A Homage to Martin Ross on Reedsy.
If You Ain’t Readin’ His Stuff, You Should Be!
“Nah, it’s New York style, eat it like this,” I said, curling the slice over, tilting it, and shoving a choking hazard of saucy, cheesy heaven into my mouth.
Velma scowled at me like I was a nickel shy of a dime. “Wow, er, I can’t eat like that.”
Velma ate her pizza tip-first, parallel to the table like it rolled on a chugging Wile E. Coyote ACME conveyor belt into her incisors. Real pedestrian, and I mean South Dakota living, bought frozen from Safeway with food stamps and burned black in the oven before serving. Honestly, I was surprised she didn’t eat it with a fork. Insulting.
“So listen,” I mumbled, wiping my face with a soiled paper napkin. I checked my watch for dramatic effect. “It’s really good to see you and all, but I’ve got fifteen minutes.”
“Okay,” she said, taking an embarrassingly-tiny bite of food. Those gastro bypass surgeries never made sense to me.
She withdrew a 3.5” floppy from her purse and dropped it on the table. A note was written in black Sharpie on its tan plastic cover.
“‘Real important shit’.”
“It was Chris’,” Velma reported. She gingerly gnawed at the tip of her pizza like a rodent. “Found it the other day. I was going through his things.”
Chris and I went way back. Chris was fat, though - real big - shaped like the Cool Aid guy. He died on the colonoscopy table last year. Just 53. Left two spawns and a wife. A nice guy who pulled the short straw.
I chased down my divine coronary with a slurp, hoping my diet soda karma would somehow save me from the reaper.
I picked up the disk and glanced at its back and front. I shrugged. “Yeah?”
“I don’t got a way to use it,” Velma said.
I’m a grumpy old tech guy, and people like Velma came to me for things. I’m like the Horse Whisperer if horses had circuit boards.
“Not surprising,” I said. “Nobody’s got a working 3.5” drive anymore. What’ya think it is?”
“Pshsh, I’m hoping it’s a Bitcoin wallet, or a key, a map to a Goonies treasure, something,” Velma sighed. She took a God-awful long time chewing her food. Actually Chewing. “You hear about that all the time. Old disks - worth millions - tossed in the landfill? I don’t want that on my conscience; I can’t sleep well enough as it is. Mama needs new shoes, but she’ll pay the electric bill first.”
“Probably nothing. Don’t get your hopes up,” I said, pocketing the disk. “You should just throw it away.”
“No,” Velma insisted, waving her wrist at the disk for me to take it, just as she started to text on her black rectangle. “Sorry, it’s Jason.”
Crap, saved by a smolt.
I stood up and threw a twenty on the table, saying, “I got this. I’ll be in touch.”
“Okay, thanks,” Velma said absently, engaging in some form of distracting parental function.
Thank Fucking God for vasectomies.
I left EFNY - Escape From New York pizza - and made for the parking garage. Scappoose was going to be a long-ass drive.
* * *
Belsarius was a tin-foil hat who lived in a double-wide on a parcel of undeveloped land he purchased after high school.
“Zap,” he chortled with a hot bowl of microwaved canned chili in his hands. “C’mon in.”
His trailer had lime-green-colored, single-layer carpet with the permasmell of wet dog. Moldy water stains blotched the graying ceiling tiles, and the walls were lined with plastic faux-wood panels where the grain ran in opposing directions. He still had that Goodwill couch and stained coffee table with a ratty, broken recliner that leaned a bit to the right, and, if there ever was a dog, that’s where its body would be entombed. Lined all around his living room were stacked empty Pringles cans he thought of as home decoration. Allen was watching Twitch on the TV as somebody kindly taught others how to use the BDSM cheat codes in GTA.
“Chili?” Belsarius asked. I knew his cabinets were full of cans. It’s the only thing he ate. He truly believed he’d be gunned down by a teenager with an AR-15 before he was thirty and lived accordingly. Twenty years after, he still acted as if he lived in a garbage can.
“Nah, grabbed EFNY in Portland before I drove out.”
Reminded, I put my palm against my gut, feeling that New York sludge moving through my system. I needed to eat better.
“A Tesla?” he asked, peering out his kitchen window. He frowned and drew down his shades. “Just a rolling surveillance system for the Feds, Zap.”
I mentioned Allen didn’t own a cell phone, right?
Thirty-five years ago, the Internet didn’t exist, at least not in a way you’d recognize it. Modems were barely a thing, and they were crazy-ass slow; it was all text, and 1200-baud users were called “Elites” in a world of 300-baud plebs. Those were the days - nothing said dedication more than watching a blinking line of text inch character by character across your screen for hours and being happy about it. But there were Bulletin Board Systems, BBS’s: thousands of computers set up by nerds who wanted other people to dial into their PC, one at a time, and leave asynchronous, typed messages to each other. Mine, one of the first BBS’s in the Pacific Northwest - was called the Sanctum Sanctorum BBS, or just Sanctuary - and back then, people used handles. Allen’s was Belsarius, and mine was Zaphod Beeblebrox; friends called me Zap. He chose the name of a dead pope, whereas I chose the ex-head honcho of the universe. I thought it spoke volumes about our personalities. If you were to imagine a stoic papal face, you’re picturing Allen, dead-on. But all that bullshit aside, Belsarius was probably the best friend I had.
I pulled the floppy from my back pocket and waved it at him. “I gotta know what’s on here.”
Belsarius grinned through his unkempt, scraggly beard. He set his bowl on the coffee table beside a cold can of Dr. Pepper. I could smell the rant coming on from here. “Always told you, Mike. Best encryption ever. Security through obscurity.”
“Yeah, quit reminding me,” I sneered, watching an impossibly-curved latex fembot bend over in 8k on an 80-inch screen. “Christ.”
Belsarius paused the TV precisely on her enormous shiny black ass. “C’mon. It’s back here.”
He used a second bedroom as a computer room. Allen kept an old i486dx in working condition solely to play a video game he loved from his teens. He turned it on, and it dropped to a DOS prompt. I handed him the disk.
“Appreciate it, man. Sorry to drop in on you, but this is for Velma.”
Allen grunted. “Juniper’s wife?”
“That’s her,” I replied. I pulled up a plastic chair that would’ve otherwise been used in a kindergarten classroom. “Wouldn’t recognize her, though. She’s super thin now. It’s weird.”
“It’s still readable,” Belsarius noted before running a DIR command to find two text files. Passing a command to copy the files away from the floppy to his hard drive, he used a TYPE command to display the first file on the screen.
“Gibberish,” I pronounced. “Knew it.”
“It’s math,” Belsaurius groaned. “Read the docs, Mike. It’s a delineated dataset. Regression tables.”
“What’s the other file?”
Punching in another TYPE command, the data spewed down the screen. This time, I knew what I was looking at.
“A message thread,” I said, “with FIDOnet node routes.”
Allen squinted in a way that suggested he should’ve been wearing glasses. “Juniper’s flaming another guy named Muskrat.”
“Damnit. I don’t recognize those routes.” I pulled out my iPhone and tried to access some resources, but Belsarius’ property remained predictably off-grid.
“It’s a proof,” Allen said, tapping the monochrome EGA monitor. He reached for a Pringle’s can and popped open the lid, and snacked on some chips. “That’s the dataset. They’re arguing. Juniper’s trying to prove his algo’s better, more accurate.”
Drawing an Ethernet cable across the floor to the i486, Allen rebooted the box and issued a DOS command to create a mapped drive and copied the files over to a more modern PC.
“Send them to you? Email?”
“PGP’em first,” I said. “You still got my key?”
Allen rolled his eyes. “Of course, I do.”
“Thanks buddy, I owe you.”
“Here,” he said, popping the 3.5” disk out to hand it back to me.
My insides gurgled, both remembering why I don’t eat pizza anymore and what Belsarius’ bathroom was like.
“Gotta run,” I said, patting him on the shoulder and hoping I could make it to a Fred Meyer before they closed.
* * *
The next morning, I’m on a Zoom Call with Wayne Wenston.
“Mister Wenston,” I said, raising my mug of coffee at him.
“Mike? Mike Russler, is that you?”
On the Internet, they say nobody knows you’re a dog. But on Zoom, everybody knows you’ve got a comb-over.
“Zap! Heh-heh, that was it, wasn’t it? Zaphod?”
Myself, I liked the old days, when it wasn’t possible to see a bushel of stray nose hair over the phone.
“Yeah, yeah, it’s me, buddy, how’s it going?”
Mr. Wenston was my old computer instructor at the community college where I wasted a good part of my early twenties talking to other nerds around the country via Usenet in a concrete basement. He’s retired now, but Mr. Wenston was the guy who taught me Unix, opening a door to enterprise computing and an illustrious career disintermediating human labor for corporate profit. Fuck my life.
I shared my screen and showed him Juniper’s text file.
“Huh. Well, look at that. Old FIDOnet node and zone numbers,” he said. “Where in the Hell did you get that?”
“Meh, an old floppy disk that got dropped in my lap,” I said. “I’m runnin’ an investigation for a dead friend. How’s things?”
Wayne didn’t use a filter so I could see his actual office. His bookshelves were filled with oil-stained Honda car manuals and a tattered copy of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. He began typing off-screen.
“Fixed that ‘83 Volks-Rabbit,” he chortled, returning to look me square in the eye. “Gave it to my granddaughter. She thinks it’s the coolest thing in the world. I still can’t believe you killed it with a feminine hygiene product.”
Christ, this again? Screw this project. Reconnecting with everyone was like talking to Rafiki from The Lion King, getting walloped over the head by my past.
“The idiot light came on, the oil cap had disappeared, and I had places to be,” I grumbled. “Julie’s pads were in the back. It’s all I had.”
Wayne chuckled in a way where his whole body moved up and down. “Took me two years to disassemble that engine, piece by piece, and wipe out the fibers.”
“Yup,” I said, angrily slurping my coffee, only to cringe and push the mug away from me. It tasted like a jockstrap boiled in tar. Why do I even own a coffee machine?
Wayne began writing down the numbers he saw on the screen.
I added, “I don’t have an old nodelist to query. Do you?”
“Sure I do!” Mr. Wenston said, addressing another program.
“Knew I could count on you,” I said, wiping my lips clean of that swill.
“First node’s easy,” Wayne said, reading the output from another window on his screen. “Vancouver, Washington, U-S-of-A.”
“And the other?”
“Pretoria, South Africa.”
“Great,” I said, pulling up the second file with the regression tables. “Take a look at this now. What do you see?”
Wayne Wenston stared at the screen, his eyes cycling through the rows of numbers. “Encryption times and compression rates. The millisecond latency of transit between nodes. De-encryption times and decompression rates. Yeah, those are financial transactions, routing across … FIDOnet.”
“The Hell you say?”
Wayne nodded. “Yeah, that’s what this is. Simple financial transactions moving between FIDOnet nodes, but, these dates … it’s 20 years before the modern Internet.”
“Hold up, Wayne,” I said and closed the file to do a quick bit of Googling. “You said that was South Africa? Pretoria?”
I slouched back in my office chair to glare at the ceiling. “Muskrat?”
I needed a drink.
* * *
It was raining.
I stood on the corner of Martin and Ross, outside an old Victorian home that needed a paint job. I could see the Clark County Washington courthouse from the porch.
Impatient, I knocked again, thinking maybe I knocked too softly the previous time and that louder meant higher urgency.
A rotund, sloppily-dressed guy with a scraggly beard answered the door and dramatically gasped, “Zaphod Fucking Beeblebrox.”
“Wilhelm Von Morgan, Attorney at Law,” I said gregariously, throwing my hand out to accept his. Mine was swallowed by his meaty mit, and with a name like that, Wilhelm never needed a handle. He always went by his real name on the BBS’s. “It’s been a while. Good to see you!”
“Get in here,” Wilhelm said, gesturing over his shoulder and wobbling to the side to let me in. The foyer smelled of pine stained with fresh corporate money.
“Thanks for meeting me like this, man,” I said, my wet sneakers squeaking across the hardwoods. He led me to his office where his desk was covered in pinned-open leather-bound journals laying over an array of papers; he had a can of Fort George’s Cavatica Stout open, a brewery in Astoria. His office sported the marketing posters of breweries he represented up and down the coast, alongside a framed print of the U.S. Constitution.
Wilhelm marched behind his desk to take his seat. “Anything for the old Zap. What’s going on?”
“Take a look at this,” I said, handing over my phone.
Nodding, he thumbed through the picture roll and scrutinized the screenshots, saying, “Juniper! Haven’t thought about him in ages!”
I told him about Chris, Velma, the 3.5” floppy disk, Belsarius, and Mr. Wenston - the node numbers and routing traces back to South Africa. The whole shabang.
And like a good attorney, he looked at me sternly and asked, “And where’s the disk now?”
I pulled it out of my back pocket and waved it at him like it was a stack of $100,000 bills.
He reached over to the side of his desk and rang an old iron vintage triangle calling bell. I winced at the piercing noise.
“That’s the dinner bell,” he laughed.
* * *
I put my car into self-driving mode and took a long, enjoyable slurp of my tall in a grande cup, extra cream, and three Splenda. Hmmm.
And that’s why I liked Starbucks: predictably, consistently burned and bitter; you make coffee at home or buy it elsewhere, and you never know what you’ll get. Just a mouthful of disappointment.
In the passenger seat beside me, Velma sipped at her venti triple-pump London Fog extra whip.
I reached behind me and put a manilla folder containing Wilhem’s business card and his standard non-disclosure and client agreement in her lap. “I’m going to give you this.”
It was the middle of the day, her butt warmer was on, and Velma looked like she was trembling like a hairless purse dog. “What for?”
I smiled, removing the disk from my pants pocket and placing the floppy on top of the folder. “It’s your Goddamned husband, smiling down on you.”
Velma sipped her drink and looked at me all too seriously. “You’d better not be shitting me.”
“Listen, I’m eating my hat here,” I said pleasingly, leaning back in my seat. “That disk has an encryption algorithm that Chris wrote to securely move financial transactions between computer systems back in the eighties - when we were kids - and I’ve reason to believe that code eventually made its way into PayPal. There’s an incriminating conversation, a sample dataset - enough to make Wilhelm here believe you’ve got standing.”
“PayPal?” Velma shrugged and held up her rectangle. “Hate that. I Venmo.”
“It’s source code, Velma, intellectual property,” I said, leaning over to underline my point with a whisper, “that we believe enabled Elon Musk to make a fortune with Internet banking.”
“Oh,” Velma said, warming her trembling little hands against her paper cup. “How much-”
“Fuck your electric bill,” I interjected. “If this goes your way, you’ll be Elmer Fudd living on the French Riviera, except with two mansions and a yacht.”
She stared at me, and the corner of her mouth uplifted.
“You’re totally bullshitting me,” she smiled.
“I am not,” I assured, drinking some of my beverage.
“No, really, are you doing some kind of Facebook stunt? You’re filming me with your car-”
“I’m not,” I chuckled, drinking more of my coffee.
“I gets me some Muskmoney?”
Snorting, and sending coffee shooting off the lid of my cup, I tapped my finger against the disk. “Don’t lose this, and give Wilhelm a call. It’ll take years, but hey, it may have been the best retirement he could leave you.”
She sat, stunned, glancing over the paperwork. The reality was starting to set in. “Er, how much will it cost?”
“It’s gratis!” I exclaimed.
Velma looked at me oddly, misunderstanding.
“It’s free, free,” I explained. “Von Morgan said he’d represent you for a slice of the onion at the end, you know - as a favor for Juniper?”
Smiling again, Velma nestled comfortably back into the seat. Then she bit her lip and said, “Huh.”
“What?” I asked, re-engaging manual driving mode.
Removing an ancient, thick iOmega disk from her purse, the Sharpie note on its label read, “Badass Insurance Policy.”
“I brought you this one, too, I-”
“Gimme that!” nearly causing the car to race off the side of the road.