The heart cutter was all cranked up about something. He kept jabbing a finger at his assistant, looked like he was yelling. We usually keep the sound off up in the viewing room, so no clue what the problem was. Sometimes we’re up for the gory play-by-play. Most of the time we’d rather eat in peace.
“You should have seen this RN in the fourth floor break room this morning,” I said, peeling an orange. “Really upset. Angry, crying. What a mess.”
Jack kept his eyes locked on the proceedings below. “Any idea why?” he said.
“It’s that god damned surgery team leader again. Simple hernia repair, the knock-out guy bumped into her and she dropped a few things. He called her a clumsy sow. Made a huge deal out of it. Yelling and ranting. Put her on report.” I stuffed half the orange into my mouth.
“This guy again,” Jack said. “He’s only been here, what, six months? And we keep hearing about him. Swanson? Swenson?”
“Swedenson,” I said, spraying juice and dribbling it down my chin. I dug into both pockets looking for a napkin, couldn’t find one, and finally settled for my sleeve.
Jack tossed the last big bite of a fat roast beef sandwich into his mouth and chewed hard. Swigged from a 16-ounce can of PBR. Wiped his mustache with a freckled knuckle.
“Swedenson,” he said.
A scarlet fountain geysered from the hole in heartbeat rhythm. The cutter crammed his fist in up to the wrist, turning the stream into a spray he inadvertently steered as he felt around inside. He finally figured out how to stop the flow, but by then his entire crew was coated.
“Also, you won’t believe this,” I said. “Remember when Bustlin’ Bo Carmody got his third liver last spring?”
Jack scowled. “Tell me Swedenson was involved,” he said.
“Blackmailed the waiting list admin. Apparently she likes her interns young and pliant.”
Jack’s head dropped. “Poor little Donny Milner,” he said. “He’d have turned seventeen this year with that liver.”
Jack finished his beer, stuffed the can in the bag labeled with his wife’s handwriting, and mashed that into a ball. He sat up straight and said, “We can put the new weight-loss clinic site off a few more days.”
Both the cutter’s fists held paddles deep in the hole. Lightning bolts flashed across a wall monitor.
After lunch I dropped into a sweet groove, one piece of work leading to another. It was almost 3 when Benes broke my focus.
“We’ve got a serious problem, fellows,” he said. “A serious problem.”
He paced between our desks, rubbing his hands together nervously.
“What’s up, Benes?” Jack asked, eyes locked on his screen.
“Davis just threw a fit,” Benes said, referring to Davis Maloczek, hospital president.
“And what, pray tell, is the issue now?” Jack droned.
“We’re not at the top of Google,” Benes said. “Are you listening to me, Jack? We’re not at the top of Google!”
The website is the reason Jack and I work at the hospital. He’s the Web Manager. I’m the Web Editor. Benes Bight’s the Marketing Director. Our boss.
“Now, Benes,” Jack said, “We already discussed The Google.”
Jack spoke to Benes about technical things the way nice dads talk to four-year-olds about their fear of the dark.
“I know,” Benes said. “I just need to hear it again.” He pulled a chair up to Jack’s machine and sat at attention.
“What term did Davis type into The Google?” Jack said.
Benes glanced at the yellow pad he’d brought in.
“OK,” Jack said. “So when Davis searches for Parkinson’s Disease, how does The Google know if he wants information about Parkinson’s Disease, treatment for Parkinson’s Disease, or even names of celebrities who have Parkinson’s Disease?”
“It doesn’t,” Benes said, smiling. “Because The Google can’t read minds.”
“Excellent, that’s just as I taught you before,” Jack said. “Type the name of a disease into The Google and all it can show are links to information about that disease. And dozens of websites exist only to provide disease information. But our website exists for a completely different reason. Can you recall what that is?”
“It’s here to tell people about our services,” Benes said.
“There you have it,” Jack said. “So when you search a disease name, links to information websites appear. But add a single word to that disease name and, like magic, links to our hospital’s website appear. Can you remember what that word is, Benes?”
Benes looked up into the ceiling for a few moments as the word assembled itself in his mouth. “Treatment.”
“There you go,” Jack said. He typed Parkinson’s Disease treatment into Google, hit Enter, and spun the monitor around for Benes to see. Parkinson’s Disease Treatment at Hadley Harbor Hospital was the lead result.
“Hate to admit it, but I’m not making much distance on Swedenson,” Jack said the next morning. We were leaning against an A.C. unit on the roof of Building 2, watching the fishing boats out beyond the harbor.
“How’s your luck going?” he said, taking a swig of coffee.
“About the same,” I said. I puffed the joint we’d been working on and passed it back to him. “All I found on him was a juvie record. Teen problems.” I hunched my shoulders.
“There you go,” Jack said. “Ride ’em, Cowboy.”
“You’re kidding,” I said. “Right? It’s just kid stuff.”
Jack toked deep and held it in, eyes closed. I watched the sun sparkle on his big window glasses as he seemed to consider. Finally he eased the smoke out, letting it waft up over his neatly trimmed mustache.
“Fair enough,” he said. “I suppose everyone’s entitled to a messy childhood.”
I smiled, sipped my coffee, and watched the boats.
“Just the same,” he said, “let’s catch a glimpse of what we’re intentionally disregarding. It might just point to other possibilities.”
He handed me back what was left of the joint. I accepted it absently, thinking about Swedenson’s juvie file.
Thinking about my own, and the shit I pulled growing up.
Shoplifting, always stupid stuff: soda, potato chips. I’d get caught and my stepfather would go off like a Roman candle. Our fights were animalistic. Mom always took his side. I punched holes in the walls. It was his house, and he was a maniac about things being neat and orderly. Guess what, dickhead? Blammo. Hole.
Age fifteen, I stole this rust bucket. A Delta 88. Saw the key in the ignition and went for it. Figured I’d drive cross country, live someplace else. Cops were on me before I left the state. I sidelined it in the sticks. Found a steep, crumbling boat ramp by the river, opened all the windows, and put it in neutral. Let it roll. After that I hid out in the woods for a week. It all ended when some guy caught me stealing burgers from his barbecue pit.
A seagull swooped in for the joint. On reflex I tossed it into my mouth like a cocktail shrimp. I winced and my eyes watered as it fizzled out on my tongue and left me with a bitter, smoky aftertaste. A nauseating tang leeched up from my gullet.
What I should have done was kept what I’d found to myself. Just never have told Jack about it. Because it really was nothing, just an overview document.
They’re supposed to blitz your juvie files after you turn twenty-one. Mine are gone. I know because I hacked into the database and looked for myself.
But no, I had to go shooting my mouth off.
Swedenson’s juvie file contained a reference to a tempting target: a facility where he kicked up for a few years. These things are tough to resist. Intriguing little puzzles, like crack for the brain. I dropped it altogether, just to keep from feeling like a junkie hacker, and nosed into the damned weight-loss clinic site instead.
But after an hour it started eating at me again. Alliance for Serenity and Wellness. Places like that, you don’t even need to find a back door half the time because there’s a login page that’s pretty easy to find. I’d have bet you fifty I could dope out a username and password if I could find a few of the names of their IT staff.
Forty minutes later I had it. Swedenson’s entire psych file. Almost a full gigabyte.
The last entries were made more than seventeen years ago.
“Thar she blows.”
Jack’s words startled me. I’d forgotten he was in the office.
“What’s up?” I said.
“Neporama time,” he said, sounding exhausted. “Check your email.”
I didn’t have to.
Tiffany Maculata, the hospital’s director of commerce and the hospital president’s niece, had sent us another email suggesting in not so many words that the hospital’s web team was slovenly, incompetent, and should be sent packing.
As before, she cc’d the entire executive suite.
This time the issue was our search engine optimization. SEO. A salesman hawking some kind of SEO enhancement software had shot her a boilerplate email saying—what else—that our SEO sucked. Naturally she fell for it.
Jack gave the countdown.
“Cue Benes Bight blow-up in 3… 2… 1…”
The man stumbled into the room right on cue, waving a stack of printouts. I could almost feel Jack grinning on the other side of the wall.
“Fellows, we have a serious problem. A very serious problem.”
“What seems to be the trouble?” Jack said.
“Tiffany says you guys are lying down on the job. That you are, and I quote, shooting our website straight to Google hell.”
“Tell me, Benes,” Jack said, “has another web services salesman contacted Tiffany?”
Benes rattled through the pages.
“Yep,” he said, triumphantly holding up a sheet and reading from it. “They’re from a company called Mighty POS.”
“That’s an email Tiffany sent you, is it not?” Jack said, as though he hadn’t already read it himself. “Let’s have a look.”
Benes handed over the entire stack of printouts. His newly liberated hands shifted from his front to his back pockets before finally giving up and dangling at his sides.
Jack looked at the first page.
“OK,” he said, eventually. “I’ll take care of it.” He laid the sheets down beside his keyboard and continued working.
“But—but something needs to happen right away,” Benes said.
“Not a problem,” Jack said, smiling and calm as Buddha. “I’ve got this one, Benes. You needn’t give the matter another thought.”
Benes groaned and scuttled off.
When the coast was clear, Jack tossed the printouts into the wastebasket.
“From ages fifteen to eighteen, Carl David Swedenson was periodically remanded to The The Alliance for Serenity and Wellness under a diagnosis of schizophrenia.”
I was reading aloud from the summary PDF file that started Swedenson’s records at The The Alliance for Serenity and Wellness.
“And how did it go for young Swedenson?” Jack said.
“He did great,” I said. “He was a champ. He beat the schiz.”
I scrolled down the list of PDF files, clicking on interesting ones and reading a few lines from the preview window. Hitting the high points, as a sneaking suspicion grew within me that I’d almost certainly come to regret it. That I was shooting my mouth off again, telling Jack more than he needed to know.
“Visual and auditory hallucinations,” I read. “Night terrors, struggles maintaining friendships, violent outbursts. God damn, Jack, this kid got the full ride. I’m dropping the whole juvie file angle, man. We’re going at him another way.”
“Violent outbursts,” Jack repeated.
I saw my young fist go through a plaster wall.
“Sure, and haven’t we all had them at some time or another,” I said.
Feeling my swollen, bruised hand and wrist. Distorted, purple. Like Mom’s face every time she looked at me.
Aw Jesus, don’t go there. Don’t bring Mom into it.
“He made it through,” I said, with a deep breath. “Clean bill of health. It’s all right there.”
“Visual and auditory hallucinations,” Jack repeated.
I shook my head, I sighed loudly, exhausted.
“It’s a dry well, Jack. I’m moving on.”
“Now, just one cotton-picking minute,” Jack said. “Don’t gloss over all this. What specific hallucinations are we talking about?”
“It doesn’t say.” I scrolled through a long, detailed list of hallucinations teen Swedenson described, some including drawings he’d made himself. Some pretty heinous stuff, too.
“That’s all she wrote, Jack,” I lied, closing the file and dragging it to the trash. “I’ll work on another angle.”
“I am going to murder you two!”
Days had passed since our Tiffany email. I’d forgotten all about it. We were still a little buzzed from another coffee break when she blew into our office, shrieking.
Jack replied as calmly as if he’d been gently awoken from a nap.
“Pardon me, Tiffany,” he said, “but would you mind stepping out and entering our office once again? Only this time, in a more collegial manner.”
“Collegial my ass!” she said. “My presentation to the Board tanked because someone messed with my Powerpoint. And now all the data is off on my spreadsheets, my proposals, my financial reports. I just had the worst meeting of my life with the VP of Finance. She was so mean to me. So mean! And now Uncle Davis won’t see me, or even answer my emails. That’s when I realized,” she said, choking. “This all started after my last email to you. The one about our website SEO.”
Jack and I exchanged befuddled expressions.
“We’re drawing a blank here, Tiff,” he said. “What’s this about a presentation?”
“Dammit, Jack, I swear to Christ I will strangle you if you don’t admit you did this!”
The Legal Affairs director, whose office is a few doors down the hall, materialized in our doorway.
“Is there a problem here?” she asked, as though in response to a spill at a cocktail party.
Tiffany kept her eyes locked on us. “These two ass-wipes destroyed my life,” she said, her teeth clenched.
“Precisely what is it that you are alleging?” Legal Affairs asked, with a look of deep concern.
Tiffany struggled to catch her breath.
“I am alleging,” she said, “that these two hacked into my computer and turned my board presentation into a fucking joke. Adding things like proposals for a tattoo parlor and a Centaur Breeding Institute. And they ruined my files and my backups, months and months of work gone. Gone! It’s gone!”
Jack looked like he was about to cry. “I simply don’t understand, Tiffany,” he said. “Why would anyone even dream of such a thing?”
“Hacking’s impossible here,” I said. “Security’s way too tight.”
“How would one even go about it?” Jack said. “I’d scarcely know where to begin.”
Legal Affairs broke in.
“Jack? Morris? Allow me.”
She turned to Tiffany.
“What evidence do you have to support this grave allegation?” she said, this time notably frostier.
“The— the timing! It all started right after I emailed them.”
“Coincidence is not evidence. I’ll ask you again: what evidence do you have?”
Tiffany sputtered more and waved her hands at us. Finally her lower lip crinkled. She broke down weeping like a five-year-old.
Jack put a hand on her shoulder.
“Ssshhh,” he said. “It’s going to be OK. In such a stressful position as yours, misunderstandings like this are bound to happen.”
She tore away and screamed, “Go to hell!”
“That’s quite enough,” Legal Affairs said. “I’ll need to document this outburst, Tiffany. I must also insist that you undergo a psychiatric evaluation during a two-week paid leave of absence.”
It was like she’d tossed a gas can into a bonfire. Tiffany’s face turned purple. She roared psychotically, shaking both fists at Jack and me. Then she stormed out, weeping louder the farther down the hall she went. I went to the doorway. Heads popped out of every office she passed.
Legal Affairs eyeballed Jack.
“Now, what do you suppose that was about?” she said. She stared at Jack with one eyebrow raised almost to her hairline.
“I’m absolutely mystified, Mahalia,” Jack said.
“I’m beyond flabbergasted,” I said.
“Very well then,” she said, adding with a sigh, “I guess I have a report to write.”
“I’m about to get the ax,” Benes said.
He was back in our office, pacing and rubbing his hands.
“I got the tip-off from the VP of Medical Affairs. She heard the VP of Finance telling the Chief Development Officer that Maloczek has a brown box set aside with my name on it.”
“Brown what?” Jack said.
“You know,” Benes said. “The box of personal effects you carry out the door the day they fire you.”
“That’s nuts,” I said. “What’s Maloczek got on you?”
“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “I’m the blood sacrifice. Lady Nepo was caught buying heroin on her work computer. She denies it. Maloczek believes her. But IT says the evidence is solid, and Legal Affairs says Hadley Harbor Hospital’s immaculate reputation is on the line. To add to the problem, Legal Affairs says she witnessed Tiffany in what she characterized as the throes of a possibly drug-induced outburst. So Maloczek was forced to fire his sweet little niece.”
“Addicts,” Jack said. “They can hide it only so long, Benes.”
“Better it came out now while she’s still in her thirties,” I said. “So she can get rehabbed before she ends up old and snaggle-toothed, working the Harbor Heights Boardwalk.”
“And now,” Benes intoned, “Davis wants that blood sacrifice. Who’s it going to be? Legal Affairs is bullet-proof. You fellows are immune.”
“Us?” I said. “Immune? We’re like the most expendable units on the floor.”
“You’re not executives,” Benes said. “We can’t fire you without evidence. If we do and you sue us, you’ll win. That leaves but one possible sacrificial lamb.”
His face dropped to the floor.
“A lamb with a steep mortgage, two college tuitions, and, so help me God, an upcoming balloon payment on a timeshare in Isla Pantachica.”
The gut cutter slashed repeatedly, deeper and deeper into the gelatinous, yellow-painted mass. It made me think of old black-and-white footage I’d seen as a kid, whales being butchered. Long, machete-like knives gliding through thick blubber. Awesome, in an atrocious way.
It took the gut cutter a dozen strokes to get through, and by the time he was finished opening the patient the patch of skin between his cap and mask glistened with sweat. I turned to Jack to see what he thought.
He wasn’t smiling. Jack almost always smiles during surgeries. I’d never seen him looking bleaker.
“If they fire Benes,” he said, “the next Marketing Director will be young. Eager. And tech savvy.”
I forked some cold beef stew out of a re-used to-go tub and washed it down with a swig of Colt 45.
“He’ll have a lot to prove, too,” I said. “Whoever it is will spend the next five years showing off what a bad-ass he is. But don’t let that bum you out.”
Jack glared hate-rays at me. I took another bite of stew.
“Sure he’ll ride our asses,” I said. “Looking for a constant stream of measurable quarterly improvements. 14% website visitor increase. 3% bounce rate reduction. 8% increase in conversion rate. But, Jack,” I said, “look on the bright side.”
His face was solid concrete.
“We’re done with Lady Nepo,” I said. I held my beer up for a big Cheers, but Jack ignored it.
“No more emails designed to make us look bad. No more leadership by vendor inquiry. Our lives are a good 18% improved. That, my friend, is progress.”
The gut cutter finally managed to cut a slot big enough to reach into. He pulled out sections of shiny pink intestine and left them lying like garden hose on the table. The PA shot photos that appeared on large screens flanking the operating theater.
Jack’s lunch bag and canned margarita sat by his feet, unopened. His mind was miles away.
“We’ve got to save Benes,” he said, almost like he was talking in his sleep.
“What can we possibly do?” I said, digging out another forkful of stew. “If you ask me, this one’s open and shut, Jack. The price of losing Tiffany is also losing the most wonderfully inept boob of a boss we’ve ever had in our long and storied careers.”
“The new guy will most definitely have one small pair of orthopedic loafers to fill,” Jack said.
An MRI image appeared on one of the screens, the silhouette of a belly, with a cross-section of intestines. A fat dark mass sat in the middle. It was roughly the size of a human head.
Jack finally opened his lunch bag, pulled out a cold chicken thigh, and picked at the plastic wrap that covered it, all the while turning the problem over.
“We can’t pin what happened to Tiffany on some other department,” he said. “That would take the heat off Benes, but it would give Maloczek the excuse he needs to bring Tiffany back. We need to make Benes bullet-proof without refuting the evidence against Tiffany.”
The gut cutter had both hands in the slot and heaved away at something that, to all appearances, simply would not budge.
Jack worked in complete silence the remainder of the day.
I spent hours reviewing previous jobs on the chance that something we’d done before might fit the current problem. But it was a long road to nowhere.
That night my phone went off at 2 a.m. A whole stream of messages from Jack. I figured he’d gotten the breakthrough he was waiting for, and he was letting me in on his brainstorm. But when I checked my phone, all I found were instructions. I ignored them and fell asleep.
Maloczek had come to work much earlier than usual. I passed him on my way to the office. Cup of coffee beside me, I opened Jack’s first instruction:
Before Maloczek arrives today, find the thumb drive in your top right drawer, plug it into Maloczek’s computer, and run the program that pops up. DO NOT do this over the network. It must run only on that one machine.
Screwed, I realized, Maloczek’s already here.
I popped the drawer anyway, slipped the drive into my pocket, and hot-footed it down to the Executive Suite, hoping maybe I’d catch a break and he wouldn’t be in his office.
Maloczek and I were the only men around at that hour. Hopeful, I paused to listen at the men’s room in the Marketing hallway between our office and the president’s. I heard commotion inside—pure luck—which meant I had at the most a few minutes to work.
Like a burglar, I slipped into Maloczek’s office and over to his computer. He’d already logged in, saving me the time and trouble. I slammed the USB in, clicked over to the only thing on it, a .exe file, and ran it. As soon as that was done I snatched the drive and rushed out the back office door. I caught a glimpse of Maloczek rounding the corner from the Marketing hallway, staring into his phone. A fast course correction pointed me to the stairs in the opposite direction, leading down to the cafeteria. On the way I replied to Jack’s first instruction: DONE.
Just for the sake of follow-through I hit the cafeteria again and bought another cup of coffee. Waiting in line to pay, I checked the next encrypted text instruction:
Through moscow oblast network, install the file at location X onto the machine at location Y.
X:317.512.996 dir \dn\1f\48wrbv6l\249hdy9824501bdesy23244\std\usr\princess\dt4_en1.exe
Y:996.901.175 dir \msrf\westmark\dh14s\sed\users\swedenson\
Back in my office I performed the installation, then replied DONE. I was scrolling through my messages for the next instruction when I heard Jack’s desk phone go off. It beeped four times, and I knew mine was next.
The ID said Maloczek.
“Say, Mr. M., what can I do for you?”
“Computer problem. Get down here now.”
Maloczek stood red-faced at his office door. He just sputtered and pointed to his machine.
The entire desktop was filled with a black window bounded by yellow hazard stripes. Bold text filled the screen:
YOUR FILES NOW ARE ENCRYPTED USING
STRONGEST ALGORITHM KNOWN TO MAN.
With unique decryption key for this one computer only.
Decryption key reside on internet server.
To get decryption key send payment in Bitcoin within 24 hours following carefully instructions on
If you fail your decryption key will be delete. Further more this encryption program will crawl your intranet and encrypt entire servers.
“God damn,” I blurted out in a flash of panic, realizing precisely what Jack had me install.
I clicked NEXT. What followed were detailed instructions for buying and transferring 300 Bitcoins to an anonymous crypto wallet.
“And the current value of a Bitcoin?” Maloczek said.
“About four thousand dollars, give or take,” I said. “All told, one point two million?”
He kicked his desk.
“Worthless IT morons,” he said. He wagged a finger in the air. “I’ve told those bastards for years, your security blows. All the phishing and baiting emails every day. Every single day. Then whatever happened to Tiffany’s machine, that mess. Now this. Just perfect. Just absolutely perfect.”
“Maybe we should just kill the machine,” I said. “How much value could it be, right?”
He kicked a chair across the room.
“That is not what I need to hear,” he said. “Killing this machine is a non-starter, OK? A. Non. Starter.”
I put my hands up.
“I’m hearing you, Mr. M.,” I said, backing out of the room. “But that’s all I got. Your next move is to message the emergency on-call IT guy. Do it right away. Clock’s ticking.”
The next instruction:
Through moscow oblast network, load and install the file at location Z onto the machine at location A.
Z:449.526.192 dir \ednaf\rutledge\enke\adj\bns\prokol_1\edvnga.exe
A:267.567.412 dir \d250x34j12\asj\23dd1\acct\intl\sne\ord\ilj\5220_1445_2611_2398512_4\ usr: 3z4!yYj45L^$21 pwd: theredzone
I had to key it out a few times, the damned username kept throwing me off. Finally I got the copy and install command to work, replied DONE, then checked the final instruction message.
After all I’d done that morning, this was the one instruction that truly worried me.
Retrieve the item in the middle right drawer and plant it on Dr. Swedenson. He will be attending the Surgery Section Meeting beginning at 8 am in the Dorringer-Schmidt Amphitheater.
The clock read 7:50, and the amphitheater was a good eight minutes away at a brisk walk.
And the god-damned drawer was stuck. Jack knows that drawer sticks, but the bastard used it anyway.
I finally had to kick it hard enough to dent the front. All I could find inside was a wad of masking tape.
“This has to be a mistake,” I said, bringing it up close to my eyes. For whatever reason I gave it a squeeze, and that’s when I felt the hard square object inside.
I still had no idea what Jack was up to, but I didn’t have time to think about it.
When I reached the amphitheater I realized that all I’d ever seen of Swedenson were the mug shots in his juvie files. I had no idea what he looked like as an adult. Using my phone I found him in the physician directory, but not until the meeting had started.
I slipped through the door, took a back row seat on the near side, and scanned the whitecoats as the chief physician joked and fumbled with his Powerpoint. If Swedenson was anywhere in the crowd of 200 or so, I sure as hell couldn’t tell.
I slipped out of my seat and hot-footed it across the back of the room. After scanning frantically I found him in the fifth row, third seat in from the aisle, legs crossed, sipping coffee. There were no empty seats in his row and one empty seat in the center of the row behind him.
I walked over to that row and scooted in sideways. Faking a stumble was easy. I fell forward onto Swedenson just as he was taking another sip of coffee. It made a commotion, and as he leapt to his feet I ran my hands around his body and slipped the tape wad, with whatever miniature electronics it concealed, into his back pants pocket.
“Jesus Christ,” he said.
“Sorry Doctor,” I said, “I stumbled over this guy’s feet here. Holy crap, I’m so sorry.”
“What a surprise,” he said. “Another baboon on staff at Hadley Harbor. Pro-tip, you clumsy half-wit: evolve.”
“Sure thing,” I said. “Sorry again. Sorry everybody.”
Swedenson eyeballed me angrily, sipping his coffee, as I found my way to the empty center seat. I sat down and gave him one last apologetic wave. He seemed to calm down as the presentation continued.
When the speakers changed I slipped out the far side of the row, replying DONE to my most annoying assignment of the morning.
Jack was shrugging out of his jacket when I returned to the office.
“Glad you could make it,” I said. “It’s been one hell of a day.”
“I’ll bet,” he said, hanging the jacket and rubbing puffy eyes. “It was a challenging night, to say the least. But, if you’ve done everything as instructed—barring the unforeseen—by this time tomorrow Swedenson will be a distant memory. And our exalted leader Benes Bight will have received assurance of his continued incompetent leadership for at least another few years, quite possibly along with a promotion.”
I flopped into my chair.
“A promotion?” I said. “But why?”
Jack waved me down.
“I know,” he said, “First, I’m going to need a cup of coffee.”
A stiff breeze kicked up on the roof of Building 2. Jack and I huddled against the A.C. unit, hot cups warding off the lingering morning chill.
“You must understand, Morris,” Jack said, “Bringing you on board at every single step would only have slowed things down. It would have added errors as well, and, perhaps most importantly, it would have robbed you of plausible deniability.”
“I get all that,” I said. “I just don’t see how moving a few files around in Russia, ransom-waring a computer, and planting some tiny gizmo is going to affect anything.”
Jack took a sip of coffee and watched the whitecaps out on the harbor.
“Let’s begin with the ransomware you installed on Maloczek’s machine.”
“Aw, Jesus, Jack,” I said, “Don’t say it like that.”
“Not that you knew what you were doing,” he said. “But, make no mistake, if the instructions aren’t followed to the letter, the program will reproduce itself across the entire hospital network, it will lock every single machine in the hospital along with all the data in all the servers, and Hadley Harbor Hospital will be operationally dead in the water.”
“What a nightmare,” I said.
“Precisely,” Jack said. “Which is why…”
His phone sounded off. He gave it a glance and said, “Which is why Maloczek just paid the ransom in full. As we speak, the ransomware program is deleting every trace of its own existence.”
Jack stowed his phone and mimed a magician’s presto gesture. “Poof! Gone.”
He seemed to be waiting for some kind of congratulatory gesture, his big yellow teeth shining in the cold sun. But I had too much on my mind.
“OK,” I said, “But I don’t see how a Bitcoin deposit saves Benes.”
Jack put his hand on my shoulder. It reminded me of our last encounter with Tiffany.
“There’s a certain delicious splendor in having friends in low places,” he said. “Such as the ones helping us in the suburbs outside Moscow.”
“Yeah, Moscow Oblast,” I said. “We send a little under-the-table work that way from time to time, but… did you hire the Russian mob to come and kidnap Maloczek?”
“No,” he said. “However, last night, when I was deeply mired in a part of the problem that seemed positively intractable, I recalled our project this past summer, and the skill with crypto currencies displayed by the wily and daring Stepanov brothers. So I reached out to them with a request that they receive and process a Bitcoin payment anonymously,” Jack said. “They were only too glad to do so, with the help of the remote installations you performed this morning.”
Bitcoin maintains a publicly accessible ledger that records every transaction, identities and all. If Jack wasn’t just blowing smoke here, this was one flashy move.
“They’ll keep half the payment for themselves, of course,” Jack said. “Then, according to our agreement they’ll do a little crypto currency song-and-dance with the rest, on our behalf.”
“Playing the crypto markets?” I said. “God damn, Jack, that’s one hell of a crap-shoot.”
“Oh, not for them,” Jack said. “The Stepanov Brothers run cryptos the way McDonald’s runs burgers. They just might be the world’s last and best outlaws.”
“So what does any of this do to help us keep Benes?” I said.
“In just a few days,” Jack said, “our hospital’s Board of Directors will hear from a new friend, offering a very timely and generous gift to our hospital. With one small condition.”
Jack was bypassing Maloczek altogether. Playing the Board, presenting an offer they’d be insane to refuse: promote Benes, get a fat donation. This was Olympics-level audacity.
“You really think you’ll get away with that?” I said.
Jack’s smile was almost bashful. He looked down and nudged a pigeon feather with his shoe.
“Watch and learn, Morris,” he said. “Watch and learn.”
“OK,” I said, “So how does Swedenson play into all this?”
Jack looked out on the bay again. He wasn’t smiling anymore.
“You’re not going to be very happy with me about Swedenson,” he said finally.
“What?” I said. “How come?”
“Those descriptions of his hallucinations, from when he was a teenager?” Jack said. “And the drawings? I copied them down from your machine.”
“You—you’re in my machine?”
His expression was all it took. In fact, his expression made me out to be the fool for not presuming he was all over my machine, and probably my personal information, from the very start. He was probably in my secret Linux box, too. In my second cell phone. In my encoded laptop at home.
That was all bad enough. But he’d gotten into Swedenson’s juvie files and was somehow using them against the guy. Hallucinations and all.
I felt the roof give way beneath me.
“Aw, shit, Jack,” I said. “That is so not cool. You told me yourself. You said to me right here on this roof. You said everyone’s entitled to a messy childhood.”
“Yes, Morris,” he said, “but we need a distraction. A bright, jangling wrongness, something impossible to hide. Something to seize the Board’s attention, to confront them with the certainty that Maloczek’s leadership is dangerously inept. And of course we need Swedenson gone, as you know. The answer to all of our needs came together in one straightforward, if not terribly ethical, answer.”
“What did you do with all that hallucination stuff?” I said.
“I had a crack team of Bangalore media students animate a few of the most horrendous ones. Stored them on microdroids, which I plugged into the spare USB slots of monitors along the main hallway.”
“You reckless son of a bitch,” I said. “What do you do now when people start complaining about insane cartoons playing everywhere in the hospital?”
“Calm down, Morris. They only play when the RFID chip you planted on Swedenson comes within 10 feet of a microdroid.”
“How does that accomplish anything?” I said.
“There’s a little more to it,” Jack said. “By the time he sees these little cartoon reminders of his adolescence playing throughout the hospital, our friend Swedenson will be absolutely tripping balls.”
I just stared, knowing roughly what he was saying but not wanting to believe it. Watching his eyes for a hint that maybe he was joking.
His big window glasses reflected the sky like chrome.
“Late last night,” he said, “on my way out of the hospital, I broke into Swedenson’s office. I found the coffee mug he always uses, sitting right on his desk. And I coated the inside with a dense layer of a certain psychedelic drug that goes by the initials DMT.”
I’d worked with Jack nearly three years at that point.
During those years we exposed a child-molesting pediatrician and got him sent to jail for twenty years. Now I wanted to sail a fist through his yellow Chiclet teeth.
Jack and I locked down conclusive evidence that a garishly publicized malpractice suit against the hospital was based on pure fabrications. Together we saved the hospital tens of millions of dollars.
All I wanted to do now was choke Jack until his saggy, bloodshot eyes bugged out.
We caught a nursing director channeling big shipments of fentanyl through the hospital infrastructure. Getting rich turning kids into junkies. Got her locked up and saved dozens of kids from addiction.
Now all I wanted to do was throw Jack off the roof. Splatter his carcass across the sidewalk fourteen stories below. Make him the bloody signature to the horrors being painted on the floors in between as Swedenson’s teenage nightmares exploded in full-blown, drug-induced psychosis.
I took the elevator down to the main hallway.
It had all just happened. I could hear his yells and curses still echoing down a hallway. Big monitors on the floor, crumbled drywall. Swedenson had obviously ripped them from the walls, leaving behind only ragged holes. An ER crew scrambled past me.
I walked out to the parking lot. Found my car. Found my keys. Opened the door.
I drove out to Harbor Road. It meanders for miles along the water past derelict strip malls, boarded up gas stations, and ice cream joints. It was off-season, I had the place to myself, so I drove twenty miles an hour. I swerved wide around potholes. I ignored lane divisions. I ignored stop lights.
I passed two cop cars. They ignored me. They ignore most of what happens in this part of town.
I remembered the public boat ramp at the end of the Harbor Heights boardwalk. If you wait there long enough, prostitutes show up. That was never my bag. I always felt bad for them. I found the ramp, turned into it, aimed my car for the waves and shut off the engine. Put it in neutral. Took my foot off the brake.
Rolled slowly to the sea.
A plan started coming together in my head.
I realized I could sink my car and no one would ever know. The ramp’s steep as hell and the water’s deep.
Then I could get some cash, catch a bus a few blocks away, head to another state. Check into a cheap hotel, one of the ones with business computers they let the guests use.
Log on to a proxy, transfer some cash.
Hack my own death certificate.
Buy a new identity.
It felt so cozy. By this time tomorrow I’ll be someone else. The slate’s wiped clean.
With a plan in place I could relax. I turned on the radio and found an AM station that sounded like Mexican party music, tinny and full of static. Leaned back, listened to the water slosh in the front wheel wells. Started dreaming about who I wanted to become. The passenger door opened and slammed. I smelled perfume.
“Sorry, babe,” I said, “not interested.”
She laughed and said, “Take my word for it, Morris: you couldn’t possibly afford me.”
Legal Affairs was on pinball number six, and it was still her first quarter. She had a way of hitting a bumper just right so the steel would bang back and forth for a long time, CHUNKA CHUNKA CHUNKA CHUNKA.
“I’m guessing Jack tracked your phone,” she said, pausing for a sip of red wine. “Because I found you just where he told me you’d be.”
“OK,” I said. “So, to what do I owe the pleasure?”
At precisely the right moment she hit the left flipper, launching the ball through the high spinner up high near Gene Simmons’ leering, dragon-tongued face.
“I’m a compassionate human being,” she said. “It just made sense to touch base and see what’s up. He said you were very upset.”
“Did he say why?” I said.
“God, no,” she said, twitching the flippers as the ball headed for the outside gutter on the right. “Jack knows I am absolutely not interested in the web team’s inner workings.”
She gave the table a shove, steering the ball back near the center, then slammed the right flipper to launch it high into the cluster of four large bumpers where it bounced between them KA-CHUNKA KA-CHUNKA KA-CHUNKA KA-CHUNKA, a mechanical heartbeat keeping this 1977 pinball machine alive, giving a pulse to the almost-empty boardwalk bar.
Finally the ball tired out and streaked down between the flippers.
“Your turn,” she said, stepping aside.
I took the table, launched a ball, listened to the machine play its 4-bit version of the refrain from Rock and Roll All Nite. Somehow the steel seemed to roll slower when I played. It lumbered through the spinner, oozed into the 4-bumper heart, touched a single bumper that said KA-CHUNK, bounced out, and dropped down through the hole.
“I was never very good at these things,” I said. I took a hard pull from the pint on the table behind me. The dewy glass slipped through my fingers as I set it back down, splashing cheap beer on the gummy wood.
“God dammit, I’m a train wreck,” I said, drying my hand on an already wet lump of paper napkins.
“Ours is a very messy world, Morris,” Legal Affairs said.
I put my hand on the launcher, then turned to look at her. She was giving me that one-raised-eyebrow look she’d given Jack the day Tiffany flipped out.
“Compassionate human being my ass,” I said. “What’s the real reason you came after me?”
She sipped her wine, grimaced, looked into the glass.
“I stand by my statement,” she said. “I care about people. Particularly the ones at the mercy of huge, insane bureaucracies.”
She seemed to be talking about the side work Jack and I had done. Like maybe she knew about it.
“I feel the same way,” I said. “But Jack takes things…”
Glass clacked up against my teeth and bad wine streamed into my mouth. When I tried to push her off she jammed the glass in deeper.
“Ah-ah-ah,” she said, “Remember? Absolutely. Not. Interested.”
She pulled the glass away and picked up the lump of wet napkins.
“In a world this messy,” she said, dabbing at my face, “our only real advantage is someone deep in the machine. Someone with special gifts. Someone who’s willing to do what no one else can or will do.”
She drew in so close I thought she might either kiss me or bite me.
“When the universe gives you such an advantage, Morris,” she said, “you don’t stand by and watch it slip away.”
All the mirth vanished from her eyes just then. She glared at me, her napkin hand resting on my Adam’s apple. Drips of wine trickled down my neck.
“But if someone were to try to take that advantage away?” she said, “I would end that person. Legally, first, and you know that would be the easiest part. But I wouldn’t stop there. I’d destroy that person financially. I’d go after everything he owns. And, finally? When all that person has left is his aging, starving body? I’d take that, too. It would be slow. It would be excruciating. And there would be no safe place on Earth for that person to disappear to.”
She dabbed a little more at my face, tossed the napkin on the table, and, smiling again, drew away.
“I’m guessing that’s the compassion you were talking about,” I said.
She drained her wine, laid the glass on its side, and headed for the open boardwalk.
“God damned right it is,” she said. “See you at work.”