Saturday, 10 March 2012
Cities of Refuge
Jenny and I had gone down to Homeland again. It didn't take much to convince her to go. The promise of a sweet after our stroll through the park had been enough.
"So, which sweet would you like, darling?" I asked her.
"Can I have a chocolate éclair, please?" Jenny replied, smiling one of her usual cheeky smiles.
I thought I would order the éclair and ask her to wait, so I could nip over to Laura and find out whether she could make the safe for me.
"Jenny, I have to go across the road again. Will you wait here for me and eat your éclair, sweetie?"
"Yes, I will. I'll eat my chocolate éclair and wait for you."
"Good. I won't be a minute, all right?"
I ordered the sweet and paid the check, then left the diner. As I walked through the door I took a final look around to check whether Jenny was being a good girl, which she was, so I was happy to go.
I walked into the street, which was fairly quiet. The sun was shining and there was a lovely warm breeze blowing between the tall buildings. I made my way through the parked cars, crossed the street and walked over to Laura's apartment block.
I pressed the doorbell and a few seconds later her voice came through the speaker. "You're early. C'mon up and let yourself in. You can make yourself comfortable in the lounge. I won't be a moment." The buzzer went before I had a chance to reply.
Upstairs the door to her apartment was left ajar, so I went inside, closed the door behind me and went into the living room. The apartment was as tidy as usual.
"I'll make myself comfortable on the sofa then, shall I?" I shouted.
"Yes, please. Won't be a sec," was Laura's reply from somewhere.
I sat down on the sofa. I had been to her apartment before, but I had never been long enough to really see what her place was like. The only thing I had noticed in the past was that it had always been very tidy. Mind you, I had only ever seen the hallway, living room and her bathroom, so I couldn't really say what the rest was like.
She had mentioned once that her study was a right mess and I imagined it to be a little like mine: printouts scattered on the floor with a few magazines sprinkled in between, various pads displaying different information or running hack sessions, a couple of used plates, some cutlery, a few cups and glasses, the odd pizza box or take-away tinfoil container and maybe some items of clothing for good measure – socks, ties and the like.
"Hang on just another minute, I'll be right with you," her voice flitted past the living room door. I quickly turned around but she had already gone. The smell of sweet perfume wafted in. I had never noticed perfume on her before. Was she planning to go out later?
"Help yourself to a drink or something,” her voice floated in.
"Yes, thanks," I replied.
"Sure, no probs," Laura said. "The drinks are..."
"...right in front of me," I finished her sentence.
"Yes, that's it," she said and then I heard the noise of a hairdryer.
I got up from the sofa and walked over to the drinks cabinet. She had an eclectic selection of drinks: vodka, good Russian vodka that is – whiskey, both Scotch and Tennessee – dry gin, rum, sherry and Campari. There was also an ice bucket and a little jar with fresh lemon slices. The glasses were on the shelf below.
I picked up a small tumbler, added a couple of ice cubes and slowly poured some nice Scotch whiskey over them. I put the bottle back onto the cabinet, took a sip from the glass and then had a look around the room.
There were a small number of photo frames on the wall: her in a park on a nice, sunny day; her in a woolly jumper somewhere indoors; her wearing a party hat, cheeks painted red, like a clown and pulling a silly face; her balancing on one foot in another park somewhere, arms stretched out and an umbrella in one hand, apparently helping her to balance; and a few more besides.
All of the photos seemed to be fairly recent and only showed her. There wasn't a single one showing her parents, siblings or friends. As far as I could remember I had never asked her about her family, friends or anything about her past. I had never felt it appropriate to do so. I guess it was a kind of unwritten hackers' law. You didn't want to compromise each other's identity. The thing was, I knew where she lived, so I already knew more about her than I should have.
"Tadaa!" Laura's voice suddenly came from the doorway. I turned around and there she was. She looked absolutely stunning. She was all dressed up and wearing make-up – another thing that I hadn't noticed before. I could see a twinkly necklace – a silver heart with a tiny sparkly jewel as its pendant – and a pair of shiny earrings.
"Laura, you look absolutely amazing," I said, suddenly realizing that I had been looking at her for a good few seconds with my mouth open.
"Thank you very much," she replied and started to smile.
"You're going out later, aren't you," I wanted to know.
"Well, yes. I have a date," she said and her smile widened.
"Ooh, lucky you," I replied, trying my best to smile back, but somehow it felt awkward. I didn't realize it immediately, but I was starting to feel a little jealous, which was odd, because I had never thought of Laura in that way before. I had always really enjoyed chatting to her on the computer or talking to her on the phone, and I was always very happy to see her – but I never thought we were more than just very good friends.
"Oh, it's actually to do with a project I'm working on," Laura explained, as her smile quickly disappeared from her face.
"Oh," I said, puzzled.
"I think this guy has some information I need, if you see what I mean."
"Oh! I see. A project. Of course. Very clever." I suddenly realized what she meant. It wasn't a romantic kind of date – she was going out with this guy to find out a password or something which would help her to hack into whatever system she was trying to get into.
"Yes, that sort of date. I've been working on this for a couple of weeks now. If I play it right I should be able to go further tonight."
"Go further?" I asked. "How do you mean?"
"Well, if he gives me the information I need, I should be able get past security and launch phase two of my hack."
"Oh, of course. Go further with your hack. Phase two. Sure. I understand."
I realized I was talking gibberish. When she said she would go further I immediately assumed she meant with the guy – my jealousy was obviously very real and very strong. I felt more for Laura than I was going to admit to myself.
"What did you think I meant?" Laura wanted to know. She was looking at me inquisitively with her beautiful eyes, having her head slightly tilted to one side.
"Oh, I don't know. I just didn't understand what you meant," I said, looking away. I started to blush.
"You're not jealous, are you?"
"Yes. Jealous. Are you jealous of the other guy?"
I looked at her again.
"No, I'm not jealous. Why should I be jealous?"
"Exactly. You have no reason to be jealous," Laura said with a bright smile and winked at me. "Now, you said you needed help with something?"
What did she mean? I had no reason to be jealous. I was starting to get nervous. Did she like me?
"Oh, yes, I need your help. Sorry."
I explained to her that I was constantly keeping various hardcopies for my hacks which contained incriminating information that could get me into trouble with the offs1. I was hoping she could build a customized safe for me which would destroy them if it was tampered with, triggered remotely, or if it hadn't been opened for a given amount of time.
"You're not asking much, are you," Laura said.
Her face had become quite serious. I was worried that I was being a little bit too ambitious.
"How big does it need to be?" she wanted to know.
"Well, not big. It'll have to store a stack of... say... 500 pages or so."
"Hm, you're right, that's not big. Do you want to hide it somewhere in your place – or would you rather have it in view?"
"I guess if it was hidden it would be better," I said.
"Fine, that shouldn't be a problem. When do you need it by?" Laura wanted to know.
Her face had lightened up again. She obviously knew what she was going to built for me. I was relieved.
"Well, how quickly can you make it?" I really hoped I could have it as soon as possible. Every day that I left the papers just lying around in my office, the risk of being discovered was increasing. Yet I didn't want to put any pressure on her, particularly knowing that she was busy with her own project.
"Hm, let me think. I don't have time tonight... and if I get the information I want, I might need another day or two..."
"Laura, is there any chance you can get this safe ready for tomorrow night? I'm really starting to get itchy with all the pages that accumulate every day."
I looked at her pleadingly.
"Stop it. How can I say no when you look at me like this? You're too sweet to resist," she said. "I'll have it ready for you tomorrow night, no problem. I can work on it during the day – and another day or two won't make any difference to my project, even if I get the information tonight."
"You're an absolute star, Laura. I really owe you big time now. If there's anything I can do for you, just say – your wish will be my command," I said and smiled at her.
"Hm, I might just take you up on that offer," she replied with a wink. "Now, I really have to go or I'll be late for my date."
"Sure, no probs. You're going far?"
"Yes, across the settlement to the far end. The guy doesn't know where I live. He thinks I'm just down the road from him."
"Oh, of course," I said. "I guess I'll see you later then. Thank you so much again for getting this done for me so quickly. You're a star."
"No, stop it. You're the real star," she replied with a huge smile on her face.
When I got back to the diner and Jenny was still sitting where I had left her. She had finished her chocolate éclair and was doodling on a napkin. I intended to visit the information bank2 later and find out as much about Imbissen as I could. The more I knew about his background, the better my chances of finding a way through the back door into Sesk. I wanted to be well prepared before I started.
Previous experience had taught me that only about the first three hack attempts into a well secured system were safe. After that, the chances of getting caught were dangerously close to 100% – and it was basically impossible to hack into anything from prison, even though I had heard that a handful of people had done it.
I walked over to Jenny. "Hello, sweetie, how was your éclair? Did you enjoy it?"
"Mmm, yummy," she said without interrupting her drawing or looking up.
"Ooh, that looks nice. What are you drawing there darling?" Jenny was really artistic and had been drawing for quite a few years now. She seemed to be able to memorize scenes very quickly and then draw them later at home or at school. All of her drawings had been true to practically every detail of what she had seen.
"It's a man," she replied, still not looking up.
"Oh, very nice, darling. Is this Sully?" The portrait was very detailed indeed and I assumed it was someone like the host of her favourite TV show.
"No," she said.
"Oh? Who is it then? It's very good."
"The man who was here just now," she explained.
"Oh. So the man has gone then?" I wanted to know.
"Yes, he left just before you came back."
"Oh, did he," I said. "This drawing's very good, sweetie. You're a very talented artist. Are you going to hang this up with the others later?"
"No, the man told me to give the picture to you," Jenny said and looked up at me, smiling, before looking at the paper again to finish her drawing.
I got worried. A stranger talking to her? Here? Who would ask her to be drawn and then ask the drawing to be given to me? Who knew I was here? Maybe it was someone from school – a teacher or a parent.
"Who was this man, sweetie?"
"Haven't seen him before. Look, I'm finished now. That's him," she said and showed me her drawing. She was very proud of it and smiled at me.
I looked at it. It was very detailed and lifelike. She had drawn everything perfectly – wrinkles, strands of hair, reflections in his eyes – the whole expression of his face was there. He looked like he was confidently smiling to himself, like a man who knew he could achieve anything he wanted, without having to try too hard – like everything in life would come to him easily.
"Do you like it?" Jenny asked.
"Yes, it's very, very good, sweetie."
I tried to work out who this man was, but the face didn't look familiar – it didn't look like anybody I or Jenny knew.
"Sweetie, let's go home. I have some more work to do."
I wanted to get us out of here and back home as quickly as possible, but at the same time I didn't want to alarm Jenny. I didn't think she had realized what potential danger she had been in. She was quite vulnerable and it would have been easy for the man to convince her to come home with her.
"Sure, let's go. I'm done. I couldn't eat another thing," Jenny said and got up.
"Oh, I don't blame you darling. The éclair looked rather big," I said to her, smiling. I knew the moment we got home she would want to eat more chocolate. She had an amazingly sweet tooth.
On our way home I kept looking around every few minutes. I wanted to see whether anybody was following us, but whoever it was seemed to have long gone – or was very good at not being seen. He certainly knew what he was doing and appeared to know more about us than I would have liked.
1Offs - short for officials. It is what hackers often use to describe government officials from the secret service, police or other law enforcing agencies. Usually it is used in a derogatory fashion.
2Information banks took over from libraries as more and more books were published electronically. Books are now either downloaded and read on-screen or printed on demand, and information banks provide computer access to everyone. However, libraries still exist, and a hardcopy of every book ever published is still archived there, but now libraries are no longer open to the public.