Mackey Dooley sent me to this web page, all deep purples and manja-eyed girls that played some low resolution techno music with a subsonic thump to it. RepFix, it said in a grunge font so whacked out you had to squint to read it. The contact information resolved to an old fashioned 32 bit IP address, the kind they used to use back when people still used ugly homemade web pages like this.
I ran back the IP address to a physical location. Mackey was right - it was local. I tapped the link and a second later was walking down a sidewalk in a nasty block far from the subway, looking for number 17B. I had to walk sideways down the entryway to get by a stack of old hard drives plugged into a web of yellow cable. I was surprised to hear them humming. A thousand red LEDs blinked in complex patterns in the shadows under the tarps.
The door was painted red with the name Eric Selvaggio written in sharpie. A water-stained banner read "RepFix - Open." The door was sticky and made a noise when I opened it, I could almost smell the mildew.
"Weinstein?" a voice called from the darkness.
I was going to ask him how he knew it was me, but there had to be fifty ways he could have googled me as I walked up the path to his door.
"Selvaggio?" I countered. The door closed behind me. The only illumination was a small flat screen on the far wall. I could see my face through cobwebs of hanging cable.
"It will cost you $20,000 cash and take at week at most," Selvaggio said. I still couldn't see him. "Lucky that Monica bitch got tired of you, or it might have cost more and taken longer."
I could see an image of me on the flat screen behind a bunch of program windows. One had a Linux command prompt. My image shifted, but a dirty finger pressed Esc on a keyboard, and the image shifted back to me. A glint of reflected light revealed a dark shape in the corner.
"What do I get for the 20K?" I asked, trying to see in the murk.
A red spot appeared and glowed brighter. It was a cigarette. The guy was wearing a large headset over the top half of his face. I couldn't make him out in the gloom, and I had to try hard not to watch my reactions in the screen.
"Your bad news gets erased from the search engines. All pages with unpleasant references to you and your alleged activities are erased. Monica's personal pages get trashed and her password scrambled. Anyone who linked to any of her pages gets the same treatment."
"What if the nets heal?" I had heard this theory that broken links eventually heal.
"Forget it. A broken link is a broken link. It can't heal unless the data is reposted."
"But what if she pulls this crap again?"
"That's up to you. Don't mess with her and she has no reason to continue with this. Don't screw with her and she'll forget you. Don't think about her and she'll go away. It's all up to you. Don't give her a reason to scratch the itch. Let it heal by itself."
"But she's a vindictive bitch."
"And you are an asshole. You will have to change your behavior or keep me on retainer."
There was a glow as Selvaggio sucked on his cigarette. The image on the flat screen altered to a dirty hand setting the cigarette into a filthy ashtray next to the keyboard. The screen zoomed in as the hand moved to the mouse. The magnified head of an orange cat blocked the view at that point. A paw tentatively touched the end of the cigarette and it fell out of the ashtray. The screen abruptly shifted back to my face as the cat hissed. Selvaggio tossed it to the floor.
"Speaking of which, how will you be paying? Cash money I hope. That was what your agent agreed to."
I opened my hand and showed him my public key, tattooed in red script.
"I see it. There will be a surcharge of 10%. I have to hide the transaction and it costs a little. I did say cash."
"Cash?" I said. "I never deal in cash. It's too much trouble. What would you do with it, anyway?"
"I would put it under my pillow and sleep well." There was a rustling and I could see the man getting up. He was large and very overweight. He danced through the piles of obsolete debris without touching any of it. "Here's an anonymous link that you can use to contact me by voice." He flashed a tinyurl, and my pod recorded it.
"It's a deal then," he said and stuck out his hand. It was covered with small crawling things in pixel primary colors. They looked like small spider mites in magenta, cyan, yellow and black - IP sprites, small programs that could be programmed to deflect pings and other intrusive access. I could almost feel the bugs crawling up my arm as we made virtual contact.
"Well begun is half the job done," he said.
I tried to brush a bug off my arm.
"You like my little cellular automata?" Selvaggio asked. "They're my own special recipe: very smart, very cool."
He laughed, the cat hissed, and the room went black.
I was back in my office and the familiar Freedom Tree logo flashed as my pod booted. My glasses cleared to a pale blue, revealing the room. I took the pod out from my pocket. The LEDs were flashing in spasmodic codes. A long list of error messages in yellow courier font scrolled across the glasses. The data flow paused and then the room booted again. The dirty curtains disappeared. The brick wall outside my window folded into a more appealing view of the harbor. The room virtualized, and I was back in my usual place.
Selvaggio had crashed my link. It was something you weren't supposed to be able to do. Maybe the IP sprites had followed the datagram back to my pod, or maybe he had ways of sniffing his way back to my office. It had to have been those damn cellular automata.
In the corner of my vision I saw a small magenta dot. It might have been a pixel sprite, but it disappeared when I tried to focus on it.
A ringtone clashed with a message gnome as they started at nearly the same time. It sounded like Fur Elise blown by a hippie harmonica player.
"What?" I asked, answering the incoming call while I read the popup. My account had just paid $22,000 to an offshore betting site. That was quick.
"You're back. Good," Mackey Dooley said. He looked cheerful. "How did it go?"
"22k is what it cost me. I just got paypaled on it."
"Cheap at half the price."
"Yeah, so you say."
"I thought you'd have been able to handle this stuff on your own. I was surprised that you asked me to find a hired gun."
"Hey, this guy was your idea."
"Then why did I wind up doing all the legwork?" Mackey asked.
"I wanted an extra layer of protection. I have to have plausible deniability." Mackey had made the contact and my persona had gone through a dozen anonymous routers. And yet Selvaggio had managed to burn my link and crash my pod. I thought I saw a cyan dot swimming at the edge of my vision.
"It's too easy," Mackey said. "If he can repair your rep that easy and that cheap, everyone would be doing it."
"He's got my 22K as of two minutes ago. I'll give him a day or two and see what happens."
Mackey hung up.
The next day I googled my name along with a few key phrases. There were no hits. Just one day ago the nets were full of the most terrible lies, and now there was nothing. I tried the bitch's home page and it was gone. Her email was even gone from my address book. She wasn't listed at any of the big directories. She wasn't in any of the reverse listings, and her address would not map at any of the GPS sites.
This guy Selvaggio was good. She was unlisted. It took less than 24 hours to kill off her completely.
But, of course, she still breathed.
A week later, the bitch, my former wife, Monica Weinstein nee Yeager stood at my doorstep. She was a wreck. I tried not to smile.
"You did this," she said.
She didn't seem angry, just tired. If she had shown more signs of suffering, I would have been happier. Her hair was dirty, and she looked like she had slept in the park, but for all that she only seemed tired.
"Monica, darling. I would never do anything to harm you."
"May I use your bathroom?" she asked, but I held firmly on the door and did not let her in.
"After the terrible things you said and did, I don't see how I could let you in."
"Pervert," she said. "I did nothing more than tell the truth."
"You were my wife, my better half. You are supposed to stand by your man."
"My man is a criminal and a pervert and a disgusting..." She sputtered and could not finish.
"They were lies and yet people believed them," I said calmly. "I have tastes and I have preferences. Perhaps they are little out of the ordinary. Some might call them strange. Perhaps they are not in the mainstream, but they are hardly perversions. I am not that much different than the average man who hides his secret thoughts. I just have the money and the means to act on my secret thoughts. You were indiscrete and you caused me pain and now you want to use my bathroom?"
"I need a shower. I'm locked out of my apartment." Damn, that Selvaggio was good. "My credit cards don't work. I have no cash. All I want is a shower and then I'll be gone."
"Afraid not, darling."
I can't repeat what she said next, but you can imagine. I still feel good at the memory of her venting her spleen. I felt then, for the first time, that I had gotten some of my own back. I felt that she was hurting almost as much as she had hurt me.
As she walked down the hall, she turned and said, "You can't erase what's up here." She pointed to her darling little head. "You can erase me from the nets, creep, but you can't erase what I saw and what I know. You will always be a pervert and a monster to me. As long as I live, you will have to live a lie that everyone knows. Everyone I meet will know your story. Everyone I talk to will remember you. People on the street will stop as you pass by and point at you and call you a pervert because they'll know the truth."
She was gone before I could think of what to say.
There was a small article on Craigslist the next day. I received 50 calls before coffee from the vilest sort of people. A service request to the site killed the posting by noon, but I had to take my phones off the hook and filter email with a certain unpleasant phrase.
Similar things happened that afternoon. I began to receive anonymous email, some warning me about hell, and some asking some deeply personal questions. When I went out to dinner, the doorman refused to make eye contact.
"Selvaggio. This is Weinstein," I said.
"I told you to leave her alone. 120K this time." His video was off. It sounded like he was talking through an ancient black AT&T telephone handset.
"I want her dead for good, dead for real."
"I don't do reality. 120k to fix her latest antics. I can promise to keep you squeaky clean for a week, but unless you modify your behavior towards her and convince her to keep quiet, I can't guarantee that she won't go commando on you again."
I cut the connection after expressing myself in language that I seldom use. I opened up a meta search page. Unfortunately, there seemed to be precious few links for reputation repair.
I called again, but before I could speak the idiot said, "250K for the fix."
"I need to fix this permanently."
"That would be up to you. You have to change who you are and you have to change how she sees you. Since I don't see that happening..."
"I need the data fix, but I need to see her alone in the real world."
"I don't do..."
"Yeah, I know you don't do reality. All I need is a minute and an alibi."
There was quiet on the line for a moment.
"Ten million in my account, and I can get you both in a room," he said. "You can talk to her. Convince her to lay off. You never call me again."
Ten million was almost exactly the amount that I had in legitimate banks. I had twice that in hidden reserves, but it would be hard to get quickly. Selvaggio must have known. Well, you get what you pay for.
"Sounds like a plan," I said.
I went out that night. I needed some relief. My contacts hooked me up with a particular flavor, a particular texture. I won't go into it, but it cost me plenty. I didn't mind. I would be spending much more in a few hours, and a fellow needs some sweet release from time to time.
When I got back to my place, the door wouldn't unlock. I found a token in my pocket and made a call from the corner data kiosk. My data glasses were full of Selvaggio's buglets.
"Mackey," I said. "The bitch has me by the short hairs. I'm locked out of my house."
"I guess she figures it's good for the gander. Wait where you are. I've had a message from Selvaggio to pick you up."
"What is that bastard's game?" I muttered.
It took Mackey over an hour to find me. I didn't have cash for cigarettes, and he doesn't smoke.
"Oh no," he said when I asked him to buy me a pack. "I don't want any tobacco in this car."
I called him a few names, but it wasn't very satisfying. I had to hold back, in case he refused to take me. It wasn't long before we got to 17B, but this time it was for real, not virtual. This time I could feel the warmth radiating from the array of disk drives, and this time I could smell the mildew.
I pushed open the door. Mackey made an after-you gesture, so I went in and he followed. The walls were crawling with bugs in deep saturated colors. They did not go away when I took off the data glasses.
"Where the hell are you?" I yelled.
"I'm in here, darling," Monica the Bitch called from another room. I could see light coming from the crack under a door.
Selvaggio had left a pistol on the table, and I picked it up.
"Your hacker said you wanted to talk," she said.
As I walked towards the door a message gnome popped up. I opened it with a gesture. My account had been debited $11 million dollars. I shrugged it off. I would deal with Selvaggio another time. He couldn't hide the money, and there were ways to get it back. Yeah, Selvaggio was probably making a vid of this, but there were still ways to get to him.
I pushed the door open.
Monica stood in the middle of the room. Multi-color bugs crawled all over the walls and floors and the covered her completely up to her knees.
Mackey went over to her and kissed her hard on the lips. He turned to me and put his arm around her. They smiled sweetly.
"Just so you know," he said. "This is entirely your own fault. You pushed us into this."
She didn't even look at me. She just smiled up at Mackey. The yellow cat walked into the room from behind me. It rubbed against my leg, making me jump. It was so covered with the colored bugs that you could hardly tell it was the same cat.
I wiped a bug off of my face and saw my hand was covered with them. It was the hand that held the gun. I remembered why I was there and started shooting.
As soon as I pulled the trigger the lights went out. I kept pulling the trigger and I could see them at every flash, like an old movie. Bang, she was holding him tight. Bang, he turned to face me, pushing the bitch behind him. Bang, he was walking towards me. Bang, he was too close to miss. Bang, he was raising his hand, clutching something dark.
I woke up downtown with no shoes and a bottle in my hand. My head hurt.
My pod and my glasses are gone, but the bugs follow me everywhere. None of my passwords work in the data kiosks. I am told my soshsec is not on file. Goddamn bugs are everywhere. They run all over me and won't let me sleep. I can't find Mackey and I can't find Selvaggio. 17B doesn't even exist. I don't know how they did it, but they scammed me and skipped town.
So, please, can you spare a token? Can you give me a fiver until the soup kitchen opens? Hey, don't walk away from me. I'm talking to you. Can you spare me butt? I haven't had a smoke in three days. Hey you. Hey!
Bastard. Somebody's got to have a cigarette. Goddamn bugs.
Hey, you. Look, mister. Hey, just a minute. Listen to what I've got to say. This is how it started. Mackey Dooley sent me to this web page...