by Tony Bove
Copyright © 2002, Tony Bove, All Rights Reserved.
A week later, Jill Metrose opened a jasmine-sweetened package in her office. It was a gift from a product manager that appreciated her efforts to get him on the upcoming Internet Vegas Show panel to plug his products. It's nice to be appreciated.
All was quiet on the Fizz frontier. The magazine editors were off drinking in a SoMa pub. Another issue "put to bed" as they used to say. No longer are layouts photographed for the press and then filed into dust-free sheaths for eternal sleep. Now, digital pages zip across the net, bit by bit, always moving, never sleeping. The information is alive.
She sent her assistant out for café mocha, and in the gathering gloom sweetened with jasmine, she wrote encrypted email messages to the special team putting together the blockbuster story. She wanted an update: had the target been acquired? Where and when would the rendezvous take place?
Anyone "listening in" to her messages would have thought she was after the Webomber. That was turning into the story of the year, perhaps the decade, a nice defining point for an Information Age Uprising. Ironic as it was, she couldn't help but agree that the real story, the one she was actually pursuing, had taken the same shape as the one about the mythical Webomber. The frame of the story could be lifted from one and fitted on the other.
But the real story was a lot more intriguing than law and order and far more interesting and of general interest, in her mind, than encryption and privacy. In a meticulous assembly of Bill Gittelson's past schedules and news coverage, all from third-party sources, it seemed that the number one billionaire had the ability to be in two places at once. It just didn't seem possible, even though Gittelson owned at least one jet, a four-car train, a warehouse of expensive cars, various boats, a hot-air balloon, and, if one had been invented yet, a transporter. Yes, a transporter is what he would have needed to do all these things, from news briefings to appearances on Capitol Hill, from lengthy cruises up the coast of Alaska to safaris in the Australian outback. And he still turned up in the news with brief drop-ins to classrooms in Silicon Valley and Seattle (often the same day) and keynote speeches at large tradeshows.
How did he do it? That was the real story. Metrose was amused by the press Gittelson had received lately, after his stellar voyage up north with a boatload of celebrities, flown and feted at his expense. Before that, his sailing team came close to winning the World Cup. Metrose clucked; he spent all that money on such eccentric, obscene, overblown fantasies. And yet, his foundation fought famine and AIDS in Africa, India, and China.
But so many public appearances, so often, and spread so far apart. Was Gittelson really one human being? Was he some kind of electronic entity that inhabited more than one body? Had the world suddenly gone science fiction on her? She looked out her office window on Second, focusing on the people on the sidewalk. She thought she recognized someone she knew, but it couldn't have been him, because he was dressed in rags.
* * *
Within view of the building that contained the Fizz editorial offices, Tinker stood on the sidewalk at Second and Mission peering from the outside through a window into a lively café. Two years ago he had accepted a contract at a meeting at this café. Now, he couldn't get in the door, due to the way he was dressed, or rather, wrapped. Baggy grease-stained trousers, sweatshirt, an old dirty towel around his waist, and battered sneakers all added up to street person. And, just at that moment, to add insult to injury, some banker-looking dude just handed him a dollar out of charity.
He'd spent the week wandering the South of Market in these clothes and a baseball cap with no insignia, telling anyone who would listen, "I'm a martyr of the information age." It was as good a disguise as any, and it gave him something to do, some way of treating San Francisco like a foreign city. He'd since given up the cap to a crazy guy on Fifth Street. This wild-haired man had garbage bags sprouting from his pockets like cabbages, and hair spilling out of a winged helmet crowned with fresh flowers. He muttered loudly as he walked, informing everyone who passed by that "Heaven is just the reset button, my friend, a chance to start all over with no memory of previous life" and "Inebriation, my friend, is a state of grace." Everyone was his friend. He came up to Tinker, wiped the grease from his hands on his paint-smeared trousers. "My friend, you wanna tie-dye?" he asked, pulling one out of a dirt-speckled garbage bag. "Ten dollars," he spoke solemnly.
Tinker was curious. What is it about madness that enables it to draw such a clear picture of the meaning of life? It all comes down to $10 for a t-shirt. These mad people of the streets knew so many things that the rest of us didn't, thought Tinker. This crazy one knew how to survive in the highest rent district in the country.
I got no dime
But I got some time to hear your story
-- Grateful Dead, "Wharf Rat" (Garcia/Hunter)
"I don't have ten dollars," Tinker reached out to shake his hand, try to be friendly. "But I do have a life story. Wanna hear it?"
Sure, the crazy man said, and set about rearranging his garbage bags to sit down on the steps of the former U.S. Mint on Fifth. Tinker picked up an abandoned orange crate and set it down near the steps.
"I was one of a very elite group of high-tech innovators," spoke Tinker from atop the orange crate.
Garbage-bag Man looked up with interest.
"We worked nonstop for years, believing everything they said about how technology would improve everyone's lives and make us all rich. I worked hard, to make those relentless schedules. My 'fingers to the bone,' so to speak, only now I have repetitive stress injury. But I couldn't perform fast enough for Them. So They let me go. So I became unemployed and virtually unemployable, washed up. Broke. So I decided to escape."
This bit of information brought a murmur of approval from Garbage-bag Man. "Escape, that's good."
"Then, I fell in with a group of hackers and copyright thieves, and we tried to set up a whole other Internet where we could do anything we want. But the Feds didn't like that, and the number one company in the world didn't like that. We got chased around the country. Then we disappeared."
Garbage-bag Man looked sympathetic. Then he looked across the street. Something startled him. "Hey friend, that building disappeared."
"That building disappeared. Just a few minutes ago."
"What?" Tinker had heard him, but still couldn't believe what he had said.
"That building my friend, how did they knock it down so fast? How come there wasn't any noise? There used to be a spa in there. I used to go in there with a bottle of Thunderbird and take a hot tub." Garbage-bag Man suddenly got up, and a new idea occurred to him. "Hey my friend," he asked Tinker, "can I have your baseball cap?"
Tinker spent the rest of that day wandering silently, cap-less, aware that his preoccupation with the homeless lifestyles of the deranged had just been his way of telling himself something, the way your body informs you of its need for citrus fruits or fiber. It was telling him that dropping out of society was not a bad situation, given his circumstances.
That morning he had slept in a doorway up the street from the café, immune to the noises of morning coffee drinkers and delivery trucks. He had dreamed that he died and went to Rock 'n' Roll Heaven, where he ran into Wavy Gravy and Ken Kesey handing out doses of Kool-Aid. So he asked them: "Why did you let Jim Jones and the Guyana People's Temple suicide become the meaning of 'drink the Kool-Aid'?" They both looked at him in surprise. Then Kesey said, "Forget it, man, you keep trying to unscrew the inscrutable." And Wavy added, "There's them that throws it down and them that picks it up." Jim Jones himself appeared, poking his head in from the next room. "It's all about marketing; you're from the high-tech industry, you should know that."
* * *
While Tinker rooted through dumpsters in San Francisco, hiding from everyone until the appropriate time, Charlie had confronted the bull by its so-called horns, without telling his other partners. He'd arranged a meeting at a public spa in Marin, the largest hot tub, which could accommodate up to 10. They were all naked in the tub. Charlie felt right at home with naked people, having run a porn site for a year, but the others were a bit shy. This is a good thing, thought Charlie, it gives me an edge.
Mort Gill also seemed unperturbed, naked with his arm around his naked girlfriend Tina and his penis carelessly poking through the water's surface. Gill spoke first. "How has it come to this? Factions within the MLF?"
Peter Moaning was the least comfortable, naked certainly, but his hands never left their strategic positions blocking any view of his privates. "I didn't want this to happen," he said, looking over at Rachel Smolder, who was also naked. "We need Grogan. He owns the other control points."
"So you've raised the stakes," interjected Charlie. "That's why we want something out of this, for our own survival."
Gill looked at Charlie as if survival was not the issue.
"So you have a copy stashed on the Net," said Moaning. "And we need it."
"Yes, and it's stashed well," said Charlie. "So make an offer."
Gill frowned. Rachel squirmed in her seat. Charlie had been avoiding looking at her, inasmuch as you can avoid a beautful woman naked in a hot tub less than six inches away. But now he looked right at her. She met his gaze well and did not flinch. In fact, she held a kind of Mona Lisa smile on her lips just for him.
Moaning's offer was to share some of the wealth. Grogan had already deposited millions in advance for their cooperation. Gill asked if this was a compromise in ethics, to accept this money, but Moaning pointed out that the money had originally been part of the CIA's financing of a rebellion in an African country, and it had already been stolen twice, first by the dictator-in-exile, then by his brother-in-law the terrorist. "Besides, the money's been laundered and is really just a number in a bank account, untraceable," said Moaning.
The deal was set. Charlie and his people would work together with Moaning to pull off the Vegas event. Charlie would get his bank accounts and could then disappear, as far as Moaning was concerned. The OtherNet would make a quantum leap in accessibility. Grogan would be satisfied and no one would ever know. The meeting adjourned and everyone left except Rachel and Charlie.
People assume hot tubs are places of wanton sex, but Charlie could never get hard in such hot water. He watched a fly land on the hot water and get stuck, its wings buzzing. Then another fly landed, and both were stuck. A small wave generated by the moving Rachel drowned them in an instant. Wrong place, wrong time, thought Charlie. Rachel smiled at him, her breasts dripping wet. Then she got out of the tub, and Charlie's eyes scanned the length and breadth of her backside as she left. He followed her into a dressing cabana, where they fell on each other with a passion that was indescribable.
Before it was over, Charlie starting to feel guilty, not because Rachel was most likely still emotionally disturbed about losing Rob, but because he was not supposed to get involved with people who held power over him. And he was sure, now, that Rachel was the one pulling the strings behind the MLF. But for the moment that didn't matter. She was perhaps the best lover he had ever had.
* * *
The dog barking in the early gray dawn on the Sausalito hillside didn't disturb his concentration. Mal Contour, discredited but earnest reporter for the Bay Radical, crawled in coveralls and long raincoat under the shrubbery behind Rachel Smolder's house to remove the data tap. His fedora got caught on a twig and popped off, revealing matted, unwashed hair going bald at the top.
The trail of Rob Smolder's disappearance had grown cold. Contour had been on this case for what seemed an eternity. He knew all about wife Rachel and her newfound love interest. Charlie O'Brien had been staying there all week. He also knew that the Smolder Foundation was used as a front for Media Liberation Front activities. And why not? Rob Smolder practically invented the MLF.
Contour was fascinated by Rob Smolder. He'd read everything he could find by way of Rachel's computer, which was, as luck would have it, networked to Rob's computer, which had been left on ever since Rob had departed. If there were clues in all of Rob's writings, Contour had yet to figure them out. Rob had always been obsessed with the Beatles. Contour found a business plan Rob had sent to Apple Records in London, but he didn't find a reply. The plan was for a documentary placing the Beatles in context with the greatest artists of the Twentieth Century. It all seemed harmless enough, but eventually Contour came across this passage, written in one of Rob's endless diary entries:
The Beatles were our heroes, bigger even than any religious figure, be it Christ or Buddha. They stood before the entire world and were not afraid to bring people together with a unified message of love. They were also not afraid to use the power of coded messages.
The Beatles more heroic than Christ? Coded messages? Rob Smolder was balmy, Contour thought. Perhaps he'd gone off the deep end. But just as Contour thought that, he smiled. Rob Smolder had jumped into the deep end. But something was not quite right. He came upon another passage in Rob's diary relating to the Beatles:
The White Album offered a veneer of lush comfort stretched thin over the abyss of death. Its sinister overtones were noticed by fans way before Charlie Manson got hold of "Helter Skelter" and "Piggies". You can hear the cruel wind shivering through some of the songs, a foreboding of disaster underneath the surface, and outright death and destruction depicted in "Revolution #9" -- whether you played it forwards or backwards, it didn't matter. Every time I hear this album, I feel my own mortality, and I can sense something mysterious and dangerous, a monster in the closet.
For many of my friends and for me, the 'Paul is dead' rumors circulating in 1969 made us return not to other Beatles albums with clues so much as to the White Album, not only looking for clues but also looking to re-experience the creepy feeling that pervades the album. Pop stars had died before, but after the Summer of Love's wild ride to the cosmos, the pop star death had gathered new meanings, new portents of danger for the entire human race. Within a year of the "Paul is dead" rumors, real heroic pop stars started to really die; Hendrix, Morrison, Joplin, and eventually Garcia succumbed to their live-wire lifestyles, while Lennon was cut down by one of his own fans.
Contour was intrigued. While the rumor mill had briefly flirted with the notion that Rob had disappeared and had become the Webomber, here was circumstantial evidence that Rob was obsessed by the hoax about Paul McCartney's death, which would be enough (given the lack of Rob's corpse) to reopen the investigation.
The problem with this theory was that the Webomber's activities seemed wanton and random, more the acts of a twisted prankster than the work of someone with Rob Smolder's sophistication and depth of reasoning. There was also a subtle intelligence and sly wit about the Webomber's pranks, and although Rob was intelligent, he seemed to be too intelligent for such pedestrian wit as using Beatle clues as a signature for these acts. The Great Documentary Director was at times insightful but was also quite ponderous and academic. Given his credentials for gathering up grant money, and his body of work, Rob Smolder could have been counted on to do a documentary about controversial subjects and bury the controversy under a substantial whitewash.
In the diary, Rob's preoccupation with death continued:
Yoko sang, in her mournful dirge "Mrs. Lennon" nine years before John's murder,
"Husband John extended his hand, extended his hand to his wife
And he finds, and suddenly he finds, that he has no hand."
Yoko's premonition -- how could someone write such beautiful, fearful poetry and then have it come true? What power had the Beatles and Yoko tapped into? Were they Adepts?
Contour was impressed. Rob Smolder had a side to him that almost no one knew, except perhaps his wife. Contour had to get into that house, just to see what he could see. He waited in the shade of a tan oak as Rachel and Charlie drove away. He carefully picked the lock on the kitchen door and snuck inside.
In the living room, against a long wall, was a custom mahogany shelf of plastic-wrapped vinyl records inside cardboard sleeves, many of them in virgin condition. Smolder's collection of Beatles records was prominent, on the first shelf, outside of the usual alphabetical order. As Contour thumbed through mint condition copies of Sgt. Pepper, Revolver, Magical Mystery Tour, and Abbey Road, reminding himself of the visual Paul-is-dead clues, he eventually picked up the double-album Beatles (a.k.a. the White Album), featuring the all-white cover with just the name of the band and the inventory number stamped on front. Contour saw that the number had been underlined. Why would Rob Smolder so haphazardly deface this famous cover with an ink pen? The number would have to be a real inventory number, stamped on the album in manufacturing; or else it was the number chosen as the final one to stamp all of them. It should be easy enough to check out. But Rob Smolder had underlined it. Contour took out his notebook and copied down the number. The digits could represent anything, but were the exact number of digits needed for a local phone number. On a hunch that it had to be an incomplete phone number, requiring some other clue to provide the area code, he searched the album covers again. On Abbey Road he saw that the license plate on the white Volkswagen behind George Harrison's head was also underlined, very slightly. The plate said "28IF" and could represent either two or four digits. He also came upon the Yellow Submarine album, one that had not been designed by the Beatles at all but included some new songs to go along with the animated flick. There, on the shirt of a Blue Meanie, was the number 23, which was again underlined.
The numbers could be put together in any order, but he chose an order related to the album releases, starting with the White Album and leading through Yellow Submarine to Abbey Road. Eventually he had the final number traced to a public phone at a café in a town on the slopes of Blue Mountain, northwest of Kingston, Jamaica.
* * *
On the slopes of that mountain in Jamaica, about a mile from that café, inside a hut perched on a cliff with a magnificent view of the foothills down to Kingston, a white bearded man in cutoffs, barefoot, a makeshift turban hiding his dirty matted hair, stumbled through a smoky haze over to his laptop computer, brushed off the leavings from the last spliff he rolled, and manually connected it to the phone network. He checked into the OtherNet, using his Conduit privileges to update the encryption keys. Then he shut down the computer, disconnected it from the network, and went back to sleep in his hammock, an utterly peaceful sleep, dreaming of Shiva and Shakti lying naked on leopard skins, caressing each other to the simple music of the sarod