Going to California

Life by the Valley — 9.2

“Welcome back,” I said to Tom. He’d been out at our Hong Kong office with a bunch of Brits and other ex-pat security consultants. “How was it?”

“Quite nice,” he said with gravelly sincerity. “Big work for big customers, drinking most every evening then back on the case by morning. Man, the Kroll people out there really can put it away — all night and three times a day as well. Not sure how they stay alive, eating so little.”

“You feeling okay?”

“Bit of the old jet lag, but actually, if you must know I’m slightly pissed off. My bloody boss backed away from his promise to let me buy a right fancy spectrometer. Before I left, not two weeks back, he said I could get one, now he won’t even bloody talk about it. Not like we don’t have money coming in — I helped see to that in Hong Kong.” He shot a coy glance. “Know what you can do with a proper spectrometer?”

“No, what?”

“If you spend about ten grand and know how to use it, you can sweep for bugs.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Evidently it’s huge here in Silicon Valley,” Tom said. “Taher once told me that while he was at Netscape, they used to sweep for bugs once a month and they’d regularly find at least one — from Microsoft, they presumed, though sometimes there’d be several different makes, from different sources. They’d pull them out once a month, usually from the boardroom, right before a board meeting, only to find more next month.”

“Jeez,” I said. “I wonder if the spies showing up to collect the tapes ever bumped into each other.”

“That’s not how it’s done, mate. The recorders are somewhere else, the bugs just radio off to some other location. That’s how you can spot them with a radio spectrometer. Heavy, unexpected source of radio waves in a lamp, or an electrical socket? It’s probably a little packet of evil kit.”

“That’s messed up.”

“That’s business. Anyway, it seemed like a decent service to be able to offer. Maybe even try it out here in the office.”

I blanched.

“What?” he asked. Then he laughed. “Oh, you are a right paranoid bastard.”

“It makes sense,” I said.

“Not everything that makes sense is real, mate. The JFK assassination nuts —”

“Do not get me started about the JFK assassination.”

“Okay, the moon landing nutters — please tell me you believe in the moon landing.”

“I want to believe.”

“Those people have some bent logic on their side, but they’re sure it makes sense.”

He looked at me for a moment. “Anything happen while I was out?”

“Nothing. Nothing at all.”

“That’s a little strange, but only a little. He smiled, shaking his head slowly. Now you’ve got me going.”

“Sorry, man.”

He shrugged. “Well, I’ll leave you to your psychosis. I have a secure server to build for a client.”

Later that day, I caught Phil.

“What’s going on?” I asked.

He turned away from his laptop and faced me straight on, palms flat on his desktop. “Had a buddy in town. Old SAS mate. He got drunk, completely smashed, and tore off away from us, me and these two girls, and we were like, ‘Wait!’ Because he only just landed, he didn’t know his way around. I got to some Palo Alto cops and I told them the story, who he was and who I was and how to bring him home when they found him, and they did, they found him not forty-five minutes later, hiding behind a redwood tree over by Stanford. They shined a light over at him and said, ‘Sir, please step away out from behind the tree.’ And he said, ‘Okay, okay officer.’ And they said, ‘Do you know where you are?’ And he said, ‘No, you got me, I don’t,’ and they said, ‘Is your name,’ and then they said his name, and he said, ‘Yeah!’ And they said, ‘Did you just arrive here in the States a few hours ago?’ And his eyes got huge and he said, ‘Yeah!’ And they said, ‘Are you staying with a man named Phil, at,’ and then they said my address, and he stumbled toward them near tears and said, ‘You American cops are top notch! You know everything!’ So they took him home and that was that, all sorted.”

“That is crazy,” I said.

“It is. He had no idea how they knew all that shit.”

“Talked to Tom.”

“Tom’s back? Oh, of course he is.”

“His boss won’t let him buy a radio spectrometer. First he would, now he wouldn’t.”

Phil nodded. “The whole place is bugged now,” he said.

“This place.”

“Here. Some of it. Not right here, probably. Doesn’t matter, though — they can’t afford the staff to check anything the bugs might be picking up in any case.”

“Who?” I asked

“Kroll,” he said. “The main office, the detectives.”

“Why?”

And he told me. It all made sense, in a terrible sort of way. If it hadn’t, I’m not sure what I would have done.

That night, I saw Jim, and I told him.

“It’s all come down to the trouble with Elves and Dwarves,” I said.

“What?”

I took a deep breath, and I explained what I knew.

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Going to California

Life by the Valley — 9.1

During one of Jim’s short stays back in California between extended trips away — he wanted to use all his vacation time before leaving Yahoo to work full-time on his startup, Mojo Nation — there was time to get back to our preferred rib place, only to be confronted with a terrible reality. They were closing.

“They raise my rent,” said the restaurant’s proprietor, a massive, middle-aged Caribbean man. He was maybe a head taller and more than twice as wide as I was from any angle. We’d become “hey”-level friends after Jim and I had eaten enough ribs there that we didn’t strictly speaking need to order after sitting down — and it wasn’t because we stood out as the only two gringo dudes in the place, but because we were some of the only-ever dudes in the place. Once, I saw diners at as many as four other tables while we were there. Usually, the place was empty, or nearly so. This in itself should’ve been strange, just blocks from Stanford University and high-class downtown Palo Alto. Why was there never anyone else there? Never mind: we’ll have the ribs again, please.

“That sucks,” Jim said.

The big man gripped his heart and lowered his head, grimacing as if speared. “Closing party, end of the month,” he said. “Fifty dollars gets you in that night, and anything, everything. All the drink —” He waved his hand over the bar, and it was finely stocked. “—whatever you want.”

Jim knew what he wanted. “Aw, I can’t make it,” he said. “I’ll be out of town.” Africa, I think it was, actually, on safari with his father. “Can I get some of those ribs?”

The guy paused for a moment. “It will be a buffet, for all the food we have left. Will be much, but no ribs.”

Jim pulled out his wallet. “What if I paid you now for two orders of ribs? Could you wrap them up for me that night?” He pointed at me. “He can pick it up.”

The guy was a big man, like I said, but not so big as to avoid taking Jim’s money. I had enough love for the place that sure, I’d be there for its final night.

There’d been a lot of sketchy people working there, a revolving door of folk who didn’t seem interested in eye contact and who I may have never seen again, but there had been this one waiter who’d seemed like a decent guy, the kind of person who looked back at you honestly when you looked at him. I thought of him as the cool dude.

As I walked in the door that early Saturday evening for the rib-joint’s final party, with a friend who’d probably prefer to remain nameless, I immediately took it as a bad sign when the cool dude held the door open for me but wouldn’t look at me. Okay, I thought, maybe he’s preoccupied. He’s basically losing his job with no notice. It’s his last day of work, and it’s a party where everyone’s paid $50 a head to consume as much of what remains of the place before the doors close forever. He might not expect to rake in the tips. So I figured maybe that would explain it.

There were a surprisingly large number of people there. About two-thirds were white couples in their 60s, oddly, with a couple of black guys flanked by outrageously over-proportioned blondes and a small crowd of somber, younger Hispanic guys, with the occasional young woman darting in and around between them.

Huh, I thought. My friend had never been there before, so he didn’t sense anything out of sorts. Then one of the older guys approached our table, gripping a larger, old-style camera with a massive flash mounted on top.

“Do you mind,” he asked us, “if you, ah, end up showing up in the background of some of the pictures from tonight?”

My friend and I looked at each other.

“No,” we said. He smiled, mopping his brow, breathing more quickly, and walked off. An older woman at the table to which he retreated saluted us with a shaky thumbs-up.

“You have to admit that was weird,” I said.

“I’ll gladly admit it. When is the food coming out?”

“In just a bit, I’d guess. The kitchen looks busy as hell.”

“Will someone come by to take our drink order or what?”

I looked around. Cool dude was working the bar.

“I’ll be right back,” I said, and moseyed on over.

He smiled thinly as I approached.
“What are you having?” he asked, lips pursed.

“I don’t know. What do you recommend?”

“I make something,” he said, turning away, rustling through a three-deep shelf of half-empty bottles. Over his shoulder, without looking at me, he asked, “Are you planning on staying…for the whole night?”

“Sure,” I said, and it echoed in my head like the voice of the naive farm boy in the horror movie who doesn’t know what he’s getting into. “And you?” I asked, trying to shake the feeling.

He shook his head, cheeks creasing with a forced smile. “Oh, no, no, no,” he said. “I’m here for an hour, then that’s all.” He held up the drink he’d poured into a plastic, 64-ounce cup. “I’m gone.”

I stared at the drink. “Would you mind making another one? For my friend?”

He nodded, and much more quickly poured equal amounts of Coke and rum together into another equally large cup.

“Good luck,” he said, and turned to the next person approaching the bar. I left him a giant tip, and time seemed to slow as I walked back to the table. I rewound the conversation in my head as I walked.

I played back what I’d heard again for my friend.

“What?” he said. “Come on. You’re fine, dude. You’re making a big deal about nothing.”

“I don’t know, man. What about that camera guy? Wasn’t that a little strange?”

“He’s an old dude, dude. They act weird.”

Some food came out. They gave us little paper plates just big enough to fit in our palms, which we greedily piled with shredded chicken and fried plantains and grilled carrots. The lights dimmed. The Caribbean music grew louder. A lot more people must have shown up when I wasn’t looking.

Then another guy from the same table as camera guy came over to us.

“I haven’t seen you boys around here before,” he said, raising his voice over the music.

“It’s my first time,” my friend half-shouted. The guy’s eyes grew wide.

“I’ve been here a bunch,” I said quickly. “Made a few friends.” I waved at the massive proprietor, who’d taken up a position near the front door to welcome new arrivals. He wasn’t receiving anyone at the moment, so he waved back, a smile nearly as wide as my actual head.

“Oh!” the man said, shoulders relaxing visibly. “Oh. Well that’s fine, then.” He laughed. “How silly,” he said.

We smiled, nodding.

“So, are you boys staying…for the whole night?”

I avoided looking at my friend directly, but all the energy seemed to go out of his posture.

“Sure!” I said. “Sure, why not?”

The old guy laughed. “Why not?” he repeated back to me, striking a dance pose before shuffling off across the room. Three people back at his table waved at us, thumbs up.

“Okay,” my friend said, face down low against the table. “I did not like that.”

“There’s something going on here.”

“Oh, you think? You think? What the fuck, man?” He picked at a plantain. “They haven’t even brought out the good stuff, yet.” He took a sip of his drink and nearly spat it out. “What is this?”

“I think it’s all the rum they can’t sell after tonight.”

“Jesus Christ! Someone actually made this drink for you?” He leaned over to peer into my cup. “Did you really already drink half of that shit? Who made that?”

“The guy who also asked if were were staying for the whole night. Besides, my drink didn’t have nearly as much booze as yours.”

“Really?” he asked.

I glanced around. It had gotten dark in there while we were talking. A crushing paranoia descended upon me which in retrospect I’ll call the distant scream of good sense.

“Let’s get out of here,” I said.

My friend stood. “I gotta go to the bathroom,” he said.

“Cool.” I slapped my forehead. “Shit! Shit. Jim’s ribs.”

“What?”

“Nothing. Bathroom’s that way. I’ll see you over there.”

We split up. Walking over to the kitchen was like swimming through syrup. This was not the effect of alcohol. What the hell?

The guys in the kitchen did not speak English. I got it into my head that I could speak Spanish, and they didn’t understand that, either. I’d have to appeal to higher powers.

Massive man was still standing by the front door, though now he seemed to be greeting people who were leaving, not arriving. I was confused. He had his back to me, so I moved to tap him on his fat shoulder when suddenly a young, dark-haired woman, her face the portrait of fear, leapt in my way to wave me off. Then she stuck a smile to her face and spun around, facing the increasingly long line of dudes who were exit-greeting massive man. She discretely waved me over to one side, holding up a finger in the universal symbol of “please hang on” while helping attend the dudes. One by one they stepped forward to greet massive man, strongly shaking his massive hand. From my vantage point, I could see the swollen rolls of twenties and hundreds that each young Hispanic guy in turn pressing into his palm with each handshake, quickly passed off to the young lady, which she in turn was stuffing in a paper bag just as smoothly as she could.

Once the ritual line emptied out, she went up on her tip-toes and tapped him on the shoulder, pointing him over at me. For a moment, a frightened look passed across his face.

“My friend had paid for some ribs,” I said, pointing at the kitchen, “but the guys back there—“

He swept in, gripping me in a fierce hug. “You like-a my ribs!” he shouted, clapping me repeatedly on the back, pointing over to the kitchen and yelling something that was not exactly Spanish but which threw the cooks into a commotion. He slapped me once more on the back and like a partially tranquilized elephant turned away, lumbering back into the restaurant. I never saw him again.

The cooks passed over a pair of to-go containers, nodding fearfully, smiling hesitantly.

“Dude,” said my friend, returning from the bathroom. “I was wondering if maybe we should give it another—“

“Drug front,” I muttered, like a cough. “We’re gone.”

“What?!” he said, following me out the back door of the place. It was dark out, with rain coming down surprisingly hard. We bolted toward my car; I tossed him the keys — “You drive!” — and in minutes we were back at my apartment wondering what the hell had happened.

I don’t remember what time it was when it occurred to me that I should do something with the two boxes of ribs. My friend had only stayed for a little while before heading home — I think he only partly believed what I’d said I witnessed while he was in the bathroom — and the same album was playing that I’d put on when we’d come in. To be fair, though, it was the same music I’d been playing when we’d left originally, so it could just as easily have been on repeat.

Ah, crap: and, of course, there were the cats. Jim had been gone two days already, and I hadn’t stopped by to check on his cats. For whatever reason, it felt important to do it right then, slipping the ribs into Jim’s freezer at the same time. I still had no idea what had been in that drink — I wasn’t much of a drinker, but it didn’t feel much like the effects of alcohol — but I felt fine to drive. I probably wasn’t. I was probably doing something stupid. Jim didn’t live more than a quarter mile away, accessible through small suburban roads, so it felt low risk if my perception of my driving skill turned out to be skewed.

Jim lived on Rich Street, humorously enough. For a Silicon Valley multi-millionaire, he’d kept his humble digs: a one-bedroom rental in a two-story complex that probably hadn’t seen much maintenance since the late 1980s. That was the weird thing about Silicon Valley at the turn of the Twenty-First Century. The fastest computers in the world? Check. The greatest storage density available to mankind? Check. Buildings less than ten years old? Hardly anywhere. The whole place seemed build in the mid-80s and left to fend for itself against an annual brushing of light rain. I reckoned it was smart because it probably made him less of a target, in any case.

I got there just fine, walking up to the back door through his apartment’s rear parking space. Unlocking and swinging the door open, though, my paranoia flared up again, like a black bird on my shoulder, cawing madly.

That’s when I realized I was looking into Jim’s small apartment, but I was also looking out at the night sky beyond. Across the living room from the back door, the front door was half open.

A backed out, closing the rear entry in front of me. Again, suffocating in what I thought at the time was my own paranoia but which now sounds a lot more like good common sense, my flight instinct was strong.

Naturally, I walked around to the front of the apartment to the open door. After all, I’d signed up to watch Jim’s apartment. This was my responsibility.

I pulled out my cell phone. “Yeah,” I said to no one. “Hello? Hey. Yeah. Me? Nothing. Stupid evening. Feeding your cats now.” With a soft toe press, I swung the door fully open before stepping inside.

“Uh, huh,” I said, scanning the apartment. It didn’t look like it had been ransacked though, meaning no disrespect to Jim, it could be hard to tell. When you’re the guy who picks up all the toys, it can be a hassle figuring out where to pile it all neatly. But I easily counted six things that I’d have taken if I were robbing the place. Maybe Jim had been in one of his usual hurries to the airport and didn’t swing the door fully shut? When did he use the front door, anyway?

I walked slowly toward the bedroom. My jaw began to jitter, teeth chattering.

“There’s this guy named Doug,” I said. “Oh, you know him. Yeah, well, he’s got a new girlfriend. Official photographer of some Indian cult guru. No, come on, I’m not kidding.” There was no one in his bedroom. The closets were closed. I wasn’t going to open them. If someone walked in on you robbing a place, and your first reaction was not to run out one of the two available exits when you had a chance but instead tucked yourself away in a closet packed tightly with startup t-shirts and tech toys, then you’re dedicated enough to get away with it.

I fed the cats. “Sure,” I said, “he seems happy. Of course that’s all that’s important. I agree, he certainly deserves to be happy after all the crap he’s been through.” I tucked the ribs in the freezer. “Oh, what’s that? You’re coming back tomorrow morning early? Ah, cool. So I’ll just lock up then.”

I drove back to my place, still holding the phone to my head.

“No, I can’t explain what happened at the rib joint. But I think we were the only people going there for the ribs. No wonder he loved having us. Cocaine, I’ll guess. And there had to be some sex angle. No, I’m not driving back over there.” I walked into my place, checking the clock. “I know it’s not even eleven. Sure, they’re probably still going at it. Yes, I know I’m just sitting here talking on the phone.” I pulled the phone away from my head. “And there’s not actually anyone on the phone, so I’m not sure who I’m arguing with. Yes, I know I sound like a paranoid delusional. You say that like it’s a new thing.”

I set the phone down on my dining room table and made sure the window blinds were shut tight. “Yes,” I said, “I know I’m still talking to the air. It’s because for weeks now, I haven’t been able to shake the feeling that someone’s watching me, somewhere. And days like this do not help me, not at all.”

Wherever Jim was, he probably wasn’t paying attention to Yahoo’s stock price. For five days at the end of March, it had reached and then slightly exceeded it’s value at the time of early February’s denial of service attacks. It would never be that high ever again. After cresting 100, in three weeks it dropped to 57.

Still, that was the least frightening thing I heard all month. Only a few days later, I found out who was spying on me — on all of us — and why.

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Going to California

Life by the Valley — 9

While the Packet Storm crew was wondering how to get one of their fathers out of jail without rolling over for the FBI, I was under a different kind of pressure.

It was raining — it had been raining for a while. They called it the rainy season, and I’d never lived through something like that before. In Texas, it rained for at most a couple of hours, then it stopped. Maybe it was enough rain to wash away cattle, but it was always enough to know you’d been rained on. Maybe it’d rain again tomorrow, maybe in a couple of days or weeks, but that was about all you could say in terms of predicting the weather outside of hot or cold. In the Bay Area, I’d been told, we’d get three or four or sometimes five months of light to moderate pitter-pattering, and things would always be wet and it’d always be gray outside until springtime and its wave of warmth with hardly a cloud in the sky for seven or eight or nine months.

But the gray and the damp and the indeterminate constant drizzle — while Jim’s many multi-week trips and Doug’s relative social distance left me without close friends — all started getting to me.

It was fear, mostly. I was afraid that after finally making it to Silicon Valley, I no longer had what it took to make computers sing. It actually made me laugh, I could hardly imagine a greater tragedy. I’d lost touch with my technical roots. I’d become afraid of the details, which is the one thing you absolutely cannot do as a technically minded person. I still had my curiosity, but the fear was stronger than any love I still had for the details.

It simply seemed as though no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t make anything work. More to the point, I couldn’t seem to do any work. Harry, the Englishman we’d been courting for a job since September, had finally come to an agreement with Phil and would be moving out with his girlfriend by early summer. He was working on contract in the meantime, and unfortunately I was the thing standing between him and the work he needed to do. Lineman had helped me scope down my research efforts to the most meaningful set of network attacks, but beyond assembling a list of them I simply couldn’t find it within myself to do the analysis and the writing that I needed to do for each vulnerability. And even once I had the content for our security findings, I still had no idea how to tie them together into a meaningful report. Harry was meant to hammer out the report generation engine. He was waiting on me for the report specs. He’d been asking for them every day for two weeks.

“Just show the findings,” Phil told me.

“It’s not that simple,” I said. “We can’t just give people a blast of raw data and expect they can use it to secure their network.”

“So make it pretty. That’s what you do.”

But the report generator had to run on a server somewhere, which meant it couldn’t simply be made beautiful and emailed off to our customers. We needed a report template that could be opened and read and managed under the Linux operating system — which, even more so at the time, offered serious limitations when it came to attractive and flexible graphic design. This was a terrific impediment to making something attractive. It was even worse for me in terms of devising something useful.

More and more often, for seemingly no reason, my heart would race. I wasn’t doing anything, and it was panic-making. “I can’t even get a network interface up on my Linux box,” I told Phil. “It’s been a week.” It had actually been, like I just said, two.

Phil looked at me coolly. “Get Tom to help,” he said. “You know our Tom, yeah?”

I’d met him, yet another Englishman but this one cut from a decidedly different cloth, wild-haired and wide-eyed, smiling a lot but walking through the halls like he was definitely not fooling around.

“I’ll get Tom to come by,” Phil said. “He’ll sort you out.”

And early that afternoon, he did.

Tom was one of the security consultants, and therefore automatically one of the cool kids. Like most of us, he didn’t have a traditional story for how he got there. He’d started out getting trained up to do welding and jobs like that, at least that was the he’d had set for himself by the testing of the English school system. But a friend who knew he was very good with cars had shown him one day how computers were just really big cars with engines just ripe for the tinkering.

“It’s just a matter of knowing what the parts are,” he said, “and where they are. How to tighten down the bolts as you’re stepping away from it so it doesn’t explode all over you when you start it back up.”

He showed me where the source code for my operating system’s kernel was stored, how to load a new kernel module — like support for the network interface I couldn’t get to work — and how to recompile the changed kernel before restarting.

I had a hard time believing how simple it was. “You can change the system while it’s running? From inside the system?” Do that on a Mac, at the time, and it might have crashed and never come back up.

Tom typed the command to restart. “Piece of piss,” he said.

But getting past one hurtle did nothing for my problem. The worst part was knowing it. I knew full well what my problem was: I was being emotional. In the past, when computer things didn’t work, I’d lean into the problem, ask myself, “I wonder why?” Then I’d begin trying things. But by that point, instead of leaning in I was leaning back, crossing my arms and saying, “Why does this goddamn thing not work?” And the emotion I was feeling robbed me of the cognition I needed to solve the problem. It was super clear what was happening, I simply couldn’t control it.

Maybe it was the long, punishing rainy season, maybe it was the lack of close friends around, maybe it was my overall beaten-down state, but it was fertile ground for the return of my depression, out from which grew my old paranoia — not, it would soon turn out, without very good reason.

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Going to California

Life by the Valley — 8.8

We hadn’t walked far before Shawn began to talk.

“They ended up getting a kid in Canada — calls himself Mafiaboy, ’cause he overheard his dad talking on the phone like he’s some kinda wiseguy or something, at least that’s what he said — who learned what he knew from a guy we know back in Chicago.” He coughed. “Not a friend. He learned a lot of what he knows from Lineman, that guy did.”

“He’s a script kiddie,” Lineman said. This was pretty much the most dismissive thing you could say about someone — that they didn’t understand how the tools worked, that all they could do was run the scripts they’d downloaded. Good hackers sometimes even put errors in their code on purpose, to make it more likely that only people who know what they were doing would be able to use the tools.

“Dude told the Feds we were the ones who did it — all the attacks, except a couple they already pinned on Mafiaboy.” He’d made the mistake of bragging on a chat channel that he’d taken down dell.com when it hadn’t been publicized as one of the sites that had been hit.

“We didn’t,” Shawn continued. Maybe it had been the look on my face. “Nothing to do with it. But he told them all the domains we own, everything we run, everything we’re up to.”

“That he knows about,” Lineman added. “Which is nothing.”

Shawn sighed. We’d arrived at the 7-11. Lineman busted out a roll of quarters and they called home.

“It’s not good to use phones,” said Lineman, holding up his brick of a mobile. “They’re probably compromised.”

“Pay phones only,” Shawn said while the line rang. “Hey. Yeah. Uh huh.” He turned away just as I decided I didn’t need to eavesdrop.

“Red Bull?” I asked.

Shawn pointed at me, meaning yes.

“Is Johnny okay?” I asked Lineman while getting rung up inside the store.

“Not really,” he said.

“So what happened?”

He laughed. We walked out as Shawn was hanging up.

“Any news?” asked Lineman.

“Nothing,” said Shawn. We started waking back, and he explained.

“So we run a domain — it’s hosted off a computer of Johnny’s. He worked at an ISP, which was where the domain was registered. The FBI raided it this morning.”

I said, “What?!”

“Yep. Only, the computer they wanted wasn’t there. It was at Johnny’s house — his dad’s house, really, you know.”

“That’s how his dad got arrested.”

“Basically,” he said, but there was more, of course.

Johnny’s old boss at the ISP wasn’t particularly thrilled about the FBI raid on his business. He knew the machine they were looking for, and he had to tell them where it was really located, but it would be a few hours before they could get a new warrant to raid Johnny’s dad’s house. So he called Johnny up and let him know that the Feds had been there, and what they’d been looking for.

I don’t know exactly what happened after that — I wasn’t there — but while the FBI was working to get a warrant to search Johnny’s dad’s place, a pizza delivery guy showed up, someone who happened to be a friend of the Packet Storm gang. If anyone had been watching the place, all they would have seen was a pizza guy walking up, maybe he had one of those big, padded delivery bags, and then he left. If a really observant person had seen him walk out, she might’ve wondered if what pizza dude was carrying weighed more than what he’d shown up with.

The Feds raided the place later, and there was no computer there. It would end up at the bottom of river.

“That machine had nothing to do with the attacks,” Shawn stressed. “It was all about personal security.”

The Feds were unhappy. Johnny’s dad, unfortunately, had several unregistered rifles — won in government-sponsored sharpshooting competitions, ironically enough. He also had a few rounds of armor-piercing bullets, so they labeled him a nut job and a potential cop-killed and arrested him. That’s when Johnny got the call.

“Are you ready to come clean?” the FBI agent reportedly said. “Otherwise your father stays in jail.”

Lineman laughed. “There’s nothing to come clean about,” he said.

“About the DDoS attacks,” Shawn added.

“This sounds a lot like the Hacker Crackdown,” I said.

“I think I heard of that,” Lineman said.

And I tried to tell them, as we got back to my apartment, but halfway through I realized how they were looking at me: like I was the older guy, telling stories about the old day which had only distant relevance to what was happening today. Shawn was wincing, glancing at the door, likely thinking of a cigarette. Lineman was nodding. “That’s a cool story,” he said. But it didn’t help them any.

Somehow, along the way, I’d become the old guy, and here were the new kids, writing their own rules and inventing their own trouble. What had happened? When was I supposed to have grown up? Along the way?

They left without getting any answers from me, left me wondering when I’d stopped being one of the cool kids.

It never got any worse for the Packet Storm crew, outside of how it got worse for all of us. They trundled along, worried about the hammer that could have dropped at any time.

Me, I had my own problems.

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Going to California

Life by the Valley — 8.7

While I didn’t see whoever came by our office from the FBI, it didn’t sound like they were in a playful mood. That afternoon, I caught up with the Packet Storm guys in their natural habitat: in a dark lab, disco ball spinning.

“How’d it go?” I asked. All four of them were there.

Shawn looked at Lineman. “They want Mixter,” said Lineman. “They think he did it.”

“Did he?”

“No way,” Shawn said. “But the Feds want his personal information. I mean, we sent him ten grand, so we know his real name, where he lives. Phil’s asked if they’ll be okay with him calling them instead, just to talk.

“And they wanted all our logs,” Lineman said. “We told them we don’t keep logs.”

“You don’t keep logs? All these attack-tool downloads, and you don’t—” I thought about it. They had been awfully busy that morning. “—keep anything?”

“Not anymore,” Johnny said. Shawn threw a pen at him.

Lineman turned back to his keyboard. “We showed them how we don’t log anything.” He threw a look at Johnny. “We make things available, but we don’t need to know who everybody is.”

“Huh,” I said. Everyone turned back to their keyboards.

“What about the German hacker guy, Mixter?” I asked.

Shawn swung back around. “I emailed him and he said he’d talk to them.”

“Huh,” I said.

A few days later, a U.S. Senator visited the office, under invitation by or with introduction through Kroll, our corporate masters. I forget which one. He specifically wanted to speak with the Packet Storm crew, who seemed at the same time flattered and terrified by the attention.

Mixter’s $10K DDoS papers were posted on Packet Storm not too long afterwards. You can read them here, and here. They basically say, “There’s pretty much nothing you can do, sorry,” albeit in an extremely well-informed way. I don’t think anyone was comforted.

When the FBI talked to Mixter, they claimed to have been convinced that he hadn’t done it. Which was good. But they still had to pin it on someone, and after some snooping it seemed they suddenly knew a lot more about the Packet Storm gang. Which was bad.

I got a late night knock at my door. It was Shawn and Lineman.

“Did you notice a sign out in front of my house that said, ‘Dead hacker storage’?” I said. “Cause it ain’t there.” This was a twist on a quote from Pulp Fiction, meant to be funny.

Shawn chuckled softly, then his face settled into a low sort of grimace. Lineman was unreadable.

“The FBI arrested Johnny’s father, back in Chicago,” Lineman said. “The ATF, actually.”

“What?”

“Said he was a domestic terrorist or a cop killer or something,” Shawn said. “Some other stuff. Totally bogus charges.”

We sat down. “How’d that happen?” I asked.

Lineman took a deep breath, then looked at Shawn  He glanced around my apartment and then in a low voice, he said, “Let’s go for a walk.” He pulled a baseball cap down tight, his eyes barely showing under the brim. “No reason.”

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Going to California

Life by the Valley — 8.6

The night after the big DDoS attacks began, the Packet Storm guys came by my place. By then there were three of them, not counting Lineman’s girlfriend. Packet Storm was definitely more than any one or two people could handle, so two more guys — Shawn and Johnny, friends of Lineman’s — drove out together from Chicago to take up some slack on the site. Johnny was a rail-thin dude with short dark hair and a slim baby face, while Todd was less tall, also with short dark hair bordering, and he’d probably have a baby face if he hadn’t been rocking a goatee. His eyes seemed the sharpest of the bunch somehow.

Jim wasn’t around at my place on that evening when they came by, though he’d already met the whole gang. He’d happened to have been in town on the day when the new guys were arriving, so I’d taken him around to meet everybody. Shawn and Johnny had already unloaded a good number of crates full of vinyl, so Jim and I watched as they moved smoothly between spinning disks through a beat-up old mixer and firing off commands to some process on a remote machine through an old green-screen terminal.

“Someone found us,” said Lineman, and Shawn turned the music down a notch, chuckling not at all quietly.

“Whatcha got?” Shawn asked, breaking open a new pack of cigarettes. They didn’t really drink or do drugs — they were only about twenty-one years old, all of them, but most of the group had lived fairly rough lives back in Chicago. They’d survived, of course, but they were mostly done with drugs and drinking. The bunch of them had just been giving jobs that paid what was at the time unreasonable sums of money, for doing nothing more than having people email them the latest hacker tools, vulnerabilities, and exploits, so that’s what they were all about.

Lineman was staring into a black-backed terminal, green winking cursor in the upper left. His fingers hovered half an inch over the keys.

“Hmm,” he said, as everybody crowded around. Then in a flurry, he hammered out a bunch of text that looked to me exactly like a login prompt. Something like:

CONNECTING…
adexa system 7.21
login:

“That’s just cruel,” Shawn muttered through an unlit cigarette, patting himself down for a lighter.

“What’s up?” I asked.

Lineman opened his mouth.

“It’s like netcat, but the other way around,” Johnny rushed in to say. “It’s a port listener. If someone tries connecting to you, it just accepts it, then anything you type gets echoed out across the wire.”

“That way,” Shawn added, pausing to exhale a gray cloud, “you can see how people might be trying to mess with you without having to expose a real service to them.” He shrugged. “It’s ghetto, but when you find a real person instead of a bot, it can be fun.”

Lineman’s girlfriend squealed. “He’s typing something!” she said.

“I see,” said Lineman.

The stranger typed

root

…then hit return. Lineman typed:

Password:

“Oh, this is gonna be beautiful,” Shawn said. “Look at him pause after the first two letters of his password showed up!”

“Why?” asked the girl.

“Because,” Lineman calmly said, “when you type your password for real, you—“

“—don’t actually see it,” she said. “I know.”

“Then why were you asking?” Johnny muttered. Shawn nodded idly and turned up the music. Jim and I took off after that, leaving Lineman staring into his terminal window, occasionally typing things back at whatever mouse he’d caught in his little trap.

A few weeks later, Yahoo and Amazon get knocked off the net by the first major DDoS attacks. A few evenings later there’s a knock on my door and the Packet Storm guys walked into my place.

“How’d it go?” I asked.

“It was awesome,” chuckled Todd.

Lineman nodded. “It was good.” They’d been interviewed for the local TV news about the attacks.

“Good publicity for Kroll,” Johnny added.

“Hey, hey,” said Shawn  “I saw a Seven-Eleven coming over here. You mind if we walk over and get some stuff?”

I didn’t mind. Two blocks away, I watched three young dudes load up on canned drinks of several shapes and sizes, a few packs of menthol cigarettes, a bag of chips, and a couple of bottles of juice, nearly half of which was gone or open before we’d walked through the darkness back to my place, a non-stop stream of chattering hacker consciousness filling the night as we went.

“And the greatest thing,” Shawn said, lighting another cigarette, “was the call we got after the show.”

“Unbelievable,” Johnny said.

“We’d met and talked to this guy earlier in the day about renting his place,” Shawn went on. “It’s a huge-ass mansion, perched on a cliff looking over the 280 freeway about halfway up to the city. Five bedrooms. We weren’t sure we were gonna get it, but he saw Lineman on TV being interviewed and called immediately to tell us we could have it. Incredible.”

It was. If it were possible for mad-genius hackers to have an ideal secret lair, that was the place. They’d spend less than a year there, though, before everything fell apart, but we’ll get there.

Shawn and Johnny opened another pair of these small, thin little cans of what looked like some kind of soda, slamming them back pretty quickly. I couldn’t read the label from there, but I’d never seen it before. “Can we?” Todd asked, holding a plastic bag full of the rest of the drinks and pointing toward my kitchen.

“Sure,” I said, having no idea what he was talking about. “Lineman,” I said, turning to him. “I got a question for you.”

“All right,” he said, focused clearly on me.

“So, I’m working on this scanner.”

“Radar.”

“Right.”

“It doesn’t sound like a good idea.”

“It’s what we’re working on.”

He shook his head. “You should work on something else.”

“This is what I have to work on. My problem is that I’ve been out of the game for a while. I’ve been reading a lot — I’m catching up on Packet Storm, there’s a lot of cool stuff there, of course — but I’m having a hard time with the big picture.”

“Uh, huh. And what picture is that?”

“I’m supposed to collect up all the vulnerabilities we need to scan for, and write them up, and understand how they get exploited and how to fix them. But for starters, I don’t even know how much there is. If you had to focus on the most important vulnerabilities, the most common and the most serious, how many would there be? How many things am I actually talking about?”

He thought about it.

“Less than three hundred,” Lineman said. “Right now? Two-hundred and sixty-three.” Todd and Johnny glanced at each other. “Maybe more like two-hundred and seventy. Seventy-seven. Something like that. It depends on what you think is serious. And every day there’s more.”

“But something like three hundred.”

“Around there.”

That, I thought, was do-able. In three months, I’d covered more than four-hundred cards for a single game. In three months, I’d written — re-written — a 256-page book and colored a third of its art.

In three months, I could do the vulnerability research we needed to fuel the scanner. I could do this — it wasn’t a lost cause. I wasn’t a lost cause.

The next morning, I’d open my fridge to find that Johnny and Shawn had left a couple of their little canned drinks behind. I picked one up and read the label: Red Bull, whatever that was.

I sipped it on the short drive into work. At first I thought it was disgusting, medicinal — but there was a sick sweetness in place of the terrible after-taste I was expecting. I got fairly wrapped up in trying to figure it out by the time I got into work. By the time I was sprinting up the stairs to my second-floor office, I figured I might just like it.

It’s no mystery how most soda and juice drinks are concoctions of artificial flavors, carefully tuned and balanced to taste like something that nature might produce — like orange, or grape, or banana, or pomegranate, even when very often they don’t really taste very much like any of those things, more the idea of them. But these advertised tastes give us a context in which we can slip these artificial flavors, making them more accessible than they might be otherwise.

Red Bull said, “Screw it, I’m not even going to try to fake it.” It tasted like nothing nature might produce. It tasted like a blue laser — or maybe it tasted like what you might get if you could touch your tongue to the Internet. It was a new thing. It felt like a sign of things to come.

So at the start of the second month of our new century, I was thinking about the future when I picked up a bit of an echo from the past. I walked straight back into the Packet Storm lab room, where the four of them had come to hole up. Lineman was there, staring serenely into a screen, typing madly. Todd was rocking back and forth in his chair, tapping an unlit cigarette against his knee. The music was cranked to full disco-ball. No one else was around.

“Hey,” I said. “How’s it going?”

“Not good,” said Shawn. “Not good.”

“What’s up?”

“Feds,” he said, looking over my shoulder with a gut-punched wince. “FBI’s gonna be here in like an hour. They called Phil, and he talked to us. We agreed to talk to them if they came by here.” He chuckled. “It’s not gonna go very well.”

“What makes you think that?”

Shawn frowned. “I used to get harassed by the cops back in Chicago. Now me, I’m a white kid, right? So I got it better than most. But I know the deal. Best case, it’s not good.” He checked Lineman’s progress over the other guy’s shoulder. “E-trade got hit today at 5 AM for like ninety minutes, when everyone’s usually trading stock and whatnot. So now it’s no longer joke time. Someone’s going down.”

I nodded. “I see,” I said, raising the empty can. “I was just gonna say thanks for introducing me to Red Bull.”

He tucked the cigarette behind his ear and saluted me. “You’re welcome,” he said.

That afternoon the FBI, when asked how many agents they’ve directed to stop the attacks, said, “As many as it takes.” It was no longer joke time, as we found out almost immediately.

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Going to California

Life by the Valley — 8.5

“I grew up in a time,” I told him, “when people, grown-ups, were still proud to say they didn’t even know how to turn on a computer, like it was a mark of status or something. When I was fourteen, I managed to save a little bit of money and my parents for whatever reason let me buy a computer. I ended up running a bulletin-board system from my bedroom through high school.”

“What kind?” he asked. I noticed that the girl with her back to me had stopped typing.

“Oh,” I said, “the sharing-text-files kind. You know. The exploring-places kind.”

He looked back towards me, but he was no longer looking through me. He was looking into me.

I continued. “I was mostly a pirate, but I learned from the phreakers. Hung out on chat lines, trading numbers and things. Figured stuff out. Free long-distance You know. You’re from Chicago, right? There was a big group up that way, a lot of boards.”

He smiled. “In Chicago,” he said, “we used to hang out on loop lines.” That’s right. They were phone numbers which didn’t terminate once someone called in, they looped back around and as far as we could ever tell they’d let any number of people call in. “The phone company uses those lines for testing,” he said.

“I remember.”

“I found one, one time, that turned out to be the main loop line for a central office. To help with troubleshooting line problems, they had it piped over the intercom system for the whole office.” He paused to see if I’d get it.

I did. “You mean everything said by a bunch of hacker kids was being broadcast out over an office at the phone company?!”

He giggled. “Yeah,” he said, smoothing back blonde wisps. “It was pretty bad, but we had no way of knowing. We only used it at night and on weekends, when the office was empty.”

I knew exactly what stupid things young hacker kids told each other.

“Holy crap,” I said.

“Yeah. Then one day we skipped school and got on the loop.” He wrinkled his face. “It was bad.”

“How bad?”

“Not really bad, actually.” He laughed again. “It was more funny than anything. A guy in the office got on the line and was like, ‘You kids get off this line, this is phone company property, don’t you know this is coming out of every speaker in the ceiling of every room in our office?’ And we were like, ‘Really?’ And he goes, ‘Yes!’ So of course we starting going, ‘Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuckers! Fuck, fuck, fucking everything!’ And he was all, ‘You goddamn kids, I’m going to find you and you’re going to fucking pay!’ And we said, ‘You know everyone in your office just heard you say that, right?’ And he was like, ‘Goddammit,’ and slam, hung up the phone, and we all hung up and we never called back.” He stopped laughing. “They didn’t catch us, of course.”

“Holy crap,” I said, feeling a grin pressing hard into my cheeks.

“They call me Lineman,” he said, extending his hand. “What was your handle?” he asked.

Without missing a beat, though I couldn’t remember the last time I’d done it, I told him my true name.

“Never heard of you,” he said, quickly cold.

“I’m okay with that,” I said, and coming from the hacker underground, where reputation was the currency of respect, not caring about your rep either meant you were too ignorant to realize you were poor or you were too rich to care how poor other people thought you were.

I was neither, mostly. “I’ve been out of the game for a long, long time,” I said, “but it was fun, back in the day.”

He began to smile again, then he looked away, at a large cardboard box on the floor.

“You know what that it?” he asked.

“No,” I said.

“Five-hundred lockpick sets. Brad had the idea to give them away at a conference, but—” He shrugged. “Turns out that’s illegal.”

“A minor detail,” I said.

Lineman winced. “He’s not very big into details.”

“Huh,” I said. “That’s not good.”

“It’s actually bad,” he admitted, leaning over to rip the box open and pulling out a few plastic bags inside each of which was a leather pouch, a little longer than my palm but maybe only half again as wide.

He ripped open one of the plastic bags and unsnapped the leather sheath, exposing some long, metal implements, each with a different kind of craggly bit on the end.

“I was thinking,” he said, “that I’d put the word out that anyone who wants one can have one. If they’ll just send me an email with their address, I’ll mail it to them.”

“That’s a great idea,” I said.

He fished out another handful and held them out toward me. “Want some?” he asked.

“Sure,” I said.

“Know how they work?”

“Not really.”

So he taught me how to pick locks.

“That’s shockingly easy,” I said.

“It’s kinda embarrassing how easy it is,” Lineman said. “But these are easy locks. They’re all different, you just have to learn them.”

“Huh,” I said. The girl had turned around to look at me. She was still smiling. I felt myself looking at her differently, though I wasn’t sure exactly how.

“We should hang out,” she said. Lineman was nodding.

“I think we will,” I said.

It wasn’t until late that night, after struggling with all the locks in my apartment and finally getting to the point where a few of them would open trivially, when it finally occurred to me that I had a lot to tell Phil.

Later, a voice in my head added: When there’s more to say.

It would not be long.

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