Chip felt doubly marked now, once as a vector of the community rights viral meme and now once again as the nosy geek with no good cover story for poking around in Buck Lemaire’s business. He kept glancing furtively over his shoulder as he walked back to his loft. As he turned onto his own block, he had a panicked realization that if someone was following him, then they were going to know where he lived. He battled back the panic with the argument that anyone who cared to know where he lived could have easily lifted that information from various public records containing his name and address.
Chip steeled himself to breathe deeply and evenly as he opened his front door and went up the distressed stairway, wondering if each of the scratched boards he stepped on was going to be the one that triggered the pipe bomb hidden by figures from the shadowy underworld. He made it to the top of the stairs unscathed and tried to survey his large, open-plan living space carefully. As a natural slob, Chip had no idea if the half-empty chip bag that he left on the counter had been tampered with by an interloper or not.
With one more shuddery deep breath, Chip plunged into the room, figuring that since he had no chance of detecting any signs of an intruder among the general mess, and since he couldn’t spend all of his time suspecting his trash of having surveillance capabilities, he was just going to have to try to get on with his life.
So, like most males of his generation, the next step in getting on with his life was checking all of the various messaging platforms that might be used to contact him. Some of them could be aggregated together by various third party tools, but some were completely walled gardens where he had to make a separate login to check on those messages. As a result, it was almost 25 minutes later that Chip got around to checking the actual voice recorded messages on his phone line. When he saw the indication that he had a new message, Chip immediately knew that someone at least 10 years older than he was wanted to talk to him. Anyone younger than that would never have had the patience to leave a voice message and just wait for a response, but instead would have pestered him on half a dozen other platforms until they got his immediate attention.
The older person who had left the message was Ellen Suffolk, who had left a somewhat breathless and cryptic message that something had changed on her computer and could Chip please come as soon as possible. Closing his laptop and slipping back in his jacket pocket, Chip charged back down the stairs without even bothering to worry about pipe bombs and walked right down to where his car was parked.
As he drove out the back side of town and up the winding road towards Ellen Suffolk’s house, Chip reviewed what he knew of her situation and what could have changed that made her need to call him with some urgency. Her files were locked up behind strong encryption by someone who was using her network connection to stream the videos that Ellen had taken recently around her own house. Chip didn’t know what part of that had changed, but it must have been something noticeable, or else she wouldn’t have known to call him.
Chip was firmly mulling over the possibilities as he rounded the last curve before the turn to go up Ellen’s driveway. Just a little bit lost in thought, Chip didn’t notice the large black pickup truck coming up behind him until he couldn’t even tell that it was black because the only thing he saw in his rearview mirror was an enormous chrome grill. Snapping our of his reverie, Chip flinched when he saw the shiny enormity and briefly lost his grip on the wheel. The washboarded dirt road began to push the car wider and wider on the right-hand curve until he was in the opposite lane when he regained control of the wheel.
The truck stopped short of ramming him from behind and pushing him off the road and down the steep banks of the creek. Rather, the truck slid by close by on the inside of the curve, gunning the engine as he squeaked by and spraying Chip’s car with a rain of road gravel. The windshield took a couple of rock dings with short radiating cracks, but none of the stony missiles shot through into the passenger compartment, although Chip cowered down on the center console as if he was taking gunfire.
When the threatening tick tick of the gravel tapered off and the roar of the truck’s engine faded in the distance, Chip slowly sat up, patting his chest and arms to verify that he was in fact intact. Slightly stunned by his involvement in something out of a James Bond novel (Where were his car’s rocket launchers when he needed them?), Chip climbed out of the car and stood dazed on the sfar shoulder of the road where it was frighteningly clear just how close his front wheel was to the edge of the roadbed where it sloped dramatically down over short limestone cliffs into the creek below. Chip figured that he probably wouldn’t have been killed if he had gone over the edge, but he certainly wouldn’t have been making any more cross-country, emotionally fueled flights through the night in this car.
Chip didn’t think that spy novels talked about what one should do if one didn’t get run off the road completely, so he lamely got back into the driver seat, cranked the wheel hard to the right and continued slowly around the curve and up the driveway to Ellen’s house on the ridge. She must have heard him drive up, because when he came around the corner of the garage, Ellen was waiting in the open front door beckoning him in.
As she led him down the basement stairs to the computer room, Chip noticed a faintly acrid odor, somewhere between the hot brake smell of trucks driving down a long steep hill and the smell of rancid cooking oil. Since Ellen was neither a trucker nor likely to cook with rancid oil, it seemed that the scent must be part of the reason that she had called him. When they got close to the computer desk, it was even more obvious that the smell was at least half of the reason that her tone had been so urgent on the phone. The other half of the reason was probably the delicate tendrils of smoke wafting from the vents on the computer’s case.
“Wow. Tell me what happened, Ellen.”
“Well, I was making a sandwich for lunch when I started to smell something weird coming from downstairs and when I came down, I saw smoke coming out of the computer and I panicked and called you.” She sounded remarkably calm for someone who had just been smoke bombed by remote control in her own home, but after the day that he had had, Chip understood that shock and surprise could have strange emotional consequences.
Chip prised off the side cover on the computer and saw that the smoke was coming from under the silver top panel of the hard drive’s case.
Chip whistled. “Smoked. For real.”
Ellen winced and asked “You know what this is?”
“I know what I’ve heard stories about. Computer techs always tell tales about computer hard drives that just start smoking because the spinning bearings inside have come apart. I didn’t expect that the stories were true.” He shrugged.
Ellen pressed him “So is this something that could have just happened by accident?” She seemed to be grasping a bit desperately at the straw of coincidence here, but Chip tried not to bring her down too hard all at once.
“It could have just been an accident, I guess. But given what happened here last week, there are some other possibilities.”
“Like what, whoever took my videos and locked my computer set it to self destruct?”
Chip shrugged again. “Sure, it’s possible. At least theoretically.” Now Chip got the distant gaze of the deeply technical as he considered combinations of elaborate computer programs that could have the desired effect. Mumbling slightly he continued “You could use a bootloader to take direct control of the BIOS and then write drive commands directly to the ATA subsystem…” He trailed off with a satisfied nod. “Yes, you could make the computer self destruct.”
Chip could hardly hide his geekly satisfaction at having solved the particular riddle that Ellen’s computer situation posed. Unfortunately, his satisfaction paid no attention at all to the reality of the situation. The acrid smell of the magic smoke that had been let out of her hard drive was the least of the worries. That smell served only as a potent reminder that the virtual had somehow come knocking in the dense, meaty world of devices and bodies that the two of them were inhabiting right now. People who get hacked certainly experience some of the same feelings of violation that people whose houses get robbed experience, but this took that to a whole different level.
Someone didn’t have to enter into Ellen’s basement to start something on fire, they just had to type on an array of buttons and electrons would flow between regions of more and less concentration and poof, smoke on the wafer. This dawning realization spread over Chip as the little tendrils wafted up from the hard drive case and his smugness at straightening out the hacker’s Rubix cube curdled into anger and frustration.
Like it had on that day in high school when the jocks had taunted him with those damnable powdered sugar donuts (damn Lurlene for reviving the memory so expertly!), Chip’s frustration and anger rose up in him and he had gained no skills in his life since then that were equal to the task of processing, releasing, or even controlling those emotions. So he began to cry.
This was not at all what Ellen expected her expert Craigslist-derived computer technician to do. Chip’s youthful competence had been reassuring her up to this point, but with that facade cracked and broken on the not ironically distressed hardwood floors, Ellen began to weep softly too, while simultaneously trying to comfort Chip by sliding over a box of tissues and laying her birdlike hand lightly on his slick nylon-clad shoulder.
“First I fuck up going to his office, then I almost get run off the road, and I don’t even understand if she likes me or not, and I have no idea what’s going to happen to me here.” A large snotty sniff interrupted Chip’s recital of all of the things that his psyche wasn’t able to deal with right now. Noticing the proffered box of tissues, he took one and mopped off what he hadn’t just sniffed back into his nose. He continued, “I can’t tell what it means when she winks, and then when he winked,” sniff!, “and that dead man on my shoes was so… so dead, so final and for what and why me?” This last was a slight wail, but now that he had run through his more immediate concerns to those of a freshman philosophy student, he blinked hard, sniffled a few more milliliters back into his sinuses and chanced to look up at Ellen’s face.
Because Ellen was not a horde of hormone-soaked teenage boys, the look on her face was quite unexpected for Chip. The basic tenderness that she showed his crying, sniveling inner child was surprisingly revolutionary for a man who had almost made it to his thirtieth birthday. “There, there” she muttered, which was completely trite but astoundingly comforting to little Chip. He snuggled gently into the one paw she had put on his should and she gave a gentle squeeze.
Her compassion had even diluted her own fearful crying, so she spoke fairly clearly when she said “Oh Chip, what have I gotten you into?” Ignoring the essential narcissism of the old towards the young implicit in her question, Chip rushed to reassure her that she had done nothing of the kind.
“I think I’ve gotten myself into it. I mean, I didn’t have to go poking around in the city’s video database and I definitely did not need to go to that city council meeting. I could have stayed home, if I had known what was good for me.” Chip sneered just a bit at himself for that last bit of self-indulgence, but there was plenty of emotional wallowing to go around. “I don’t know why I even came back here. I could have stayed in Portland, right?”
Ellen knew very little of the details of Chip’s life and breakup and eventual peregrination, regardless of the effectiveness of a small town’s rumor mill. While the rivers of rumor flowed strong and deep, they also flowed in various bends and oxbows that tended to leave some people in the social sphere high and dry when it came to certain types of information. She assumed that his question was rhetorical and probed for a bit more understanding of her own. “What did you say about being run off the road? Did something happen to you? Were you hurt?”
“No, no, nothing like that. Coming out here this afternoon a big, black pickup truck pushed me almost off the edge of your road and into the creek.”
Ellen gasped with surprise, more surprise than was really appropriate for finding out that a young man had come close to automotive injury. “Did you say a big, black pickup truck?”
“Sure,” said Chip. “Like any one of a thousand unnecessarily large cargo vehicles that people in this town use as simple conveyances. Why, what do you know about big, black pickup trucks?”
“Well, just that the men down at the quarry all drive big trucks that are all black.” Ellen looked convinced that she knew just who had conspired in almost rubbing out Chip.
“But, what makes you think that their black truck was the one that drove so recklessly this afternoon.”
“First, Chip, it sounds like there has been more than just simple recklessness happening around you the past few days. Second, I saw one of those trucks go roaring by right before you came up the driveway.” Ellen gestured out the large windows that fronted the basement open on one side. Pointing to a particular point at the top of the hill, she said, “the road that you come up to my place on wraps around the top of the hill and I can watch every car that comes up go past over there. When you live out here, there aren’t so few cars that you throw a fiesta when one drives by, but you do tend to notice each one that goes by, especially if it goes by too fast to be safe.”
Chip clarified, “So you are telling me that you saw a big black truck go past on the road soon before I came up the driveway. But we already knew that there was a big black truck driving up the road. So what makes you so sure that truck belonged to someone from the mining company?”
“Well, that’s what you don’t seem to understand, I know all their license plate numbers!”
“Wait, how?” As a city dweller, Chip tended to think of cars as something so numerous and ever-present yet ever-changing that he would never think to try to recognize a particular car as it goes by. On the contrary, to Ellen, the cars that passed by her house each had their own individual reason for being there. Every car passing by was some person on their way back from town to one of the other houses down the road, or some person on their way from one work site to another, or some mining minion up to no good on a Tuesday afternoon.
“Well, they go by a few times every day. I just have a mind for numbers, I guess. Plus, they make it easy. They assign the letter combinations on the license plates by county, so almost everyone in town is either a CTC or a CTE. Then memorizing the number isn’t too hard. Especially when it’s a palindrome like 848.”
Chip gaped. He had put Ellen into the harmless grandmother box and taped it tightly shut inside his mind, but she didn’t know or care how he thought of her. She was just a lover of birds who was mentally spry enough to move her art from wet pieces of plastic to charged bits of silicon over the course of less than a decade. He shouldn’t have been surprised that there was more under her steely gray hair than recipes for monster cookies.
“So, you’re telling me that the license number of the truck that ran me off the road was either CTC 848 or CTE 848?”
“Oh, it was definitely CTC 848. Double palindrome.” She nodded definitively.
Chip slipped his phone easily from its designated pocket and began to think, talk, and type on it simultaneously. “Let’s see what the custom search engines have to say about that license number.”
The modern internet was an economy of attention where being looked at by eyeballs was the only thing that mattered and so companies had emerged to offer every possible niche of data that interested even a smattering of people. Apparently many more than a smattering of people wanted to be able to look up license plate numbers, because as soon as Chip entered “CTC 848”, there appeared multiple paid search results that had recognized the format of his query and immediately offered to take him to the appropriate query on WhosThatCar.com or LicenseSpy.me. Choosing the top result for WhosThatCar.com, Chip clicked and was taken to a fairly generic scraped data result that must have pulled fairly generic information from a variety of government and insurance databases and dumped them all together into a schema soup.
It was low budget, but it had worked to capture his attention and while he searched through the various tagged fields for the ones that had some meaning, Chip had to scroll past three banner ads and one pop-over that obscured the page entirely until he clicked on the tiny X in the top left, wait no right, now bottom corner. “Bucks and Charles, LLC?” Chip read from a field labeled “left_owner_first”.
“That’s them!” Ellen crowed. “B and C mining. It must be what the B and C stands for!”
Chip thought she was jumping to conclusions again, but she had been fairly legitimate with the truck license plate in the first place, so he tried to hear her out. “I’ve never heard anyone call it ‘Bucks and Charles’ before. How do we know that it’s the same company?”
“You’re the one holding the collected knowledge of mankind in your left hand. Why don’t you just ask it?”
Chip didn’t think that he could just voice search for “Does B and C mining stand for Bucks and Charles, LLC?” but he knew a good way to find out if those two terms were strongly associated. He searched for the term “B and C mining” and scrolled to the bottom of the search results page to the count of how many results there were. Apparently 500,000 bloggers had copied each other’s press releases and entries about the recent kerfuffles in Southwest Wisconsin and gotten themselves indexed on this search engine. Then Chip searched for “B and C mining” AND “Bucks and Charles” to find pages that included both phrases. If there were no association between those two terms, then there would be very few pages that would mention both things. On the other hand, if someone somewhere knew that those two terms went together, then at least some of those articles would say things like “B and C mining, also known as Bucks and Charles, LLC of Maquoketa, Iowa” and the search would return lots of results. It was a way of finding out what everyone in the world except for Chip might know already about the relationship between those two sets of words.
When the conjoined search came up with 484,000 results, Chip began to lament for his reading comprehension skills, because apparently almost every article on the mining company used their full legal name too at least once. And yet, in all of the distracted skimming he had done on the subject since Lurlene first told him about the city council meeting on the next night, Chip had never registered that “B and C” both had to stand for something and that every journalist collective was going to have an editor who insisted that their blogger explain what the abbrevation stood for. While his offboard mind already knew all of these things, Chip began to fear that his onboard mind was losing more and more of its ability to know or notice anything at all. He kicked himself under the mental table and told himself that he was going to have to do better if he was going to get to the bottom of all this.
He started to think out loud as he tried to put this stickered cube back into its own ordered pattern. “So someone driving a truck that belonged to the mining company tried to run me off the road,” finally allowing himself to notice some of the ill intent that had been pointed squarely at the back of his skull earlier. “So what else has that company been doing?” he wondered.
Snapping himself out of his private puzzle-solving reverie, he asked Ellen “Does anyone at the mining company know what you have up here?”
“What do you mean ‘what I have up here’?”
“You know, all these computers and these videos?”
“Oh, of course they know. They’ve used some of my footage for their own promotional videos on YouTube. They paid me for the rights to use a video I had taken of some ducks frolicking in the shallow puddles that form at the bottom of the quarry. It’s not a replacement for all the wetlands that have been drained in this area by corn farmers, but it does give migratory birds someplace to stop as they travel up and down the flyway. There are some surprising species that sometimes show up down in those quarries during the fall migrations.”
“Have they seen everything you’ve shot?” Chip wondered.
“Oh, of course not. They just asked if I had anything that would make their quarries look natural and fun for animals.”
“And would that footage have been on these hard drives?”
Ellen looked close at the neatly handwritten label scotched taped to the drive enclosure that had stopped smoking on the desktop. “Not that one I think. That has my newest stuff from this fall. The video they used was from last year. But Chip, why would they do something like this? What could be on these tapes that would get someone so worked up that they would try to set them on fire?”
Ignoring the anachronism of “tapes” and “fire” in the present situation, Chip replied “Well, let’s see what they’ve been watching all this time.”