Back to normal this week; Chuck invited us to pick two elements at random from two lists, and write 1500 words including them. My random number generator, Dawn, gave me 4 and 7: an antique gun and a hard drive filled with secrets (or a stolen treasure and a time machine – I may save that for another occasion). I decided to honour Dawn’s participation by a special appearance of her conure, Peepers.
Data Protection Racket
I stared down the barrel of the beautifully decorated antique gun. It wavered slightly as the intruder cocked it, but not so much that I couldn’t see down the blackness of the barrel to my destiny.
My eyelids wrestled themselves apart to expose bleary eyes to the world. I should go to bed earlier than 3 am, but when things are hot, they’re hot, and you have to keep them that way. I’d been delving through secrets, getting deeper into a database housing more dirty washing than Ma O’Leary’s Laundromat. So deep, I’d taken the precaution of swapping the hard disk over when I’d finished. The dirty data was safely housed in a safe house. Inside a protective envelope, of course. I just hoped the clean disk I’d put in was already formatted.
The shower drove the sleep from my eyes, but it couldn’t reach my brain. I pulled on the usual uniform; white shirt, slim tie, dark pants. The coffee jar was empty. I stepped out of the apartment and pressed the button for the elevator. I stabbed it a few more times before starting down the stairs. Sometimes I hated being on the sixth floor, but then again, since the elevator rarely worked, it kept me fit, and it warned me of any unwelcome visitors, just from the heavy breathing.
“Yo.” The guy in the diner opposite my block poured a cawffee as I slid onto the stool. I wrapped myself around the black stuff, since it wasn’t hot enough to scald me. He refilled my mug on his next pass. I gazed at the mess of eggs on the plate he took to another customer and decided to have toast; it was only slightly burnt when it arrived.
I watched what passed for butter melt into the toast. It reminded me of the vanishing chain of evidence I was trying to recover. I’d followed the initial tipoff through three money launderers, then I’d hacked into a couple of bank systems. I’d followed three accounts from there, and one of them led to four more. But now I had the data, all stored safely away where no-one would look for it.
Question: should I use the same hard disk today, or leave that one safe and start another?
I turned left out of the diner and went to the electronics store on the corner before crossing the road back up to my apartment. I work from home; it’s cheaper.
The hard drive worked, booted up just fine – I’d remembered to install the applications when I got it. I attached the new purchase to the computer and set that to do all formatting while I went and checked the voicemail. The first message was two minutes of silence before the line clicked off. It was followed by the irritating warble of a fax machine trying to connect. Five times.
I’d just cleared it when it rang.
“Schuster & Seerbohm,” I said in a clipped voice.
“About time,” said a voice I knew well. “Don’t you bother getting up these days, you lazy bum?”
“Not for you,” I replied. I put the phone on the desk and let her soprano voice echo through the room while I went to the parrot cage and pulled the cover off it. Peepers greeted me with several ear-piercing screeches and a few amiable squawks before he started on his morning exercise through his entire vocabulary.
Between the phone and the parrot I couldn’t hear a thing. Bliss.
By the time the bird had run out of things to say, the phone was humming a dial tone. I left it since I didn’t want to be disturbed.
The formatting finished and I put the new disk away. I started working my way back in to the database I’d been hacking last night. Everything locked up; the screen wiped itself in a spiral pattern, leaving the blue screen of death. I yanked the internet cable out. Darn! What security could I have tripped?
I looked out of the window, thinking. Had I better take steps to hide? Myself, or the evidence? Hell, I thought, the evidence is safe where it is. Save myself.
I picked a few things out of my wall safe, slipped them into my pockets, and stashed some essentials into a briefcase. I heard the elevator start. And stop. Its door opened.
I climbed out onto the fire escape, slipped down a level and saw movement below. The open window on the fifth level lobby gave me a way back in; I ran down the stairs.
“Hold it right there!”
A brick outhouse shaped like a man stood at the bottom of the stairs, holding a large, intricately decorated firearm, pointing it straight at me. I held it right there.
His friend came in from the fire escape, a more modern pistol in hand. He pointed it at me, and the outhouse lowered his weapon. He leant against the wall and started loading it. Spit! I’d been stopped by an unloaded weapon! The pistol waved at me to go back up the stairs.
“Don’t try any funny business,” the pistol-waver said in a high, whiny voice.
I went up, wondering about options for funny business. Since there was now a guy on the sixth floor with a pistol levelled on me, I reckoned there wasn’t too much I could do.
“What do you guys want, anyway?” I tried the innocent approach.
“Just keep going.” Whiny Voice didn’t have the brains to want anything, I reckoned. The thinking ones were in my apartment.
It was crowded with five of us in my ‘office’, and someone was sitting in my chair. He eyed me lazily.
I hoped he meant me, but it was Whiny that left. “You go too,” he said to his accomplice, leaving me with him and Outhouse. “Take another look.”
I could hear the usual sounds of a search: ripping, tearing, slamming cupboards, smashing crockery and breaking wooden drawers. Then I couldn’t hear much except Peepers who decided he didn’t like these guys.
“Shut the frick up!” yelled the accomplice after a couple of seconds. Intolerant, I thought. Most people last at least five seconds before Peepers drives them insane. Peepers ignored him.
The man behind the desk was playing with my computer.
“OK,” he said, “what have you done with the data you stole?”
“Your damn worm got it,” I countered, putting bitterness in my voice. “Wiped the hard disk. I’ve just reinstalled the software.”
“Hmm,” he said, tapping the keyboard and peering at the screen. “This program was installed two years ago.”
“Yeah, that’s when I got it. That’s the date on the master disk.”
He looked at me through narrow eyes, probably caused more by Peepers’ continued screeching than suspicion of me.
“Turn around,” he ordered.
That put me face to face with Outhouse and his antique gun.
“My colleague here has a taste for fancy guns, as you see. They are crude, but effective. Big bullet – big hole.” Outhouse cocked the gun. “Convince him you haven’t got the data.”
“I haven’t got the data,” I repeated, allowing desperation into my voice. “It was all wiped. I’m done for. The client won’t pay, the rent is due, and this was my first case for six months. The whole thing was wiped.” I let my voice rise a little.
“What do you think?” The guy behind the chair asked Outhouse.
“I t’ink he’s tellin’ the trut’, boss.”
The other two were lounging in the shattered doorway.
“Nothing out here but the dratted bird, boss.”
“Interesting that we found a spare hard disk, though, don’t you think?” said the boss. “Maybe appearances are deceiving.”
“I keep a spare, in case. I’d kept the data in the safe overnight. Just put it back in when it got wiped.” I said, turning back to him.
“Hmm, careful. I like that. No data. Could you get it again?”
“I don’t know.” I suspected something.
“Let me make it worth your while. You get me that data, and I let you go. Well, not exactly go, but you get to be part of our, shall we say, consultancy network.”
“And if I can’t?”
“Mr Evans here,” gesturing to Outhouse, “will exercise his latest acquisition on you. He’s dying to try it.”
I gulped. “I’ll try.”
“Good. You get the data, we’ll tidy your rooms for you and pay the rent. Maybe even a new suit, too.”
“It’s a deal. Where do I send it?”
He tossed me a card. “Oh, and shut that darn bird up.”
“He’ll stop as soon as you leave.”
“You have thirty-six hours.”
I closed the door behind them and watched from my window to check they emerged at street level. I pulled Peepers’ blanket over his cage. He shut up. He’d done a good day’s work, although all his fluttering had swept some sand off the shiny envelope covering the hard disk. Noise was a great deterrent.
(c) J M Pett 2014