Continued from last week …
Synopsis: A young mother in desperate financial straights is approached by a stranger and told of an opportunity in a hidden area of the Internet. To take advantage of this information, she must go to a clandestine meeting which, because of her dire situation, she decides to do.
The young mother got off the bus less than a block from the Cleveland Boxing Club with only twenty minutes until her meeting. She planned to have more time to get to know the neighborhood, but the buses were running late because of some lake-effect snow. Now, still with a little time on her hands, she walked past the club entrance.
The small, single-story building looked like it had once been a retail establishment, perhaps a cleaners or a pawnshop. She didn't dare linger. Even during rush hour, few pedestrians walked through this part of town and she didn't want to attract notice. In some sense, though, this worked in her favor, as it made it easier to spot anyone else loitering in the area. She saw no one as she moved down the block.
At 5:12 (exactly) she walked up to the open door, stopped at the entrance, and looked in. A counter faced her less than ten feet away, as it might have done for a dry cleaners, except that a wall behind the counter hid the rest of the building from her eyes. It looked like patrons checked in at the counter before going through a door to the back area. Behind it sat a frail old man with surprisingly unscarred features and very thin gray hair. No one else was visible. Wet slapping sounds of someone receiving a beating came from behind the wall.
Trying to look like she was a potential customer, she proceeded to the counter.
"Yeah?" the old man said without looking up from his paper.
"Are you Vlad?"
"No Vlad here. What you want?" he asked, finally taking the trouble to lift his eyes from the funnies.
"I was told Vlad worked here."
"Yeah, and I was told boxing was for sissies. We was both misinformed. What you want?"
This is not going well.
"May I speak with the manager?"
"Honey, I own this place. Have for twenty-six years. I never hired a Vlad. I don't know a Vlad. So, unless you want lessons, you better leave."
Having run out of questions, and not really interested in learning to box, she did just that.
As she waited in the light snow for the next bus, she considered her options. They were few: go back to China National Steel and admit the meeting had gone wrong, or forget the entire thing. Either idea made her stomach cramp.
She still fretted the matter thirty-five minutes later as she hung from a bus strap, wedged between slabs of wet coats. As she swayed with the traffic, something tugged at her sleeve. Looking down, she saw the face of a small child looking back from under an over-sized knit cap.
"Can I have some candy?" the remarkably dirty urchin asked.
"I don't have any."
"Yeah you do. Can I have some?" insisted the child.
"No, honey, I'm sorry, I really don't."
"You do, too. I can smell it. In your coat pocket. Please? Give me some?"
When she reached into her pocket to prove the child wrong, her hand brushed an envelope. It hadn't been there when she started this trip. Before she could say anything, her small beggar moved near the door and started panhandling a stooped fat woman. At the next stop, the urchin slipped out and was gone.
The rest of the way home, the young mother reflected on the fact that pickpockets can give as well as take. What she didn't think about, but perhaps should have, was that they can also plant tracking bugs on a person's clothing. This was not a simple game she was playing.
Back home, she didn't dare take out the envelope until the front door was bolted and chained against the Bastard. Locking herself in the bathroom so the girls wouldn't see, she finally pulled it out for a look.
It was plain, brown, and small, about the size a bank would pass out to hold money in. On the outside was a gummed label with a logo that read:
There were no other markings. No names. No addresses. Nothing.
Tearing off the end, she shook the contents into the sink: A thumb drive, a letter, and money. Lots of money. Slipping it and the drive back into her coat pocket, she sat down on the toilet to read the letter:
Dear Dancing Fawn:
May I call you that? I hope so, as my records will show this as your badlands name. After all, I have to call you something, and I do not know (and do not want to know) your real one.
So, Ms Fawn, life is full of tests. As you have probably gathered, this is another one of them. You now hold in your hand enough ready cash to feed yourself for months. You are undoubtedly tempted to abscond with it, but are resisting because you fear my associates will hunt you down to get it back. So, let me first assure you that that won't happen. After all, unless you try to contact me again, I won't have any way of finding you. I don't know your name, your address, your phone number, or anything about you except that you live in Cleveland. So, there is really nothing to stop you from just taking the money and disappearing into the night. The bills are not counterfeit, they are not marked. If you take them, you will get away with it as long as you are discreet. Should you decide to take that course of action, all I ask is that you destroy the other contents of this envelope and forget this entire experience. If you do that and, of course, tell no one about it, the money will be yours free and clear.
However, you may wish instead to use these funds to continue to develop our working relationship. That choice is your next test. Should you decide on this latter option, please follow the directions in the attached instruction sheet.
Whatever you decide, life is getting hard for us all. I wish you the best of luck in getting through it.
Mai Lee Chang
Stapled to the letter were two pages of instructions.
There wasn't enough money to get her away from the Bastard for good. So, while the decision might have been a struggle for others, there was really no choice for her. She read the instructions.
* * *
Again, Dancing Fawn found herself sitting in an inconspicuous corner of a branch of the Cleveland Public Library. This was not the one she used before; the instructions warned her to never go back there again. Otherwise, it looked and felt exactly the same except for one fact: She now sat in front of her own laptop.
Two days ago, she purchased a netbook from Walmart. As instructed, she made the purchase with cash, declined all warranty offers, and did not give her name. Taking the computer home, she disposed of the packing in such a way that the Bastard wouldn't know about the purchase. Then, with the front door bolted, locked in the bathroom, she made the machine her own.
Following the instructions, she first set it up to boot from a USB port. Then she inserted the flash drive that came with her cash delivery and rebooted the machine. Unknown to her, the laptop proceeded to completely wipe all data from its own hard disk. Then it started installing a new operating system, one not designed for normal use. Twenty minutes later, the screen told her to remove the flash drive, hide it, go to the library, and log on to the Internet. Following those instructions had brought her here.
She started her computer, logged on to the Internet using the library's Wi-Fi, and then waited while her laptop further arranged its little mind. Finally, after another ten minutes and much hard disk activity, the screen showed the China National Steel error page, along with a new banner at the top that said:
As before, she asked to speak to Mai Lee Chang. Again, the chat page showed up, though this time it looked quite different and was titled GOBI DESERT Crossing House, not China National Steel. After a short wait, Mrs. Chang came online.
Chang: Welcome, Dancing Fawn. Congratulations on your decision and on your new wheels! How do you like them?
Fawn: Thank you, but I don't own a car.
Chang: That answer begs so many replies I hardly know where to begin. But first, we must keep the civs out. Can you tell me how you got my name?
That question was worrisome. The real Mrs. Chang knew very well how they came to meet, so why ask? Perhaps this was not Mrs. Chang? To delay a little, Fawn typed:
Fawn: What's a civ?
Chang: A supporter of the Civilized Governments Of The World. Now, please, I need an answer to my question. Where did you get my name?
Simply because no other response came to mind, she decided on a cautious answer.
Fawn: Someone gave me a card.
Chang: Do you have that card with you?
Fortunately, she hadn't destroyed it yet.
Chang: What is written on it?
Fawn: Bring pen and paper
Chang: And anything else?
Fawn: A number
Chang: What is it?
After a pause,
Chang: Thank you, you have put my mind at ease. So we don't have to go through that again, please choose two passwords that are different enough from each other so that you won't ever get them confused. One will be green, the other red. Type them into the fields on your screen and hit Enter when you're done.
Fawn did as she was told.
Chang: Good. They were accepted. In the future, you can still get me by typing my name (which is also a password) in the doorbell field. However, if you want to go directly to the badlands, just type in one of those passwords instead.
Chang: Here. Where I am.
Fawn: Why two passwords?
Chang: Use one if everything is OK, the other if it is not.
Fawn: I don't understand.
Chang: Use the red password to warn your friends if you get caught.
The penny dropped. Understanding something intellectually, in one's mind, is much different from really knowing it. Like the difference between looking over the edge of a cliff and falling off it. Somehow, she guessed she was breaking the law. But she never really knew it. Not until now. For the first time, her stomach got the word. Fear started there, a child of cramps and nausea, and scampered down her limbs like cold mice.
Chang: Child? Are you there?
Fawn: This is dangerous, isn't it?
Chang: Yes, it is. Do you want out?
And spend the rest of my life with the Bastard? Or other men just like him?
Chang: Are you sure?
Chang: OK. What is the difference between these two passwords?
Fawn: Right. Green is OK, red is bad.
Chang: Good. Now, next, here are three more doorbell addresses you can use to access the Internet: 126.96.36.199 and 188.8.131.52 and 184.108.40.206. Please write them down and store them in a safe place. If anything happens to the one you just used, you can contact me through one of the others. Lose them all and you will be locked out of the badlands, so memorize them if you can. Let me know when you have them copied.
After a pause,
Fawn: OK, I got them.
Chang: Good, now to the thoughts your earlier comment brought up. First, safe travel in the badlands, like anyplace else, requires the right vehicle. In this case, that is a properly programmed computer. So, one set up for this use is referred to as a 'set of wheels.' I was merely commenting on the fact that you now have your own computer suitable for this sort of thing.
Fawn: OK, thanks. Yes, it's a very nice laptop.
Chang: My second thought concerns security. Do you think there is any reason I need to know if you own a car?
Fawn: No, I guess not.
Chang: I agree. If you want to stay out of prison, never give information about your real-world identity to anyone unless it is absolutely needed by the party asking for it. NEVER. Understand?
The word 'prison' jumped off the screen. Mice scampered down her arms again.
Fawn: Yes, sorry.
Chang: No need to apologize. Just, please, be careful.
Chang: Which brings up the final thought, one that covers a broader area of badlands manners and ethos. Operating here is not easy. No one would take such pains to stay hidden unless at least one government thought they were doing something illegal. In other words, everyone here has something to hide. Do you understand?
Chang: In such an environment, asking unnecessary questions is a big yellow flag. Anyone who does so may be collecting information to sell to the highest bidder. If you want to get along here, want to establish the trust needed to change your indentureship, then don't ask for information you don't need to know. Doing so will make others mistrust you and, eventually, you will find no one will have anything to do with you. OK?
Chang: Good. Now, if you felt a pang of worry when you thought I was fishing, you can congratulate yourself. That was the right reaction. If my question didn't bother you, you need to worry more. This is a dangerous place. Paranoia is a survival skill. Understand?
Fawn: Yes. OK.
Then, after a pause,
Fawn: What did you mean by 'indentureship'?
Chang: I mean, at least for the foreseeable future, GOBI DESERT owns you. Before you panic, let me explain. We spent considerable time and money getting you safely through our door. We will spend more getting you a job, mailbox, and holding your hand until you get settled. We are a business. We must get that money back if we are to stay solvent. We do it by charging a commission on all transactions you make in the badlands.
Fawn: I didn't agree to that.
Chang: There was no safe way to explain it until now, so we took the chance that you would agree when the time came. Now is that time. Obviously, we think you will accept, or we wouldn't have put this effort into our relationship in the first place.
Fawn: What if I don't?
Chang: Consider this another test. If you want, just take the computer and leave. The operating system will erase itself if you don't connect to us regularly, so we have little to lose. But you will not get to see what is behind the prize door.
Fawn: Why can't I just go to another business like yours?
Chang: You can. There are hundreds of other crossing houses you could ask. Do you know how to contact any of them?
After a long pause,
After a further pause,
Fawn: How long will my indenture last?
Chang: That is up to you. The badlands works on reputation. Right now, you have none. We back you in exchange for a cut. When you build up your own rep, when enough badlanders trust you not to turn them in, you will get offers from other crossing houses. When that happens, we ask only that you give us a chance to make a counter-offer. We like to keep our indentures.
Fawn: If I agree, then break my indenture, will I go to jail?
Chang: Heavens, child, there is no government in the badlands! No law, no courts, no jail. The guns are all on the other side of the border. The length of your indenture is determined only by you and the opinion of the rest of badlands society, nothing else. If you accept an offer from another crossing house, no one will come after you any more than Burger King would come after you because you choose to buy your next meal at McDonald's. You are really free to walk away at any time.
Fawn: The woman who sent me said no one would take anything I earned.
Chang: That depends on your definitions. If you sell your house and the realtor takes a cut, is he taking money away from your sale? If an employment agency finds you a job and charges your employer a commission, is he taking money from your pay? If you think the answer is yes, then, yes, Jade lied to you. We are middlemen and take a cut of everything you earn or spend.
Chang: However, we also provide a service, one essential to the transaction. If we didn't provide it, you could not make or spend anything in the badlands because no one would trust you enough to do business with you and you wouldn't know how to go about doing it anyway. So, if it makes you feel better to think that Jade lied, go ahead, but we think of it as just an honest oversimplification made necessary by a lack of time. Now that we have had the time, I hope I have set the story straight.
Fawn: Was that the name of the woman who sent me to you? Jade?
Chang: Her badlands name is Pink Jade. No one knows her real one unless she has told them. She has not confided in us.
Fawn: So. What next?
Chang: If you're still in, we need to get you a mailbox and a job. Are you in?
What was the alternative? Stay with the Bastard?
Chang: You sure?
Chang: Good! You can, of course, choose any email service you want, but we have used CHIANG MAI BOXES for many years and recommend them. If you want, I will tunnel you through when we are finished.
Fawn: Tunnel me through?
Chang: Remember I said that collecting unnecessary information is a no-no in the badlands? It goes both ways. Any businessman who conspicuously avoids collecting unnecessary information is more likely to get customers. One of the ways we do that is by passing all your communications through an encrypted data link called a VPN tunnel. Only you and the business you talk to can understand what goes through it. We cannot eavesdrop. Our customers like that, so we get more business. Understand?
Chang: Good. Now, about a job. What would you like to do?
Fawn: Meet men.
Chang: Be an escort?
Fawn: Well, yes. Like that.
Chang: There are a number of services we can send you to, but first I must be presumptuous and ask a question. Do you really want to continue this type of work?
Fawn: It's all I know
Chang: That is not a good basis for making a decision. Would you like to see what other opportunities there may be for you?
Fawn: I don't know anything about computers.
Chang: There may still be other opportunities. Would you like to hear about them?
Fawn: Yes. What else could I do?
Chang: You could smuggle meds.
Fawn: You mean drugs? Like heroin?
Chang: No, I mean medications. Like beta-blockers for high blood pressure. Not controlled drugs.
Fawn: Like aspirin?
Chang: Yes, just more expensive
Fawn: Why would anyone pay to smuggle aspirin?
Chang: Most prescription drugs sold in America are made in China. American drug companies import the raw pharmaceuticals, repackage them, and sell the pills only by prescription. Not only do they keep 95% of each sale, but doctors and pharmacists get rich because no one can buy the pills without paying a doctor's fee and a pharmacist's mark-up. Smugglers sell these meds at a quarter of what the legal channels charge and still make a very nice profit.
Fawn: If I got caught, would I lose my girls?
Fawn: I have a family.
Chang: If you got caught selling sex, would you lose them? There are no safe choices anymore. Which risks do you want to take?
For the mouse in her, that was a very scary question. But the Bastard left her no choice. Like it or not, she would have to commit to something.
*See the Appendix for a list of crossing houses mentioned in this book.
* * *
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.