[Social Engineering]

This text was originally written in Swedish, but I just finished translating it.  It’s a bit longer than my usual short stories, but it’s also one that I am very pleased with. Let me know what you think! 🙂


[2013-20-06, Thursday, 1:17 PM]

He thought about his father and as always it made him mad. That was good. One of the things that scared him the most – and the list was not short – was the thought of waking up one morning and not feeling that burning anger anymore. He knew that the day this happened was the day that they would have won. Judging by the feeling in his chest, however, he had nothing to worry about for the time being.

The bag rested safely between his worn Converse and outside the dirty bus window overcooked plains sped past. They had left even the most solitary casinos behind but every now and then they passed by an adversely placed diner or some dodgy self-storage area.

It felt strange to be going back after two years in light exile but he had realized even before the conversation with Fuse13 that it was about time. He didn’t have time to sit in Vegas building fake ID cards forever. At least not if he was to accomplish anything of what he sometimes spoke a little bit too cockily about when he was drunk. Or if he was ever to find a vent for all that anger.

He opened up the conversation with Fuse again, dated two days earlier.

<@Fuse13> Breakthrough. The videos/proof you talked about, they exist. Solid Source.
<@Nakir> Fuck dude. Mental overload here.
<@Fuse13> Don’t celebrate yet. Only external drive. Offline. But I know where.
<@Nakir> Knew there was a catch.
<@Nakir> Let me guess. Bank safe? Military base? Armored fort? The president’s ass?
<@Fuse13> Chill dude. Was probably that bad before. But the reason I found out about the hard drive in the first place is that it’s already been stolen. The news is all over the VIP aether right now. 
<@Nakir> Eh ok. And this is good news how?
<@Fuse13> Listen. I know who has it, and better yet: who they’re about to give it to and when, where and how.
<@Nakir> Guessing it’s not us.
<@Fuse13> Lol. Player in L.A, selling it to other players. Blackmail guaranteed, easily 6 digit.
<@Nakir> Pleasant idealists?
<@Fuse13> You’re a funny guy. Would have been nice, but no. Heard about Wesconi?
<@Nakir> The Butcher?
<@Fuse13> That’s our man.
<@Nakir> Fuck me. I would have preferred the president’s ass.
<@Fuse13> I hear you man. But they’re sending the stuff via some delivery firm.
<@Nakir> ETA?
<@Fuse13> Saturday according to my source. And that’s as far as I can get from behind the screen.
<@Nakir> Dude. This is sick.
<@Fuse13> Know. But we have to get that drive. Are you still in Vegas? 
<@Nakir> I can kind of see where this is going.
<@Fuse13> Well, I would have done it myself. If I could. But as you know my magic power is my fingers and not my charm.
<@Fuse13> ...and you just so happen to be a true Jagger when it comes to social engineering ;)
<@Nakir> Fuck you dude. Promise me that those magic fingers of yours will write a beautiful fucking poem for my funeral.
<@Nakir> If they ever find the body.
<@Fuse13> I knew I could count on you. Get in touch when you have the stuff and I’ll handle the rest. Kisses.
<@Nakir> Your mother.
@Nakir (Nakir@93.sub-70-186-203.myvzw.com) Quit (Quit)

 

[2013-22-06, Saturday, 10:52 PM]

Jack was exactly that kind of guy that sometimes made him despise humanity. Self-centered without the slightest trace of self-awareness, the stick so far up his ass that it could almost be glimpsed when the dude opened his mouth. Reaching this conclusion had taken less than five minutes. When the headlights of the taxi finally showed up on the other side of the gate they had already been standing there by the loading bay for almost half an hour. Half an hour of his life that he would never get back and that had been filled to the brim with all too much egocentric bullshit from the boss dude’s side. This was actually a good thing, however. The irritation numbed his conscience for what he was about to do.

“Taxi? Well paid job, this?” He laughed nervously and weighed on his feet. On the inside he was dead calm but the role he had taken on for this night´s job was a wimp. A newbie who nobody would suspect of anything ever. Somebody you could trust, if only for the simple reason that he was too harmless to pose a threat to anybody.

Jack-o’-Stuckup laughed meanly. “No, I’m guessing he can’t actually afford that. He’s probably just too drunk to drive himself.”

Shocked he turned towards Jack, the reaction genuine this time. “You’re kidding, right?” What the fuck is wrong with this company?

The hub manager raised a condescending eyebrow. “He’ll just be sitting there, you drive. He just has to be the one signing the delivery, I can’t let you do that until you’ve completed your introduction. Praxis.”

The passenger door opened and a young man climbed out. His stride when he moved towards them didn’t give away much, but the concentrated look on his face hinted about him struggling to walk straight.

Jack donned a superior face and afforded the other a little snort as he handed over the tablet he had been holding under his arm. “Chippie, this is Kamran. He’s new here and needs to learn stuff. Could come in handy when parts of the work force are drinking themselves rat assed every other night, or what do you say?”

The newcomer’s eyes turned dark and he muttered something in reply as he accepted the tablet.

Jack leaned forward. “Did you say something?”

“Chino”, the other repeated himself. “My name is Chino.”

“Yeah, that’s what I said”, Jack snapped impatiently. “Stop bitching around now, you’re late already as it is. Here’s the keys to the unmarked car, the boxes have already been packed. But you’re not driving in your condition, leave that to the trainee. Just make sure to show him how this works so he can step in for you the next time you’re too wasted to work.”

It looked as if Chino was about to say something but then changed his mind. Instead he grabbed the keys and started walking towards one of the cars.

“Tag along with him now”, Jack said with a voice that oozed with theatrical sympathy for the poor trainee who would be forced to share the front seat with this hopeless drunk. “Try to soak up as much as possible and I guarantee that I have some work passes to sign over on you later.” Then he turned and disappeared through the door by the loading bay, apparently done for the night.

 

 

 

[2013-22-06, Saturday, 11:28 PM]

”Are you newly moved in, Kamran?”

“Nah, but I’ve been away from town a couple of years.” Only lie when you really have to. It felt strange to be called Kamran, it was really his grandfather’s name and he himself only had it as a middle name. Using that name now was of course unforgivably stupid, but in a way it felt like a tribute to his father to leave a hand print in the middle of this. He would erase all digital tracks later and only the memory of someone who went by that name would remain.

He felt like an asshole, however. This guy was actually nice and seemed to share his opinions about hub manager Jack. As they drove along the dark road through the woods the not-so-drunk-after-all Chino told him about a skating competition he had won earlier that day and also how happy he was that he would be competing in Seattle in a couple of weeks. The party he had been at when Jack called him in had been to celebrate today’s victory and the work pass hadn’t even been a scheduled one.

The one who called himself Kamran had understood that Chino really needed the money and this didn’t make things any easier. He went through such a moral crisis that he accidentally gave Chino his number – or at least the number to his DIY pager, but of course he didn’t tell Chino that. He had then been forced to clench his teeth and think intensely about his old man for several minutes before he had gathered enough resolve to go ahead with the plan.

The branch remained where he had left it. Not so far into the road that the sparse night traffic would accidentally push it away, but still enough that an unaware driver, a beginner, would get away with running it over. He did just that. The branch passed beneath the car with a painful sound and he hit the brakes.

“Fuck fuck fuck, what was that?” He gripped the wheel tightly and clenched his teeth. Even felt his eyes tearing and thought about his mother who always wanted him to become an actor. If only she knew.

Chino, who had been browsing through his phone, had also jumped from the crash and the sudden stop. He now quickly put his hand on Kamran’s arm and smiled at him reassuringly, even though it was obvious that he had been startled. “It’s alright, no damage done. Did you see what it was?”

Kamran shook his head, entirely in character as the nervous trainee. “No, it kind of just… jumped into the road. Maybe some kind of animal. We should go check.”

Chino at once looked less sure of himself, apparently not so keen at all to leave the car in pursuit of some potentially wounded animal in the dark. He turned in his seat and looked through the back window. “I don’t know, I can’t see anything behind the car. It was probably nothing…”

But Kamran persisted, faking the stubbornness of a person determined to make a good impression on his new boss. ”We have to check. And I thought I heard a crashing sound from the trunk. What if something broke?” He even managed a slight tremble in those last words and his devastated expression finally made Chino relent.

“Alright, let’s take a look. There’s a flashlight in your door, you take that one and I’ll use my phone”, he said and stepped out.

The forest and the night were dark but light pollution from the city center at least partly compensated for the weak illumination cast by the flashlights. Of course they found no traces of a wounded animal behind or beneath the car and Chino seemed relieved when he spotted the wooden branch.

“It’s only a stick, Kamran. It’s okay. Come, let’s go.”

“We should check the delivery”, he insisted. “Jack showed me your terms and they say that we guarantee that everything is in good shape when we deliver it.”

Chino hesitated, didn’t seem to like the thought of standing on a dark forest road and going through somebody else’s boxes. His eyes wandered up and down the road as he seemed to be assessing the risk of them being robbed while they inspected the content of the trunk. If he only knew. “Okay”, he said finally. ”But we can only check the boxes outwardly, we can’t open them.”

Kamran nodded and seemed content with this. Chino opened the trunk and exposed close to a dozen white boxes of different sizes. Kamran took a step forward, felt his pulse rising. He had to handle this well now, didn’t want to be forced to hurt this guy to get what he was after. Chino had begun carefully looking over the boxes to see if anything was obviously broken and Kamran quickly scanned the delivery for the number markings Fuse had instructed him to be on the lookout for. When he spotted them his heart skipped a beat. This was it, this was where revenge begun. He reached for another box, a larger one, and shook it next to his ear. Something rattled inside.

Chino tore the box from his hands. “What the fuck are you doing!”

Kamran took an embarrassed step back and stared at his feet. “Oh, sorry. I thought I would hear if anything was broken…”

Terrified, Chino stared at the box in his hands as if it was about to explode. Then he let out a long breath and carefully placed the box back amongst the rest of the delivery. “Don’t do that again”, he said admonishingly and closed the trunk. “Everything seems intact as far as I can see. Let’s move on.”

Kamran had no objections to that. When Chino turned his back on him he quickly put the smaller box he had sneaked away into his inside pocket and then returned to the driver’s seat. He could barely talk to Chino during the rest of the drive but camouflaged it behind fake embarrassment over his mistakes earlier.

He was an asshole, but there were those who were even worse and the end justified the means. Deep down he knew that someone, probably Chino, would get in trouble because of this, but the angry part of him did its best to write this off as casualties of war. As usual that part of him was very convincing and when he was dropped off later that night exaltation over his completed mission was the dominating feeling. Computers and code were all very well, but real life-hacking – social engineering as it was called – that was a fucking drug. And right then and there the one calling himself Kamran was way too high on that drug to at all think about anything – or anyone – else.

 

 

 

[2013-22-09, Tuesday, 2:41 PM]

He woke up late. The room smelled of warm dust and the fan in his stationary computer did its best to compensate for the apartment’s lack of a sauna. He should build a new computer, this one was almost embarrassing. But the laptop on the floor next to his bed still did its job, so it would probably have to wait a while longer. It had served him well all through the night as he had dutifully put some hours into justifying his paycheck.

His work for the IT-company paid disgustingly well considering that nobody there had ever seen his face. He had been able to continue working exactly as usual even during his years in Vegas. The digital age solved many problems and favored those who knew how to surf it.

He laughed quietly as he filled the electric kettle and washed a worn cup. The suit had sounded so beaten on the phone when he had called three years earlier to confirm that the security flaws in the company’s encryption algorithms he had been so kind as to inform them about were actually something they wanted his help solving. Perhaps their decision had been tweaked slightly by him innocently pointing out that a less moral person could have sold the information about the flaws for quite a formidable price. Since then Ian K. Salimi had been on their payroll and they asked no questions that weren’t strictly related to his job assignments – which they often didn’t even know what they were themselves. In return he made sure that the company didn’t run into problems with others like himself. Win win.

He placed the tea on the floor next to him to cool as he logged into his computer and started his usual routine. He had always viewed it as a kind of patrol round – he fulfilled his duty by patrolling the web in the same way as a soldier on his watch. He made sure to keep up to date with all the news that meant something, had learned to recognize political patterns when he saw them and put quite a lot of time into analyzing why the world’s stock market looked as it did every single day of the year. They were all omens that could be read in order to predict when something fishy was underway. Succeeding here meant having a chance at being active instead of reactive and it was precisely this edge that had helped the hacker that called himself Nakir to stay in the lead in the circles that mattered. It was also that same lead that was to blame for him seldom being able to use his real name and that prevented him from living in the far nicer apartment he rented to keep his real identity separate from his much livelier Internet alias.

One of the application windows flashed and he tabbed over. Today’s first phone record from Stephen Meyer’s office connection had arrived. A perhaps somewhat overstrung safety measure Nakir used was namely to seldom give out his real phone number to temporary acquaintances. Either he gave them the number to some disposable cellphone, or he left them in the hands of estate agent Mayer’s secretary. He or she of course had no idea who it was that people asked for when they called that number looking for him, but that was part of the plan. Nakir kept watch on the estate agent’s incoming calls a couple of times a day and looked up those numbers that seemed to diverge from the rest. If it turned out to be someone he wanted to talk to he called back, otherwise not. So far this filter had served him well. A potential misdial looked better in the eyes of the caller than having to realize that the number they had been given was no longer in use – for whatever reason. Now it seemed like estate agent Meyer had received a call from none other than Cezar Lino Salinas, according to Facebook aka Chino. A cold hand gripped his innards, he knew what this must mean. He drew a deep breath and picked up his phone.

Four signals. “Hello?”

Breathe in, breathe out. ”Hi Chino. This is, ehm, Kamran.”

Silence. ”You took something last Saturday, didn’t you?”

Fuck. “Well, look. I’m sorry if I complicated things for you, I –”

“I’m not sure if those are the words I would have used.”

“Has someone talked to you?”

Talked is probably not the right word either.”

“Look…”

“They like fucked me up entirely and now they are going to murder me if I don’t return whatever it was you stole. Or give them a fuckload of money that I’ll never get my hands on. All in three days.”

Well, what do you say to that. “Look, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean for you to get in the middle of this.”

“I see, well that’s great. But now I am. Kamran, you have to return the stuff you took so they’ll leave me alone.”

“I… I can’t. I don’t have it anymore.” And that was actually true. He had passed the drive on to Fuse the very same night that he had stolen it. By now it had probably been copied ten times and was already on its way to some of the crew’s more militant fractions. It was only a matter of time before its content would have been edited and made ready to be spread through all social media platforms worth talking about. Things would burn and it was Nakir who had lit the fuse. Right now, however, that thought didn’t feel nearly as good as it had done a few days ago.

“Then they will kill me, do you understand that? And it is your fault.”

He thought about the guy who had dragged himself to work in the middle of the night, in the middle of a party, just because he couldn’t afford to say no. The guy who had won a skating competition and was going to Seattle in a couple of weeks – if he was left to live that long.

“I’ll see what I can do. But I can’t promise anything.” He could hear how cold and impassive he sounded and was slightly disgusted by himself, hating for a moment what the struggle had turned him into. He really wanted to help this guy, but at the same time a trifle too big part of him still chanted about ends justifying means.

“Ah, you’ll see what you can do. Splendid.”

“Yeah I will. I’ll get in touch.”

”You do that. No stress. I’ll probably be available for three or something more days.” And the call was ended.

 

 

[2013-22-11, Friday, 00:12 AM]

Chino lowered himself into the chair in front of the screen of the laptop. The light in the room was dim but Nakir could still see at once that the guy on the other end of the line was in very bad shape. His face was broken, his eyes red and his posture hinted about him being in great pain. They had been hard on him, as much was obvious. His throat clenched when he thought about how little he actually had to offer Chino as a reward for still dragging himself to this suspect Skype meeting.

“You found your way here, good”, he said. Had to start somewhere.

“Yeah, your little treasure hunt was very exciting. I hope you have something good to say now that I have reached your little basement.”

Nakir had planted the laptop in an old locale beneath a shabby apartment complex. He had then left a message for Chino at the site where they had originally arranged to meet, in order for him to find his way here. Nakir himself was sitting in front of an entirely different computer in an entirely different room. Saw it as best for both of them that they weren’t seen together and that the things they needed to talk about weren’t negotiated over an insecure phone line. If Nakir had learned one thing from his years on watch it was that you could never know who was listening or logging.

He cleared his throat. “I’ll tell you how it is. I can’t return the hard drive, I don’t have it anymore and the person I gave it to doesn’t have it either.”

Chino’s shoulders sagged somewhat on the other side of the webcam. “Wonderful. Then I’m dead.”

“Wait. I told you I would do what I can and I will. I can help you get away from them, but then you have to do as I tell you.”

“And what’s that supposed to mean?” The resignation suddenly mixed with anger. This was probably a guy who didn’t give in without a fight, but that wouldn’t do him much good here. Wesconi, the Butcher… Nakir shuddered involuntarily.

“I can help you go underground. Get you a new ID, address. You’ll probably have to hide completely for a while until everything is set up, but then you’ll be able to –“

“And you call that a good solution?” Hell, I can’t just bail. I’ve got my family and –“

Nakir sighed. “No, it’s not perfect, but it’s far more fun than getting yourself killed, don’t you think? I have a place where you can sleep tonight, then I’ll contact you so you can fix a passport photo and some information I’ll need.”

“Seriously dude, you can’t do this to me.”

“Look, it’s not me doing this. I’m trying to help you for fuck sake.”

Chino snorted and shook his head. It seemed to hurt. “It’s you who have put me in this situation and now you’re just trying to dull your conscience. This is no solution. Returning that damned hard drive would have been a solution. This is just bullshit.”

”Yeah but I already told you that’s not possible. It’s to be used for some important stuff and I don’t even have it anymore. Do you want my help or what?”

“Fuck you, Kamran. Or what the fuck your real name is.” Chino rose and slammed the laptop shut. Nakir’s screen went black for a moment before the conversation closed down and he was thrown back to his desktop.

“Well, fuck you too then”, he muttered and went into the kitchen to make himself a new cup of tea. He had done what he could, too bad if the guy didn’t want to accept his help but there was nothing he could do about it. Or at least that was what he tried to convince himself. Casualties of war, soon things are going to burn.

 

 

[2013-22-12, Saturday, 11:54 PM]

<@BaiLouTbill> Dude. Might have done something you’ll not be a fan of.
<@BaiLouTbill> You there?
<@BaiLouTbill> Someone’s after me. Can feel it. Fuckin weird calls yesterday. Didn’t know what to do. Dumped everything on a fuckin usb and mailed it to your fancy place.
<@BaiLouTbill> Hello?

 

Fucking idiot. He closed his eyes, counted to fifty. A little bit too fast. When Bill said “everything” it could mean almost anything but in a worst case scenario this was pretty fucking bad. And as if it wasn’t bad enough that the idiot had dragged him into his damned problems, he had also crossed the sacred line that separated the alias Nakir from the identity on all his authentic ID-papers. The one that all the complicated systems were designed to protect.

Click. The left Shift key suddenly sat in his hand, him having accidentally pried it loose with his angrily tapping fingernails. In his mind, however, the entire keyboard went into the wall and his fist through the computer screen. His pulse was already through the roof but when he opened his eyes a cold mask reflected in the part of the display tinted dark by Winamp’s retro skin. He pressed the abused key back a little bit too forcefully. The scissor mechanism beneath the plastic creaked ominously. He took a deep breath through his nose and had to hold back in order to not continue mangling the keys as he returned his fingers to the keyboard.

<@Nakir> That’s not very good.
<@BaiLouTbill> Lol. Don’t go cranky now.
<@BaiLouTbill> I panicked, ok?
<@Nakir> Obviously.
<@BaiLouTbill> ...
<@BaiLouTbill> Dude
<@BaiLouTbill> Ok, look. Nobody knows that it’s your apartment. You only have to go by and fetch an envelope. Complicated not.
<@Nakir> There’s a reason nobody knows it’s my place. If you missed it. That I never fucking go there.
<@BaiLouTbill> Okok. But chill. It’s as it is.
<@Nakir> Should let it lay there. Your problem.
<@BaiLouTbill> Not if there’s a bust. Fuck dude, you don’t get it, _everything_ is on that stick.
<@Nakir> Ok, I take that back. I should kill you. Fuckin idiot. Do you realize what you’re risking?
<@BaiLouTbill> Lol. I’m not stupid.
<@Nakir> ...
<@BaiLouTbill> Well ok. I get it you’re pissed. And that you probably think I’m a paranoid idiot. But ppl have been strange around here lately. Nobody I’ve ever seen before. To be honest I’m scared. For reals. Better you have those files right now. I’ll get in touch when things calm down. It’s best for everybody, I hope you see that too.
<@BaiLouTbill> Hell dude, you blow??
<@BaiLouTbill> ???
<@Nakir> Ok.
<@Nakir> I’ll fix it.
<@Nakir> But you’re still an idiot.
@Nakir (Nakir@280.sub-76-235-24.myvzw.com) Quit (Quit)

 [20??-??-??, —day, 00:00 -M]

Ian Kamran Salimi was one of the members of the hacker network John Doe. He had no idea how many they were or how many nationalities that were represented. Probably no one knew that. They had no central structure and most of them operated independently with a more or less common goal in sight. The fact that there was also an entire armada of noobs mainly interested in hiding behind a cool name and who most of all enjoyed directing DDoS-attacks toward harmless universities and public transport companies was nothing that bothered him overly. All networks had them and at worst they were a thorn in the side of somebody’s self-esteem. In all other cases these trolls were stupid call-birds that drew the eyes of the authorities away from the action that actually meant something. Useful idiots, in other words.

John Doe’s primary target, however, had always been the military. How much shit that went under the radar in the name of national security Ian almost didn’t dare think about. Excessive violence, war crimes and extra-judicial imprisonments were just the tip of the iceberg. Fuse13, one of his closest partners-in-crime and one of few members he had actually met IRL, was somehow involved in the top layers of WikiLeaks and they ran some collaborations in that direction. But Nakir was of the opinion that the whistle-blower site at best scratched the surface of the problem.

The things happening in the world – and in the US in particular – had to be brought to the surface in a way that ordinary people could understand and absorb. Be pushed into people’s faces until they couldn’t look away anymore. Not until then something would happen, not until then there’d be change. And it would take extreme evidence and measures to wake the sleeping population. This, if nothing else, his observations of WikiLeaks had taught him. Despite all the frightening information available to those interested, the number of people who actually bothered to seek it out was very small. It would take something more, and this was where John Doe entered the picture. John Doe was the hydra whose fire would set the world ablaze.

 

Ian hadn’t always been a destructivist, extreme reformist or any other kind of –ist for that matter. However, he had always had a very strong sense of justice and even as a kid he had stood up for what he thought was right and struck down on what was wrong. More than once this had put him in ugly situations, but with time he had learned to pick his battles and to fight cleverly when it came to that. As far as his mother Carmen was concerned he could well have refrained from fighting altogether, but where she advocated pacifism his father Assim taught him both to fight and to stand up for what was right and just. Ian’s dad was in the military and always told him stories about the American army traveling the world, righting wrongs and scaring away bad people who wanted to start wars and conflicts harming defenseless people. Ian decided early on that he would follow in his father’s footsteps when he grew up.

With time, however, Assim Salimi stopped telling stories about the army and was increasingly seldom his usual, happy self when he came home on leave. When Ian was nine years old his dad didn’t come home anymore at all. Serious men in stiff suits came to their door instead and told them that Assim had done something bad, something illegal. Mother Carmen cried the entire night after the men had gone away, but all that Ian understood at that age was that dad had been put in prison. Military prison. Many years later he found out why, and this was when the hacktivist Nakir was born. Ian Kamran Salimi never became an actor, to his mother Carmen’s great sorrow. His father Assim was a hero and Ian was going to follow in his footsteps.

Not long after Assim Salimi disappeared from his son’s life another man moved into the house. Barely ten months later the by then eleven-year-old Ian got a little brother. When the new man disappeared as well mother Carmen was never really herself again. It didn’t take long after that before strange people came to take his little brother away. Ian remembers how he stood by the screen door and stared up at an unknown man who he would later remember only as “The Spaniard”. He seemed nice, but when little brother went away the entire house somehow went quiet, empty.

Ian wanted to take care of his mom, but somehow the years still only saw him drifting farther and farther away. He couldn’t handle being in the middle of all that terrible injustice that he, however he tried, could do nothing about. His father Assim had taught him how to fight, but nobody had taught him to how fix what was already broken. Ian picked his battles but from mommy’s broken sorrow he chose to flee. To dull the feeling of guilt that only grew over the years Ian, Nakir, set his eyes on a bigger, higher target and sharpened his weapons. He had failed to help his father, mother and little brother, but somebody was going to fucking burn for what had been done to his family.

 

 

 

[2013-22-13, Sunday, 2:36 PM]

The building housing the apartment was so well-kept and fresh as to make him feel like a burglar for just being close to it. Nobody could have imagined that his name would ever be printed on one of the door plates in this entry hall. Were it not for his well-paid job and some lucrative violations he had committed a couple of years ago the name still wouldn’t be printed there. But despite the name on the door this was not his home. This was where his employers sent his paychecks and where he sometimes invited unsuspecting normal people when once in a while he needed to play citizen, but that was all. He avoided coming here as far as it was possible and right now he’d have rather kept his head down a couple of months until the hard drive business had blown over. Bill’s idiotic paranoia had thrown a spanner in the works of this plan, however. In the unlikely event of someone actually checking up on his apartment they could under no circumstances be allowed to find an envelope with this kind of content on his hall carpet. That was a risk that he simply couldn’t afford to take.

Luckily he didn’t meet anybody in the stairwell – he had picked the time carefully to minimize that risk. People had definitely gone about their lunches already and if someone was going to or from work in spite of it being Sunday it would probably not be at this time of day. It wasn’t bulletproof, but at least he had given it a thought. The gun he had tucked beneath his shirt was not intended to be used against potential neighbors in the stairwell, however – rather against the people who might be waiting for him inside his apartment.

He pressed his ear against the outside of the door and listened for a while before he dared put his key into the lock. After entering he still conducted a thorough search of all the rooms before relaxing and putting the gun away. He really didn’t fault Bill for his paranoia, it was a quite legit occupational hazard considering the stuff they fiddled with. It was the way he chose to handle it, however, that made Ian want to break his neck. He could have sent his shit anywhere and still he sent it here.

Sighing, he collected the accumulated mail from the hall carpet. A little pile had formed since last he was here, despite him having made a deal with his work about a temporary solution for his payments while he was working from out of town. Junk mail, some newspapers, postcards from some fossil relative who wanted to know how he and his mother were doing. She was probably just smug about getting an opportunity to write this address on the back of a postcard, he imagined. Without a doubt it was the hot topic in the old lady’s circles. At the same time, he couldn’t entirely repress the flash of guilt that always tore at him with tooth and nail as soon as he thought about his mother. It had been all too long since he had gone to see her. He wondered how she was doing, what she was doing. He knew that he should visit her but didn’t dare to until things had calmed down. She didn’t even know that he was back in town.

The envelope from Bill stood out from the rest, partly because of his terrible handwriting but perhaps mainly because it reeked of weed. Ian guessed that at least one fourth of the paranoia that had made Bill send the envelope here had its roots in smoke and chemicals. He covered his hand with the sleeve of his shirt and picked it up. Walked into the spacious kitchen and put it into a plastic bag. Whatever “everything” meant in Bill’s world, Ian suspected that much of it was the kind of stuff he didn’t want his fingerprints on.

He had just put the plastic bag and its content in his back pocket when the doorbell rang. He froze for a moment before his hand reflexively went for the gun. He remained still, listening, feeling his pulse racing at the same speed as his thoughts. No one knew that he was here. He hadn’t encountered anyone in the stairwell. Could it still be some neighbor who had spotted him though their peephole and wanted to say hello and see how he was doing? Could it be the police, did they have their eyes on him? Or worse than the police, serious men in stiff suits from one of the many acronym agencies he had made it his life’s work to avoid? Or… He didn’t dare complete the thought, but realized that if someone was after him right now it was most likely the people he had recently stolen something very valuable from. He felt cold sweat running down his back. The doorbell sounded again and he jumped. Whoever was on the other side of the door they were not about to give up.

 

With the gun raised in front of him he silently crept towards the door. It was secured with extra locks, but if someone really wanted in they would succeed. The apartment certainly was no Fort Knox; he didn’t have that kind of money. He avoided the peephole, knowing that it was an idiot proof method of getting shot straight in the face if that was what the visitors had in mind. He knew that he should wait them out, just keep his calm until whoever it was tired and went away. That would clearly be the smartest thing to do in this situation. But either because of his irritation about Bill’s paranoid behavior or something else, this was not what he did finally. Instead he hid the gun behind his back and unlocked the door. He took a deep breath and tried to convince himself that he was being silly, that he needed to get his shit together before he turned into a wired wreck. Then he opened the door and all he could do was stare.

“What the fuck are you doing here?”, he exclaimed in shock. He wasn’t really sure who he had been expecting to find outside the door, but it definitely wasn’t this guy.

Chino seemed at least as shocked and his frightened eyes shifted between Ian’s face and the gun the surprise had caused him to let hang limply by his side. “What… what have you done?”

They stood there staring at each other for what felt like half an eternity but was probably really no more than a couple of seconds.

“How did you find me?”, Ian said finally. This was not good, not good at all. If this guy could find him here, all hell was probably on its way as well.

“I… I was looking for someone here. Not you”, Chino added hurriedly. He seemed terrified too.

Ian swallowed. ”Who?”, he pressed forth, but an ominous thought was already forming in his mind.

“My… adoptive father gave me the address, but it must have been wrong. I was looking for someone named Ian K. Salimi. He’s my brother.”

“Your… brother.” Ian stared, felt his hand starting to shake as a heavy nausea crashed over him like a merciless wave of darkness. The Spaniard. Little brother. Mom. He realized that he, in his wild quest for fire, blood and justice had made a terrible, unforgivable mistake. Casualties of war. The end justifies the means. No no no… He wanted to throw up, scream, smash his head against the wall. But he did none of those things.

“We have to talk”, he said to the person he had caused so much pain and suffering when according to all logic and instinct he should have always always always done the exact opposite. The person for whom he should have always been there, the person he should have always protected and loved and fought for. “Come inside.”

He stepped aside and let his beaten-up little brother into the apartment that had his name on the door but had never been his home. And when he closed and locked the door behind them he realized suddenly, from the bottom of his very being, that he had never actually followed in his father’s footsteps, that he was far from the hero he had fancied himself to be. And the insight burned more painfully than fire.

By Christina Smedbakken 2016-11-06

 

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voeko

Chris is a freelance writer struggling with the novel that will make them an author.

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