Continued from last week …
Synopsis: Dancing Fawn has decided to use a hidden area of the Internet to support herself and her twin daughters. She knows any activity she engages in there will probably be illegal, but she must take the chance. Her children are worth the risk.
What she doesn't know is that the forces of law and order, lead by Special Agent Joshua Weidemeyer, are very close to catching her, both in cyberspace and in the real world.
THE NEAR FUTURE
Fawn slipped out of her old apartment without a word to the Bastard. One minute she was there, watching TV with the girls, and then they were all gone. They took only pictures, papers, and the clothes on their backs.
She was able to do it because she had managed to save a small sum from her new badlands business delivering black-market meds for an overseas wholesaler. He received orders from the general public through an offshore web site, paid with a credit card. No prescriptions required, very cheap prices. As often as she could accept a delivery, he would smuggle a shipment of prepackaged meds to her. Her job was to slip them into the U.S. mail without being detected. Payment was in gold, deposited automatically to a badlands account in her name.
She started her business while she still lived with the Bastard. On the sly, when he wasn't there, she would take the bus to the international airport and pick up a package using a driver's license she had made herself from an ID IN A BOX kit. Then, dumping the contents into her backpack, she would start walking, a meander that went from one blue mailbox to the next, leaving a few mailers in each one. Those packages looked like they had been sent by domestic mail-order drug retailers, complete with company logos, advertising, return addresses, and postage. If they had all shown up at a single mailbox, some postal inspector would have become suspicious. This way, no one noticed.
Now she had her own apartment, furnished with a mattress, pillows, three folding chairs, and a cinder-block table. It wasn't much, but she didn't have to have sex with anyone to keep it, and her girls were safe.
In the closet was a locked trunk, big enough to hold several hundred packets of meds. Her supplier had told her that she could have as many as she could deliver. All she had to do to grow her business was figure out how to move them without walking herself to death.
* * *
"F**king hell," cursed FBI Special Agent Daniel Shelton*, expressing the feelings they all had concerning their lack of 'recruiting' success. "We had them dead. What happened?"
"Somehow, they figured it out," answered Weidemeyer.
"'Somehow?' F**k-Ing-Hell. It was open secret. Everyone knows we bug their computers. That's not the point. How are they turning the damn things off? That's the point."
The BS Committee was in session. They had just gone over the latest capture figures. Until three months ago, they were exploding. Then they tapered off, eventually dropping like a rock. Last month they hadn't turned a single badlander.
"Obviously, either they've found a way to clean the snitch code-"
"No, it's too well embedded in the OS," said NSA
"- or they're using an operating system made by someone other than Microsoft or Apple."
"Linux*?" suggested NSA.
"OK, so let's get snitch code installed there, too," suggested BATF.
"Not that simple, sorry. First, there're multiple manufacturers of those systems. We would have to cut a secret deal with at least a dozen vendors, many outside the country. Second, they all distribute open-source code, so, even if we did get them to slip in a snitch program, their customers would find it, remove it, and then warn the rest of the badlands about it."
"What's 'open-source' mean?" asked the DEA rep.
"It means the vendor distributes his source code so all his customers can see what they're getting. We can't slip anything in because, unlike an executable, people can and do read source code. Someone would find it."
"So where to from here?"
"The badlands isn't never-never land," Matthew Hood said. "It touches reality every time anyone connects to it. Its inhabitants live here, in this physical world, not in 'information space.' They walk, they eat, they breathe. So we look for them like we look for any other criminal, because that's all they are, just another set of criminals.
"It's back to street-cop basics. Get your snitches to work harder to turn in other badlanders. We don't need much. A name, IP, physical address, picture. Even a voice print. Anything is a start. We can work from almost anything.
"We can also stage more searches. Roadblocks. Checkpoints at major transportation hubs. You get the idea. We catch them with evidence on their person, we got them."
"What counts as evidence?"
"Anything you can think of."
"Like running Linux on their computer?"
"Yeah, that would be a good start."
* * *
The bullhorn jerked Fawn back into the humid, sweaty present.
"This is a TSA Security Inspection. Please place your hands on the seat in front of you. If there is no seat, place them on the handrail overhead or in your lap. Do not place them in your pockets or open any of your carry-ons."
Moving quickly down the transit bus aisle, weaving through the few passengers that were standing, were four TSA agents in blue uniforms, black bulletproof vests, and garish yellow "TSA" logos. They carried nightsticks, though otherwise they seemed unarmed. As they walked, their eyes darted quickly to either side, looking for any passenger careless enough to disobey the bullhorn's instructions.
Standing next to the driver at the head of the bus was the agent with the horn. Next to him stood another, recording the position and movements of the passengers.
From behind Fawn came a yelp.
The bullhorn spoke again. "Please do not move your hands from sight. Keep them on the seat ahead of you, on your lap, or on one of the overhead rails. This is for your own safety," it announced.
She had not noticed the bus come to a stop. Her eyes had been closed, mind drifting in the peace that comes after a good workout, when Mr. Bullhorn had rushed up the steps. But now her stomach lurched, her vision narrowed, and her mind froze with fear. She was more than just alert. She was terrified.
Last week, she had picked up a large box at an air freight carrier's cargo desk. Taking it home, she had transferred over a thousand small envelopes and boxes to the two locked trunks hidden in her closet.
Three times since then, she had put on her 'rich yuppie' bicycling outfit (including streamlined helmet, large dark glasses, and gloves), hopped on her new mountain bike, and pedaled away into the dawn. On her back was a pack with water and about two hundred med mailers. By bicycle and bus, she would travel along an erratic route, wandering from mailbox to mailbox. Each one got a few packages, none more than four. She never lingered long, just scooted by and shoved them in. Between boxes, she would stop, pull out a few more, check them, and have them ready in her jacket pocket when the next ugly blue box came up.
This morning, she had done it for a fourth time. Now, as the sun was setting, she was on her way back home. All but one of the meds were safely in the post. Her pack was empty. In her pocket, though, was one small bulging envelope that she hadn't mailed. It had carried a stamp rather than a meter mark and that had fallen off so she hadn't mailed it, planning instead to re-stamp it after she got home and drop it off tomorrow.
This surprise TSA inspection made that a bad idea. In a mailbox, that package would seem normal, but, in her pocket, it would raise questions because neither address on it carried her name. If she were caught with it, they would search her apartment and find the others. Then she would get a cell and they would get her girls.
Slowly, the bus emptied. Row by row, the blue-clad agents ushered the passengers out, a seat-full at a time, up and off the bus. As they left, other agents with mirrors and wands would go over the seats just vacated. Even if she could get the package out of her pocket without being seen, slipping the pills under the seat wouldn't do her any good. The searchers would find them and know which seat she had come from.
Come on, brain, get in gear!
She thought briefly of making a run for it as soon as she got to the bus door, but the TSAs outside were armed and seemed to be expecting just that sort of bolt. If they caught her after a try, they'd be sure she was guilty of something and search until they found it.
Perhaps she could just brazen it out with some sort of story. Had she picked them up for her grandmother? Nice try, but she didn't even know who they were addressed to and didn't dare take the package out now to look. Besides, she had no explanation for the absence of a stamp.
Outside, those passengers that had left the bus were wanded and frisked. At a portable table near the entrance, two bored agents hand-searched bags and packages. When cleared, everyone went to a separate waiting area to stand in resigned annoyance. Some just gave up and walked away.
From across the street, the smell of stale burnt wood and sewage distracted her. Still no ideas. Perhaps a run for it was the only way.
Her turn came. She stood up with her seatmates and began the shuffle down the aisle, an agent standing on either side to keep an eye on their movements. As she reached Mr. Bullhorn, a shout came from behind her. Turning, she saw one of the agents by her old seat holding up two small plastic bags of white powder. The agents on either side, as well as at the entrance to the bus, became more alert. Running for it was now out of the question.
"Keep moving, keep moving." Mr. Bullhorn advised.
There were four in her group, she was third in the line. When they got outside, she watched as the two ahead of her got an unusually careful search. Her mind now empty of any ideas, she took slow deep breaths to try to calm herself.
It was her turn. She held her arms out, spreading her feet slightly as the wand ran over her body. Satisfied, the female TSA agent put down the instrument and began the pat-down. Her grandmother was the best she could think of, she had better make it sound good.
Then confusion. Shouts. Slammed from behind, she spun and flew forward. Her foot tripped on the broken sidewalk. As she turned, she saw a flash of running legs, then a man sliding off-balance against an inspection table. Recovering her feet, she turned to see him struggling with three TSA agents.
And no one looked at her.
Seeing her chance, she picked up her pack and slipped towards the cleared passengers.
"Not that way," barked an agent.
He took her pack and led her to the still-standing inspection table. He began going through it with great care, even feeling the seams for any unusual stiffness. She stood in silence, watching him.
Of course, he found nothing, because there was nothing to find. The unmailed package was still in her coat pocket, missed in the confusion.
A blue Humvee pulled up, the doors opened. Two TSA agents pushed the runner, hands cuffed behind his back, through the open door. One agent followed him. The doors closed and the vehicle departed.
"OK, over there," her agent said, pointing to where her two seat-mates were standing as he handed her back her pack.
The transit bus filled in the growing dusk. Sweating and sullen, the passengers lined up to re-board under a single streetlight. She realized that, when they were all inside, the bus would leave without her.
"I have a bike on the bus, I have to get it off."
Another Humvee pulled up. The back doors opened and her seatmates, now bound, were ushered in and told to slide across. The agent gestured for her. They were going to take her in anyway, even though they didn't find anything, just because of her seatmate.
"I have to get my bike off the bus."
"Just get in the truck"
"I can't leave it on the bus, it'll be stolen at the next stop."
The bus was almost loaded.
"Please, I can't afford to buy another one."
The agent sighed, looked annoyed, and then realized there might be contraband in the bike.
"That one in front?" he asked.
It was the only one in the rack.
He yelled to the agent who was supervising the last of the bus loading. She watched as her bike was pulled from the bus and wheeled to where she stood.
"Is this yours?" the agent asked.
He looked at it, not sure what to do next. For a moment, she actually thought he might try to wand the metal frame, but he settled for an intimate pat-down. Finished, his blue vinyl gloves were now black. His annoyance at that brought her a smile that she barely suppressed.
Meanwhile, the bus drove away without her.
It was obvious that there was no room in the Humvee for the bicycle, her, the other two passengers, and two TSA agents, so her fastidious agent made an executive decision.
"OK, you sit there," he said, pointing towards a curb that was wet and green from a water pipe leak somewhere nearby. She remained standing, hoping it wouldn't be interpreted as an act of confrontation.
The Humvee left. Now the only passenger, she watched as the tables were folded and loaded into a blue van. Her agent had a quick conference with a man in a suit, then came back to her.
She stood, fished in her backpack, and handed him her real one, not sure if he had access to an online driver's license database, or how capable he was of spotting her fake.
Clip board in hand, he copied her name and number.
The blue van left.
"OK, you can go," he said as he handed back her license.
Her mind still locked up, she watched as he got into the last vehicle, a blue TSA sedan. It wasn't until the car had pulled around the corner, leaving her standing alone in the night, that she realized she didn't even know where she was. Worse still, she had no lights on her bike. Now very tired, she decided to wait for the next bus, since she couldn't afford a cab.
One other thought popped into her mind as she stood alone under that single streetlight: She better find another way to make her deliveries. Public transportation was no longer a good idea.
* See Appendices for a list of characters and a glossary.
Thieves Emporium is available from Amazon in both paperback and Kindle and in epub format from Smashwords or Nook. Max Hernandez welcomes comments and feedback and can be reached at MaxHernandez@protonmail.ch.
© 2012-2015 Max Hernandez. Reprinted with permission.