A Short Story
This story is a sequel to Demoting Halder.
The rotting stairs, unconcerned that the hour was past midnight, creaked loudly under Allen’s tread as he climbed to his one-bedroom flat on the fourth floor. Inside, grimy windows overlooked the aggressive lamps of a street in Queens. He tore off his Popeyes shirt and took a beer from the fridge.
Only one tonight, he told himself as he pulled the tab, because his next shift was in eight hours. The bad food and beer had started to add a paunch to his 39-year-old form. That didn’t bother him. He had gotten more gaunt over the past year, and seemed smaller in the space he occupied.
He had just turned on his tablet and pulled up some pointless action film when a loud knock made him jump. Had the police shown up for some reason? An inebriated neighbor? He fumbled back into his shirt as a voice behind the door spoke.
“Allen? I’m Jeanie Choy. Remember me?”
He stepped to the door, still adjusting the shirt, and said, “Of course I remember you. The last time I saw you was the worst day of my li—”
He had just pulled open the door, and behind Jeanie stood Mona Debrovovitch and Steven Halder.
Another man, who like Allen had formerly been a celebrated expert in media, communications, and marketing, might be embarrassed to find an old girlfriend and an old rival see him in a dingy apartment wearing the uniform of a fast food operation. But Allen had been through too much to care. They stared at him, and he stared back, finally growling, “What the hell is going on?”
Halder spoke now without hesitation. “We’re here for your expertise, Allen. Fifty thousand dollars is in it for you.”
Allen moved back, implicitly inviting them to enter. As Halder came in from the hallway, he sniffed and asked, “What’s that odor out here?”
“The combination of every degenerate act of which the human race is capable,” answered Allen. “And perhaps a trace of Esah’s Ayam Goreng, which is actually pretty good. Better than Popeyes.”
Halder, a man in his forties, withheld further comment, but a frown persisted on his puffy face with its impestuous cap of straight, straw-colored hair.
Jeanie perched on his bed and swung open a laptop computer. Her prim energy was tinged, Allen thought, by a sour temper that he attributed to the stairs, the smell, and the open beer can. He imagined that Mona would not want to be present at all, but she entered the room as if she did so every day. She had lost none of her poise or her sharp-beaked faculties of perception.
Mona took the chair that stood between the fridge and the bathroom, while Halder crouched down next to her on his slightly heavy haunches, looking out for rats and vermin. Mona gave him the smile of satisfaction that Allen had always noted her to have in the presence of the rich. He suspected that, although Halder would grab all the attention, it was either Jeanie or Mona who had advised this midnight meeting.
“I don’t remember my expertise aiding you much last time,” quipped Allen in a wearied tone.
Halder snorted. “I’m over that, Allen. It’s not relevant—what you pulled off was incredible. The point is that we can all get behind something record-breaking right now, and profit.”
“Give me the dope.”
Halder breathed in. “There’s a blockchain firm that’s going to make it big in interstate commerce. They’re offering smart contracts. It’s a crowded space, but they’re way ahead of the rest of the pack. Name is Scram.”
Jeanie spoke up, filling in efficiently. “Scram officially stands for Secure Contract Reliability and Mediation, but the acronym was inspired by how cryptography scrambles data to make it secure.”
Allen blinked a few times. “I just came off a six-hour shift and I haven’t been sleeping much,” he said. “I need things laid out nice and easy.”
“I identify, man,” Halder said with verve. “I’ve been working 24/7 on this project. It’s been grueling. But I plan to become an insider, to the tune of a hundred twenty million.”
“Please, I’ll try to explain,” said Mona. “It’s like this. Legal contracts usually take months to draw up. But the contracts tend to fall into patterns. Any firm that can automate the contractual process will make it easier to do business. That’s what Scram does. And the blockchain guarantees the integrity of the content of the contract.”
“Blockchain?” said Allen. “That crypto thing where everybody keeps a copy?”
“Right,” said Jeanie. “It’s decentralized and immutable.”
“Immutable means nobody can tamper with the blockchain or remove a contract,” Mona added.
“OK,” summarized Allen. “So here’s a radically new type of business, I don’t know squat about it, and what I can do for you tonight is…”
“Ah!” said Halder, eager to get to the crux of the visit. “We’re being told dazzling things by the firm’s founders, and we want to invest, but we have to check them out. We know they’re in regular communication with the Federal Transit Administration, and we want to know whether there’s any buzz on social media about it.”
“Federal Transit Administration,” repeated Allen, unimpressed.
“Yep, one of the gigaprojects at Scram is a third-party market for transportation tickets and passes.”
“A place for people to get rid of rides they don’t need,” explained Mona.
“Or just trade and speculate to their hearts’ content,” said Halder.
“How is this company going to authenticate all those users?” Allen challenged. “That’s pretty hard if the system’s really decentralized.”
“A proprietary algorithm,” said Jeanie curtly.
“They’re working on a community-based validation platform,” added Halder.
“Ah, how well those work. Let me see it when it happens,” said Allen with a grimace.
“Let’s get back to the topic,” Halder said. “So Scram has to deal with the FTA, but the bureaucrats don’t have much of an online presence. We need you to help.”
“Specifically,” Jeanie put in, “we’ve noticed a lot of Internet traffic between the Scram office in Flatiron and the FTA at particular times. If I list those times for you, could you look over what’s happening in social media in the hours just following?”
Allen threw her a skeptical sideways glance. “How can you tell that there’s a lot of Internet traffic between two places?”
“Halder’s firm has set up Wi-Fi snoopers all around Manhatten,” answered Jeanie. “We can’t tell what the content of the communications are, but we know when there are bursts of file transfers, using traffic analysis. It’s really fairly simple stuff—aggregation. Run a few million correlations and the matches turn up. We know that Scram is talking to some big clients in Manhattan that they’re not telling us about—very big clients.”
“Right,” interrupted Halder enthusiastically. “That’s a smart Asian brain in there.”
“Cut it out!” said Jeanie sharply.
Halder passed his hand over his eyes. “I’ve been up for three nights. Sorry, I lost my filter for a mo. Anyway,” he said, quickly turning to Allen, “Some bursts of traffic from the Scram office match bursts at the same times from One Bowling Green in the Battery. That’s the office of the FTA.”
Mona slipped her gentle hand into Halder’s, then turned her probing eyes and said, “Allen, we just want you to figure out what their negotiations are, and we thought you could get it from hints that FTA staff are making in public.”
Definitely Mona, thought Allen. She had maneuvered Halder into this meeting to apply friction to his relentless obsession. Allen pulled over his tablet and started to open windows on it.
Jeanie ran supple fingers over her keyboard in homage to some deity of big data. “Try 2 PM on March 12, 6 PM on March 14…” Jeanie read off a few more dates and times, then they all fell silent as Allen tapped away on his tablet. The unforgiving light from a single dangling bulb cast Jeanie in bronze and Halder in a sickly blue, while the outdoor lamps continued their pitiless surveillance. Loud Creole voices came from the street, then vanished. Allen’s fatigue turned into annoyance and then resignation.
“Look,” he finally said, “There’s no particularly heavy activity around those times from the FTA.”
“What are they saying?” Halder asked with some urgency.
“What are other people saying about them?” Halder’s voice got even more strained. Mona, witnessing his restless passion, showed some alarm.
“Just stuff about expanding the reach of transportation, preparing for increased use of air and rail traffic…”
Halder rose to his feet, slapping both his palms on his thighs. “That’s exactly what I’d expect for Scram. Vastly ramping up transport—just what their smart contracts will do.”
“I’m surprised a lawyer would want to invest in a company that takes lawyers out of writing contracts,” said Allen wryly.
“You kidding? Contracts never cover everything. Believe me, we lawyers are going to be involved big-time. Wherever there are contracts, there are lawsuits.”
“Sounds like a sure-fire utopia.”
Halder waved his hand. “Whatever it is, the prize goes to those who know what’s coming next.” And he suddenly wrenched himself away, his phone at his ear. “Carol, Carol,” He barked. Mona stirred as if about to rise and tried to put a hand on Halder’s arm. He pulled away with a hiss and continued into the phone, “Hey, we can’t wait for Scram to line up other backers. Carol, tell them we’re in for two hundred million.”
“Two hundred million?” cried Mona. Halder waved her off.
“Lock us in,” he said on the phone. “I want a guaranteed investment tonight. Yes, at one in the morning. They’ll take your call, believe me.”
After Halder put down his phone, Mona looked at him crossly. She said, “Dretzler can’t afford that much, Steven.”
“Why should I give a damn about Dretzler right now?”
“Because he cultivated your career for fifteen years and made you full partner?”
“We’ll make it work!” Halder insisted, trying to pace back and forth, but having room only to shift from one foot to the other. “Smart contracts might not be the biggest thing in law since Hammurabi, but they’ll take over everything eventually. And I plan to ride the crest.” A ding from his phone made him look down and smile. “We’re in, babe. It’s guaranteed.”
He took out a bank check and handed it to Allen. “Fifty thousand dollars for you, my friend.”
Allen let the check slip out of his hand to the floor, but Halder was too pre-occupied to notice the odd behavior, having already turned to Mona with the question, “Ready to come back?”
She maintained a quiet stasis. “I’d like to wait and catch up for a few minutes with Allen. It’s been over a year since I talked to him. Is that OK?”
“Sure, I’ll tell Julio that I’m taking an Uber and he should wait for you.”
“No, no, Steven, you go home in the car. I can get back on my own.”
“OK, I’ll grab some sleep and message you tomorrow.” Halder gave her a kiss on the cheek and left, pulling the door shut. Starting to breathe again, Mona looked toward Allen, whom she expected to fall back exhausted on the bedclothes, and was surprised to see him still working his tablet. Jeanie continued to sit, her now closed laptop finally at rest.
“How has it been, Allen? So much has changed for you…”
“I dunno,” Allen muttered abstractly, typing away. “At Kreth I wore a Tommy Hilfiger suit, now I have different uniform. When I had money I lived in a cramped apartment on the Upper East Side, now I’m in a cramped apartment in Corona. Before, I had a girlfriend who said she was concerned about me…” He trailed off.
Mona rose. “There’s something wrong with you, Allen. We used to have our fights, but you were always very attentive to me.”
Allen started to glare at her, then realized that Halder had just done something similar that shocked them all. So he sighed instead. “I’m thinking, which is something which we could all benefit from a little more at tense times.” He held up the tablet. “I figured it out.”
Jeanie and Mona glanced at each other. Neither knew what Allen was talking about.
“I tried to tell Halder that there was nothing special between the Federal Transit Administration and that stupid company, but he wouldn’t listen. The fact is that the FTA doesn’t give a shit about Scram. They weren’t exchanging Internet traffic.”
Jeanie took this claim as a professional slight. “But we clearly established patterns of communication with One Bowling Green.”
“Yeah,” answered Allen. “But the FTA isn’t the only government agency at that address. The Federal Trade Commission is also there.”
Mona sat down heavily, a hand over her heart. “What would they be talking to Scram for?”
“The FTC has been tasked with cracking down on anti-trust behavior in the computer industry,” Allen said. “And I bet there’s plenty of monopoly behavior at Scram.”
“Well,” said Allen. “It’s just like what Jeanie was saying about Internet traffic. The key is aggregation. Scram wouldn’t know the content of the contracts they manage if there’s cryptography involved, but they can watch the activity on their system, and they can get a lot of data from that. They can do things to lock out competition. Have you ever known a company in a mediating role to neglect that opportunity to capitalize on its central position? And that proprietary validation algorithm is another clear give-away that they’re going to enjoy a chokehold on users.”
“So what do you think the FTC is going to do?” asked Mona in a voice that was nearly a wail.
“Shut them down,” Allen said, gesturing at his tablet. “The social media traffic is full of hints about taking strong action against some cyberfirm and making a warning out of them to others.”
Mona got out her phone. “We have to let Steven know right away—”
“It’s too late,” said Jeanie. “Done deal—you heard Steven.”
Allen heard her and let loose a barreling laugh that halfway through turned into a sob. He placed his hands over his eyes and cried, “Why did you bring this mess to me? It’s bad enough for Halder. I hope you two aren’t dragged into it.”
“I’m just an observer, I’ll be OK,” sighed Mona.
“Allen, I have to thank you,” said Jeanie. “Halder and Dretzler were pressuring me pretty hard to get in on the scene, and I was seriously considering it when we came here tonight. But something always bothered me about this venture.” And Allen realized that his discovery had rescued more than just her savings in her eyes.
“You both should be like me,” Allen said. “Why am I in this hovel? Because it keeps me out of the cesspool. I’m not roped into all these scams.”
Mona put her hands on Allen’s shoulders. “You should get back into professional life. You’re brilliant. You’re dedicated. And it’s not a bad thing that you’re principled.”
He shuddered under her benediction. “I’m not going back into communications and marketing. I saw its true face.”
“I can get you a job at the environmental firm I’m with. It’ll pay more than working at Popeyes, and you’ll do some good.”
Mona continued in a mild but firm voice. “That’s beside the point, Allen. I see you withdrawing from life. You need to be engaged. You need to take some kind of action.”
He remained silent, and Jeanie stood up. “Getting late, everybody. Or early, at one A.M. Take her offer, Allen.”
“Think it through,” added Mona.
Allen stood up to join them, and the three hugged. He guided them the two steps to the door, and said, “Yes. I’ll join your firm, Mona.”
She smiled and said, “I’ll be talking to you tomorrow instead of Halder.”
The two women left. So little time had passed that the fizz was still in Allen’s beer. He sat on the bed for another half hour, sipping slowly.
August 6, 2022
Disclaimer: Although certain real institutions appear in this story, it is a work of fiction and is not meant to reflect on any actual events.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
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Other fiction by Andy Oram