that way. His bosses were incensed with the idea that these pot-smoking hippies might somehow compromise national security.
Within an hour he'd assembled his top people in the Kingston office. "This raid is top priority everywhere," said one investigator, referring to the other law enforcement agencies. "It's quite a big feather in our cap."
"Yeah, well, it's one thing if terrorists use some encryption product from somewhere else, maybe Russia," said another investigator. "But it's quite another thing if citizens get hold of encryption we can't crack."
"Yeah, say goodbye to undercover taps. We wouldn't even be able to shut down Web sites. And email intercepts? Fuhgedaboudit!"
"What's the situation with Mort Gill?" Cheney barked, getting attention from everyone without having to look up from the papers on his desk.
"Well," began the lead agent, "we have his cooperation, and we have a copy of ICE. We've learned that there are ways to change the source code of ICE to allow 'back doors'. And these 'back doors' can have master keys that are held by more than one party." He paused to clear his throat. "It is thus possible to distribute versions of ICE that provide us with our 'back doors'."
"You mean, these versions can be put out there and the perps will think they are totally secure when, in fact, we can still go in."
"That is correct, sir."
"And there is no way the perps can tell that the encryption has been cracked?"
"I don't think even Mort Gill could tell," said the agent.
"You don't think?" Cheney looked up, irritated.
"I am sure, sir. No one outside this room knows."
Cheney looked around the room. The FBI's top hackers were there, along with investigators and agents assigned to the operation. The agents, of course, understood what the rewards would be for their silence. The hackers, never a trustworthy lot, were in it strictly for notoriety among their peers and whatever fun they could have in Jamaica.
"So as of this moment, those who obtain ICE from the usual downloading sites, they get the ICE we want them to get. Is that right?"
"That is correct, sir."
There was a prolonged silence. Agents fidgeted, hackers whispered to each other.
Cheney cleared his throat. "What have we heard about the Media Liberation Front?"
"Some kind of event is set for Las Vegas," said one of the investigators. "O'Brien seems to know about it, and he sent Tinker back to Atlanta in advance, so we think he's also leaving today."
Cheney winced at the incompetence. "We need to clamp down on leaks," he said through clenched teeth, and his associates shriveled from his gaze.
After a moment, the lead investigator spoke again. "We could pick them up in Atlanta."
"No. We want them to connect with the others in the MLF, now that they know too much. Go on with your report."
"We believe the MLF have some kind of contact inside Aggregate Networks," the lead investigator continued. "They plan to use this contact to gain access to the backbone control point of the Internet outside Las Vegas."
"There's another control point near here," said Cheney. "Does anyone know how many control points need to be compromised in order to --"
"To bring it down? Five," shouted his lead hacker, a fat droid in dreadlocks. "And remember, we now think that Grogan's organization has already gained control over two others."
"Oh, another thing, sir," said the lead investigator. "We can't seem to penetrate the secure firewall around the server farm here. It seems to be a new version of ICE."
"Did Gill double-cross us?"
"I don't think so," said the hacker. "I'm guessing that this Moaning character got a new version directly from Eric Mauer."
"Then by all means, we need to secure the copy at the site. Did anyone leave this island with a copy?"
There was silence, and Cheney knew his answer. He moved back in his chair. The conference was over. He watched them file out of the office as the Jamaican police looked on. This was turning into a nightmare. The MLF had gone too far, unfortunately. Various terrorist groups, under the umbrella organization coordinated by Grogan in Amsterdam, were about to crash the MLF's show and make off with the most secure version of ICE ever invented.
But word had leaked out about the upcoming Jamaican bust; as a result, he had lost track of O'Brien and his friend Tinker. Of course, Moaning had already gone back to San Francisco, but he would soon contact Grogan, and Cheney needed to eavesdrop. He needed to crack this new ICE, or they'd all be going to Vegas blind.
As he walked out of the office in Kingston, he passed a group of hapless street dwellers lounging in the shade inside the atrium. The hackers were negotiating for spliffs. Cheney looked over his shoulder to make sure his investigators weren't watching, and went to join the hackers, fishing the stubbed-out spliff out of his pocket.
* * *
Ben the Rastaman was daydreaming under the huge English oak tree on the hilltop above the smallest of the ganja fields. The morning Jamaican heat was just beginning and most of his chores were finished, so he sucked on a huge spliff, huge even by his standards, and day-dreamed about the movie set where Jimmy Cliff, in The Harder They Come, swaggered across the street, gun in hand, ready for anything.
I shot the sheriff,
But I did not shoot no deputy...
-- Bob Marley & the Wailers, "I Shot the Sheriff" (B. Marley)
Ben dreamed of being Jimmy Cliff, the singer and actor. He would be just leaving his trailer after having snorted several lines of the finest Peruvian coke with Heidi and Trudi, his two blonde Swedish bombshells that accompanied him everywhere. He would be boldly walking across the set to confront the movie director, tell him how he wanted to change the scene so that his character had enough time to ball this chick down a side street while still being chased by The Man. But just as Jimmy Cliff was about to approach the director, the daydream evaporated, and Ben was aware of someone coming up the trail to his field.
It was one of Moaning's people, Charlie O'Brien. Grim-faced and unshaven, he was looking a bit worse for wear, like he had jogged through that quick morning thunderstorm and then walked nine miles through the morning heat, all the way from town. He was out of breath when he reached the cabin, and by then, Ben was standing in front of it, a big smile on his face and the rest of that big spliff unlit, ready for a match.
"Hey mon, wha's happenin, mon? You come back! Where Beeggs?"
"I came back alone," said Charlie in a weary voice. "I'm supposed to pick up a few things for him."
"Ya mon, but you need to kick back for a minute, mon, you ha' all de time you want, mon. T'ings happen slowly here, mon. Here, got a light?"
Charlie lit the spliff for him, but continued to the bunker's entrance. Ben followed, and silently watched the others acknowledge Charlie's return with a bit of wonder. Charlie announced that he'd come to make a complete backup of the entire host infrastructure, and to take that backup with him. They all naturally assumed that Moaning had ordered the backup. They never questioned Charlie, just showed him how to use the automatic backup system that produced a data-formatted DAT cartridge holding about 12 gigabytes. That's it, and it fit inside Charlie's shirt pocket.
Outside, Charlie lit another spliff for Ben. They had just left the bunker and were sitting under the English oak, worshipping the blue sky, passing the huge joint back and forth. All his life Charlie had waited for this moment, his first lucky break. In his shirt pocket was a complete backup of the OtherNet infrastructure with backbone connections -- the beginnings of yet another completely secure public network, and an opportunity to start anew.
"Ya mon, you in good shape now. You got what it takes now, mon," said Ben, grinning from ear to ear. "You ready for the new order of t'ings now, mon."
Charlie kept his eye on the ridge, as if expecting something to appear. "What are you talking about?"
"Oh mon, y'know what I-mon talking 'bout. You just like that Mr. Burn, up on Blue Mountain. You seen what went down, mon, and now you do somet'ing for yourself."
"Mr. Burn, mon. Y'know, the yankee, he leave everyt'ing behind and go live on Blue Mountain. Yeah mon, dat white guy, y'know, likes the Beatles, sings dat one by Paul, 'Yesterday' and all dat, mon "
Charlie thought for a moment. "Mr. Burn" indeed. Of all the places for Smolder to run to But his prickly awareness kept him looking over at the ridge, and then, as if to substantiate his predilection, something suddenly started raising dust against the purple sky -- a line of Jeeps, then helicopters. A raid in full swing. He heard the rattle of gunfire. So now it would happen in earnest. Another quick puff of the huge spliff, and Charlie was off, on foot, through the thick Jamaican jungle. After an eternity of trudging through rain forests, swamps, and the Great Morass, he reached a foothill town and hired a driver. In Mo' Bay he dodged the heavy traffic and made it to the airport just in time to catch a flight to Atlanta.