Friday, November 24, 2006

Chapter 7. Spencer's Lair

Betty's hand was cool and her fingers, though strong, were slender and delicate. But as the tunnel narrowed Max was forced to let her hand slip from his. He slowed briefly and allowed Betty to move ahead a bit in the tight space.

Listen to the podcast of The Dark Net, Chapter 7 by robo-reader Audrey.

He squinted in passing into a cramped passageway that branched off the main tunnel. Like many of the forks and detours they passed, there was a dim glow far off in the side passage. Faint muffled sounds emerged from others. They were, Max suspected, the comings and goings of other prowlers in the Dark Net - slipping through the myriad back doors scattered about the legitimate Internet.

He occasionally heard a bit of hubbub as a distant door opened onto the Web proper. Now and then, he caught a glimpse of a shady figure crossing the tunnel ahead of them. He increasingly had the feeling that they were being watched from the recesses they passed.

Max hoped they would not meet anyone up close, and he suspected that other travelers in the Dark Net felt the same about them.

Betty turned into a narrow recess.

"We're here," she said.

Max stepped in close behind her. She pointed to the faint outline of a doorway. An unintelligible hieroglyph marked the center of the door. Betty tapped softly. After a moment, a slot at eye level shot open.

Who is it," a voice squeaked through the opening.

"Open up Agatha," said Betty.

"Let me see your faces."

Betty pushed back her hood and Max followed her lead.

"Grunding?" asked the squeaky voice. "Herman Grunding."

"Yes," Max lied.

"You're looking well - I'd heard you had gotten into a bit of trouble.”

"Nothing I couldn't handle."

"I can see that. What do you want?"

"We need some merchandise," said Betty. "Open up."

The slot snapped shut. After several moments the door creaked open a scant few inches. Betty squeezed through and Max followed.

Agatha was a genteel woman, perhaps fifty or sixty, wearing a light blue dress with lacy white cuffs and a high lace collar. Her sweet smile crinkled the faint crow's feet at the sides of her twinkling blue eyes. She stood next to a plush paisley rocker set up beside a black velvet curtain.

"It's nice of you two young folks to stop by," she said, laying a hand softly on Betty's wrist. "We're not really open for business of course, so you know the rules. It's cash and carry. No receipts." She scrunched her nose in matronly impishness. "And no guarantees, expressed or implied, regardless of what anyone tells you. Just between you and me Herman, there's a special on phishing supplies at booth five - a free key stroke recorder with all purchases over a hundred dollars. It's just the thing for collecting those lovely little passwords, very discrete."

"Thanks Agatha," said Max.

The old woman drew the curtain aside and ushered them through with the same sort of gentle insistence that a grandmother might employ in herding children into her kitchen for afternoon cookies. Instead of a painted tin, table heaped with fresh-baked treats, they found themselves at the end of a narrow walkway lined with booths. Each booth was jammed with merchandise.

Betty set off down the aisle, paying no attention to the vendors she passed. Max tagged along behind, but fell further and further back as displays on one side or the other caught his eye. It looked at first glance as if all the booths were stocked with essentially the same things; stacks of diskettes, PC hardware, and colorful software boxes. Most of the items were slightly ragged around the edges, which Max suspected meant that the merchandise consisted primarily of used, stolen, or overstock items. Upon closer inspection he discovered that although the wares from booth to booth were superficially identical, each vendor appeared to have at least one or two distinguishing items.

One merchant displayed a kiosk for assembling false identification from a selection of stolen birth certificates and driver's licenses. Anotheroffered kits for creating educational credentials complete with diplomas and transcripts that could be uploaded to legitimate university databases, which meant that they were truly as valuable as the real thing. There were vendors specializing in network sniffers, penny stock investment scams, and firmware codes for hacking embedded processors in everything from microwaves to commercial aircraft.

In just about every booth, it seemed, a brooding attendant perched on a stool while waiting for the opportunity to relieve customers of the burden of their cash in exchange for one hot item or another. The clerks were all cut from the same cloth; pale-skinned fellows with powdery white skin. Perhaps, thought Max, they were even cut from the same bolt. They were either close cousins - a possibility that was numerically unlikely - or they were slightly customized versions of a single virtual clerk.

Max caught up with Betty at a particularly cluttered booth that featured stacked copies of the Anarchist's Cookbook, leaning precariously over bins piled high with wires, computer chips, nuts, bolts and collections of tubing in various diameters and lengths. She exchanged some quiet words with the pasty attendant, who listlessly waved her toward the back of the booth.

Max followed as she picked her way over the junk to a set of swinging doors hung on the back wall. She pushed them open and they entered a room cluttered with piles of boxes overflowing with CDs, DVDs, and memory sticks. Even from across the room, Max could see that many of the discs featured nude figures on their covers, and that most of the figures were engaged in obscene acts with other people, objects, or in some cases, animals. He turned away from the perverse images, embarrassed in part by the subjects depicted, and in part by the fact that he'd seen, and enjoyed, these types of movies on some of his previous trips through the Internet.

An armless chair faced the room's sole window, which apparently opened onto the Web, judging from the colorful chaos Max could see beyond it. A short, fat man with a round face and thick glasses stood nervously with one hand resting on the chair back. The man glanced at them with a look of exaggerated surprise that suggested to Max that the man was not at all surprised to see him.

"Herman," said the fat man, "How are you my friend?"

"I'm good," Max replied. "And you?"

The man was holding a note pad in his free hand, and he kept glancing at the window behind him.

To one side of the room was a stack of boxes, built of something that resembled plexiglass. Each was roughly a third of a meter on a side, and many of them contained unidentifiable creatures. Some were fuzzy and legless, like mutant hamsters, others looked like varieties of odd reptiles. Inside one box was a crab robot much like the ones Max and Betty had dealt with in the cavern.

"I'm not bad," said the man. "Not bad at all."

"I'm fine too, Spencer," Betty snapped.

The squat man looked her up and down lasciviously.

"Hey Herman, you're still dragging that pretty little bit of code around?" the man said in a voice that was suddenly oily and perverse. "Care to sell it? I can make you a decent offer."

Max glanced at Betty. "I think I'll keep her for now. Thanks."

Betty sneered.

"It's your call," Spencer said with a shrug.

Spencer caught site of someone near the other side of the window. He turned and sat in the chair, pencil at the ready. A young man, in his late teens or early twenties, was making some kind of a purchase. It occurred to Max that the window must have been a one-way portal because the young man appeared not to notice that he was being watched. He pulled out a credit card and Spencer began scribbling on the pad.

"What can I do for you Herman?" he asked as he wrote.

"We need a guard dog," said Betty.

"I don't deal in hot products anymore. Strictly legit, licensed entertainment, and of course," he said, nodding at the oblivious young man in front of the window, "a little hustle here and there."

He turned and winked at Herman, "Software sales have been a bit, well, soft lately."

Max smiled weakly in response and turned to mull over the boxes of bizarre animals.

"My petting zoo has gotten larger lately," said Spencer. "I can't distribute them anymore, it's too risky. Now I'm stuck with the overstock."

Max tapped on the box that held the crab. It reared up and clicked its claws at him.

"I wouldn't do that if I were you," said Spencer.

"Dangerous, is he?"

"He can be," said Spencer, "if he gets loose. Know what I mean?"

Max nodded, and couldn't help but glance at the torn hem of Betty's cloak.

Spencer sat back down in the chair, keeping an eye on the window the entire time. The young man had moved on now, and Spencer was lying in wait for his next victim.

"As I was saying, I can get you a reliable firewall, if you like, or videos featuring the youngest girls on the net, and just about any freeware, shareware, or commercial software available, but I'm not carrying the black market Government stuff anymore. So if it's a military spec package you're after, I can't help."

"Look, you smut peddler," Betty snarled, "We don't have time for your crap. We need a guard dog, and you're going to get one for us."

"Hey, Herman," said Spencer dryly, "You want to turn the volume down on that thing? I don't care for its tone."

"Settle down Betty," said Max. "Come on Spencer, you know me." Judging from Spencer's familiar tone, Max guessed that he and Herman had made a deal or two in the past. "I'm not going to say anything to anyone about it. Surely we can work something out."

"I don't know." Spencer scratched his ample belly. He leered toward Betty. "I might be able to arrange for a trade. With a little touch up, she could be a lively feature on an interactive porn site I know of."

Betty cringed and took a few menacing steps toward Spencer when Max waved his hand to stop her. "No deal."

"Well," said Spencer. "What else have you got?"

Max was at a loss. "Nothing."

"Alright then, that's what you're gonna get. Nothing."

Max wandered over to the stack of animal cages. He tapped on the one holding the crab, sending it racing about the tight enclosure. "We can get you more of these if you like."

Spencer let out a snide laugh. "No thanks. One's enough. You only need so many of those in one room."

Max lingered in front of the box. He undid the latch, but held the lid shut with his hand. The crab slammed upwards straining to escape.

"Hey," Spencer warned. "Watch it."

Max pushed down on the lid to keep the creature in check, letting the box open just enough for one needle sharp limb to protrude through the gap.

"It would be a shame for a nasty mother like him to get out," said Max. "He could make a real mess of this cozy little place."

"Cut it out Herman," Spencer stood up and took a step toward Max, who allowed the lid to open a bit more. Spencer stopped in his tracks. It was clear to both of them there was no way he could make it across the room in time if Max chose to release the crab. "You don't know what you're messing with."

"Oh I think I do."

Max let the top ease open still more. Three limbs now rattled through the gap as the crab struggled to slip its body out of the box.

"OK, OK," shouted Spencer. "I swear I can't get a guard dog for you myself, but I can tell you where to find one." He took another step toward Max.

"Hold it right there," said Max. "Write it down and give it to Betty."

Spencer grimaced. He flipped his notepad to a clean page, scribbled something before tearing out the paper and holding it out toward Betty.

"Is that going to help us?" asked Max.

Betty took the page from Spencer with a look of distaste at getting so close to Spencer's pudgy little fingers. She inspected the paper and nodded.

"Close the box man."

"One more thing," said Max, "apologize to Betty."

"What? Are you kidding?"

Max release the lid another centimeter and one of the crab's claws stuck out and clattered against the side of the box.

"OK, jeez, I'm sorry."

Max corrected him. "I'm sorry – Betty."

"OK. I'm sorry Betty," Spencer muttered.

Max rapped the side of the box with his free hand, sending the crab into a renewed frenzy. It sped down the side and smacked into the wall in pursuit of Max's finger. He snapped the lid closed and fastened the latch.

"Thanks," he said to Spencer. "You're a true gentleman."

"Yeah sure, whatever." Spencer returned to his chair by the window. "Now, if you don't mind, I'm a little busy right at the moment."

"Let's go, Betty." Max turned on his heal and headed for the door. "Nice doing business with you Spence."

Spencer's lips curled in an unconvincing smile. "It was a pleasure, as always Herman. Shut the door behind you. Thanks."

Spencer slouched down in his chair as Max and Betty made their way out..

When the door closed behind them, Spencer stood up and walked over to stare at the crab in its plexiglass box. He reached out, popped open the latch, and flipped back the lid. The crab scampered out and sprang to the center of the floor, rising up menacingly at Spencer's feet. He waved the notepad and the crab inched toward the inviting sound of the rustling papers.

Spencer kicked out his stubby leg and pinned the crab to the floor with one foot. He reached down, grasped it from behind, beyond the range of the snapping claws, and picked it up, pinching its gleaming silver body between his thumb and fingers. He made a swipe at the crab with his free hand, and it spread its claws wide in self-defense.

"You're not so scary really," he said to the crab. He turned toward the group of cages with the legless hamster creatures in them. "Let's see. Who's hungry?"

Spencer opened the top of one of the cages. The fuzzy animal inside rocked slightly and emitted a sound reminiscent of a cat's purr. Spencer dropped the crab into the box and slammed the lid shut. There was a blur of motion as the crab was ripped to bits. A dismembered leg hit the lid with such force that it nearly knocked it open despite the weight of Spencer's hand on the top.

"Whoa baby. Don't wolf your food," he said as he fastened the latch.

When the fury in the box died down, only the fuzzy blob remained. Not a scrap of the crab was to be seen anywhere, and the hamster-like thing rumbled with satisfaction.

"No, Herman my friend," he said to himself, "you don't know what you're messing with."

Spencer pursed his lips in thought. He walked to the doorway, peeked out, and headed into the darkness, locking the door behind him.

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