The Lord sees all. It’s time for men to remember that.
It’s Emil’s duty to remind them.
Day ? October 2007?
Emil: Without means for driving, nor the ride Blanche was supposed to give him to his house, Emil has to settle for a more pedestrian method of transport.
He walks down and out of the building, preferring to take the stairs. The walk to Target is not an especially long one, but the darkness of night and his lack of means of communication should something happen puts him on edge. This is not his city, at least not yet.
The neon-lit parking lot outside the obscenely large supermarket is mostly deserted, only a few broken down cars remain in the lot. From those on blocks Emil can hear the quiet human sounds of snoring, moaning, and the occasional groan. Those which are slightly better off have patched up broken windows with duct tape and have doors with mismatched paint jobs that fit the frame of the car only if you squint.
There’s a gas-guzzling semi-trailer rig with a red and white Target logo spray-painted on the bird-shit spattered side overtop a half-assed sanding job, remnants of the word Walmart very visible underneath. A short woman tripping over her seven-inch stilettoes who couldn’t be older than sixteen flashes a driver mushing an obnoxiously large burger down his gullet. She yells at him in Spanish when a rotten half-eaten slice of tomato falls on her cheetah print faux fur jacket. He yells back in something approximating English and rolls up his window.
Emil keeps his head down as black smoke chuffs out the top of the truck into an air so polluted it just fades into the background. He just needs to keep pushing forward.
And push forward he does, down the seemingly endless aisles, under sickly florescent lights whose buzzing fluctuates in volume so as to not let you tune them out. His stomach growls something fierce as he hovers over a cushioned toilet seat splattered with Jackson Pollock stains. The smell hitches a ride in his nostrils on the way out of the restroom and doesn’t get off at any of the coming stops. This is not the place to be in Houston at one in the morning, even lifeless odors can recognize that.
There’s a lone worker at the Pizza Tipi Express that takes Emil’s order. The hungry night owl salivates at the video feed of large ovens in the backroom kitchen, of vibrantly contrasting greens and reds and yellows coming together masterfully on hand-tossed dough. It’s like a dream. He looks at the late-night cashier gleefully and orders a fresh pie with green peppers and onions. The worker looks at him funny and hands him a box holding a lukewarm personal cheese pizza from under a heat lamp. The cashier tells him to pay out front, the register hasn’t worked in a year.
With a lukewarm and rapidly cooling pizza in tow, Emil rushes around the vast shop floor, collecting goods for the coming day. He takes what he needs and brings it all to the counter: Shoe polish, soap, tools, some clothing, a pair of fold-out stools, a burner phone, and a backpack to hold it all.
There’s a middle-age man wearing surgical scrubs underneath his Target-branded apron manning the register. He looks at Emil through dead eyes outlined with the red imprint of recently worn goggles. His nametag says Hi, I’m Carl! and has a picture of him smiling unconvincingly.
[[File:1120003 | class=media-item-align-center | ]]
GM: It occurs to him he could have gotten the pizza last. That way it might have been lukewarm instead of cool.
Emil: He wishes he knew he’d have to pay upfront before he took it. Emil looks at the man curiously, wondering what sort of life he leads to be wearing scrubs in a Target.
“Slow night, huh?”
Out of about twenty register aisles, Carl’s is the only one attended at this hour.
GM: The man doesn’t offer Emil a smile as he starts ringing up purchases. He looks like he wants to be anywhere in the world but here.
“They’re all slow.”
Emil: “It’s the quiet that gets to me, this time of night. It’s like someone’s been out there running a backing track to your whole life, leading you along a meaningful path, and then suddenly, nothing.”
Emil places a checkout divider behind the last of his items as they slowly move on the conveyor belt. There’s no one behind him, no next in line, but it still feels polite.
“Your plot’s derailed. The conductor went home. Production’s in limbo.”
“And then it’s just you, alone, waiting for the sound to come back on.”
GM: The scrub-attired man looks at Emil for a moment. The now-cool pizza continues to silently coagulate in its own grease.
“Kid, you’ve got all the time in the world.”
Emil can’t help but think back to that drink from Carter’s wrist.
Does he ever.
Emil: “And you don’t? You work at the medical center, right? I don’t even have a degree to work with. No family here.”
He wonders when he’ll get to explain to his family why he had to leave. If he’ll get the chance.
“After a certain point, more time just means more waiting, more quiet to sit through.”
GM: Emil just gets a sullen stare at his second question.
Beep beep goes the scanner.
“HANDS IN THE AIR OR YOU ALL FUCKING DIE!”
The short teenager in the tomato-smeared faux fur jacket stands behind Emil with a gun leveled at the two men. She’s barefoot without her heels. Her overly made-up eyes are livid.
The scrub-attired man immediately raises his hands.
Emil: Emil does the same instinctively, though his hands start to shake as adrenaline floods through his bloodstream. And not just that, there’s something else in his blood. It sharpens his vision and readies his muscles to a hair trigger. And it hates, hates, to be threatened.
He feels his heart beat a steady thrum. The flow of blood in and out, injected with the breath of life. It flows down the bodily channels, pulsating through his gut, snaking about the purple bruise that remains as a reminder of that brute’s punch. The bruise bulges out of the skin as the life blood rushes in. And then, in an instant, the throbbing pain dissipates, leaving his belly healed, but empty, hungering for vitality.
GM: “GIMME THE MONEY!” the woman shouts at the clerk, her chest heaving with every spat breath.
“I’ll… need to lower my hands,” he answers.
She swivels the gun at Emil.
GM: The clerk keeps his hands raised.
Emil: Emil makes no sudden movements, he first nods.
“I’ll go open the register but he probably has the key.”
He keeps his hands visible and lowers them slowly. He then starts to move towards the register, keeping her abreast of his intentions.
GM: The woman keeps the gun trained on Emil’s chest, her eyes wide, furious, and suspicious.
Emil: “I’m going to take the key from his apron now and unlock the register,” he says, speaking as calmly as he can manage while suppressing the urges of his sympathetic nervous system.
GM: The gun trembles slightly in the woman’s hands.
“HURRY THE FUCK UP!!!”
Emil: He follows her instruction without making any erratic motions, nodding as he unlocks the register, trying to stop his stomach from falling out of his mouth, and takes a series of bills out, laying them on the counter in front of the register.
GM: “GET BACK!” she yells.
“YOUR MONEY! LEAVE IT!”
Emil: Emil takes out the few Benjamin’s he was given by Blanche and leaves them on the counter, before stepping back.
“I’m putting my hands up,” he says, and then does. He can only hope she’s satisfied.
GM: The woman snatches all of the money up into her purse.
She stares at Emil with manic, wild eyes.
The gun wavers precipitously in her trembling hand.
Emil: She’s not gonna leave just yet. She’s unstable. Drug addled. And so young. She’s not in control of her fate.
And that’s when he sees the police on the other side of the door. Their well-maintained firearms glinting off the neon light of the blood-red Target sign. They have their guns trained directly on her. And by proxy, directly on him.
He can only hope his strength doesn’t fail him today. Because he is strong. And he doesn’t want anyone to die.
Pressure builds up in Emil’s head, the kettlepot screams, and he yanks at the ceiling tile above her head, willing it to come smashing down on the girl. If they can see her now, he can only hope they will stop shooting. If they don’t, she’s made her bed.
But he and Carl sure as hell haven’t. He readies himself to jump on top of Carl and bring them down to the floor the moment he sees the ceiling tile hit her head. A regular human response time to visual stimulus is around a quarter of a second, hopefully enough leeway to avoid getting hit. Of course, she’s far from in a regular state of mind.
GM: The ceiling tile doesn’t come smashing down.
The whole ceiling does. The roar of gunfire explodes Emil’s hearing as PK 12 white mineral fiber buries the girl, and much of the adjacent storefront, under a mass of broken-apart tile. She lies still and does not move.
Emil: In an instant Emil’s on top of Carl, both of them hitting the deck. All he can hear is the aftershock of the blast, the mosquito-tone shrillness that drills into his skull.
He prays that the officers hold their fire. If they don’t, he can only hope that the counter will shield the two from a direct hit.
I did it again. I took a fucking ceiling down this time.
If he could overcome the instant tinnitus from the gunshot, Carl would hear Emil giggle disquietingly over him.
GM: Emil’s ears discordantly ring. The scrub-attired man groans under him. He’s not sure how much longer it is before he hears voices yelling, “Hands the fuck up! Now!”
Emil: It sounds like they’re yelling at him through a foot of water. But that doesn’t stop his arms from moving swiftly into the air, right where they can see them.
GM: Rough hands yank Emil up, twist his arms behind his back, and snap cuffs around his wrists. He’s slammed face-first to the ground before a knee drives into his neck. He can immediately feel the pressure obstructing his airflow.
Emil: Hitting the floor knocks the wind right out of him. A thick crimson flows out of his nose, though it had already begun to when the ceiling collapsed.
He does everything he can to keep breathing, though the pressure stops him from getting a full breath.
The thought of why he, the person being robbed, is being arrested doesn’t have the chance to cross his mind. He can only focus on struggling to breathe and following instructions.
GM: The cop presses the barrel of his gun against Emil’s head.
“Any funny moves and I’ll blow your fucking brains out.”
“Sir, what happened here? Are you injured?” the other cop asks Carl.
Emil: He’s been here before. Been here, when he was a kid, an officer whose face he forgets slamming against the wall, choking him out. When he was a teen, thrown out of his car the first time he rode alone in his neighborhood, gun to his chin. It doesn’t make it any better to know this terror, to have obsessed over it in the aftermath, fighting against it in dreams.
He’s still on the ground, and he’s trigger-pull away from dying.
“Yessir,” he wheezes, letting precious oxygen escape.
Let no good deed go unpunished.
GM: “I’m fine. You can let him go. He didn’t do anything,” Carl answers.
One of the cops circles back to check the motionless girl’s pulse. He then pulls out a set of cuffs and snaps them around her wrists.
“Hey, that means we can get blamed, dickhead,” says the other cop.
“Oh, right.” The first cop pulls them off, grabs a some potato chips from the checkout stand, and starts stuffing his face.
“So what the fuck happened with the ceiling there?” asks the second cop restraining Emil, his eyes wandering across the walls’ bullet holes.
“I don’t know. It just collapsed,” answers the scrub-attired man.
“That is fucking weird,” says the first cop.
He opens the woman’s purse, then takes out and pockets the cash.
“Some of that’s the store’s,” says Carl.
Emil: Emil gives a pleading, or perhaps bleeding look to Carl from the floor.
GM: “Oh, right,” says the first cop. He walks over to the counter and lays down some bills. It looks like fewer than the woman took.
“That’s so fucking weird about the ceiling,” repeats the second cop.
“Are you arresting anyone?” Carl asks.
“Might as well bring this one in,” says the second cop, driving his knee harder against Emil’s throat.
“He didn’t do anything,” Carl repeats.
“Really? You’re sure?” asks the first cop between some munched potato chip.
“Yes. He was just buying a few items.”
“Was he trying to steal any?” inquires second cop. “You a shoplifter?” he asks, seemingly of Emil this time.
The first cop munches more potato chips.
Emil: “… no—sir… ,” he barely manages to get out.
“I—am—friend—of L.T. Shemtov.”
Luckily for Emil, his rabbi’s son works for the HPD. Emil was introduced to him by the aging Kabbalah teacher when he came to him asking for career advice. The accomplished lawman, who visits his father regularly, was happy to guide Emil then and maintains a semiregular correspondence with him over email and during his visits. He can only hope his name carries weight with these men.
“Ord—er th—through law—justice with—mercy,” Emil wheezes under the knee of an officer. The motto of the HPD.
GM: “What’s he gabbin’ about?” the first cop wonders.
“That’s the motto,” says the second cop.
“What motto?” asks the first cop.
“The department motto,” says the second cop.
“Oh,” says the first cop.
He scarfs down some more potato chips.
The second one searches Emil’s pockets as if for shoplifted contraband.
“Looks like the LT knows how to pick ’em,” he smiles.
He finally removes his knee and undoes Emil’s cuffs.
“Stay out of trouble,” says the first cop.
Both cops grab some candy, chip bags, and assorted other items from the Target’s wrecked storefront, then look down at the motionless woman as if remembering her.
“So do we want to arrest her?”
“Yeah, once she wakes up.”
“I don’t want to wait for an ambulance.”
The cops eventually settle for hauling their pilfered snacks out to their car, coming back, and heaving the unconscious woman into a shopping cart at a rather painful-looking angle to carry her out. (“What, do you wanna carry her?”)
The cops also fill up the cart with more snacks. They don’t pay.
Emil: Emil coughs up a storm as he picks himself up off the floor. His items are in bags sitting on the end of the counter, but they are as of yet unpaid for. And unluckily for him, he’s just been robbed.
“Excuse me, officers. She took my money. Four hundred dollars of it. I’d be happy to put in a good word with the LT when I see him tonight if you could help me get it back.” His voice is hoarse, but not as severely as when he was choked.
GM: “Grab it off the desk,” grunts the first cop.
Emil: Emil picks up the fistful of bills and silently mouths their count as he rifles through them, taking a moment to glance at Carl sympathetically.
GM: The cops leave while Emil counts. He collects $390 with a single $20 left over to spare. Carl does not look overly concerned.
“Take it, whatever. It’s not mine.”
Emil: Emil does.
“Won’t your boss care if the count isn’t right?”
GM: “We got robbed.”
Emil: “So we did… .”
He lets the air sit for a tad too long before asking,
“…how much for the stuff I bought?”
GM: “I don’t even fucking care,” the scrub-attired man says flatly.
Emil: Emil wonders what kind of shit he’s seen to have this muted a reaction after being robbed at gunpoint and then seeing a ceiling collapse nearly onto his head.
“This is all I’ve got for the next while,” he says, tucking the rest of the cash into his pocket. “But thanks for the help man. If you ever fall into trouble—beyond getting robbed—shoot me an email. I know some folks.”
Placing the twenty on the counter, Emil writes the address of one of his many email accounts, one without particular identifying information in the name, and pushes it over to him.
GM: Carl looks at it.
He sticks it into his pocket.
Then he looks up at the ceiling.
Emil: Emil takes a tissue from a Kleenex box and wipes the blood off his face.
Moonlight shines weakly through the gap in the ceiling, obfuscated by haze and fog.
“You might want to switch to a different counter.”
Day ? October 2007?
Emil: Stepping out of the building, Emil breathes a sigh of relief as he sees the bright lights of the NRG stadium emblazoned in the night sky, shining through the haze.
The walk to the hotel is quick. There’s a good many choices available, but the Holiday Inn Express is on the other side of the Target, and being able to hug the wall of the building gives him a little more comfort as he goes in the darkness. One less avenue to jump him.
He steps into the building, bags in tow, and walks up to the reception desk. The smell of stale pastries and burnt coffee wafts from the empty kitchen to his left. The receptionist is about as dead as the lobby, half-asleep. Fully so before Emil’s footsteps wake the young man up.
He pays in cash and gets a receipt. The elevator takes five minutes to climb up the floors. The clanging of rusted gears in the purportedly new hotel is replaced by an eerie quiet hanging over the carpeted hallway as Emil steps off the elevator. There’s a lingering stench of cigarette smoke imprinted into inoffensive wallpaper that’s just started to peel.
The room at least smells fresh. Artificially so, but it’s better than outside. There was a no smoking sticker pasted onto the door. The bed is crisp, the curtains are drawn, and black. He puts down his purchases and sits at the threadbare office chair, which takes just a bit of work to adjust to the right height setting.
Emil opens the pizza. It looks strikingly good for how long it’s been sitting out. But that fresh look becomes anything but appetizing once he touches it. It’s practically frozen, and when he pokes the cheese it is stiff and spurts out rivulets of old, brown grease. It’s clear Pizza Tipi spends most of their money on aesthetic preservatives. Once it’s out of their hands, who cares if it tastes good.
Emil eats it anyway. There’s a telephone on the desk, the plastic spiral of a cable behind it has it’s casing nibbled at by what Emil presumes are mice.
He dials the number Blanche gave him to call once he was settled in.
GM: He’s greeted after one ring by the older slave himself.
“Blanche H. Prescott III, speaking.”
Emil: Emil wonders when in his life he thought that was a respectable name choice. God knows his parents didn’t name him that. He hopes.
“This is Em-ee-ul. I’m settled now.” Three lots of three syllables starts the little circus.
GM: “I see,” Blanche answers slowly. “You are calling for… ?”
He doesn’t trip over the duosyllabic word, at least.
Emil: “You asked me to once I was settled.” Another three pleasant triplets.
“I was mugged.”
“And held at gunpoint while.”
“Doing you a favor.”
Five more lots of three.
GM: “Ah. That is good. You are settled.”
“What is your address?”
Emil: Emil reads it off the back of the T.V. channel listing paper. It’s next to a pizza shop ad.
“I was mugged,” he repeats.
GM: “Most unfortunate. Did you have further business?”
Emil: “The mugging added more risk to the arrangement than I had agreed to take on initially. Risk of damaging the Masquerade. Risk of displeasing our respective master and mistress. I handled the situation quietly. Nevertheless, more risk requires more reward to justify my cooperation. Your request precipitated said risk, so you are responsible for the stated reward, sir,” Emil responds calmly, soothingly, in ninety nine syllables. Three lots of thirty and three lots of three.
GM: “Oh, very well. You’ll,” click, “you will receive further,” click, “more moneys.”
Emil: “More moneys? I’m afraid that alone is not sufficient to match the risk I took of my head being blown off… of the blood of my master, and, by proxy, your mistress, being spilled needlessly.”
“I’m sure you would agree that the wasting of their blood is a risk which warrants far more than a few hundred dollar bills. In addition to the money, I request your time and instruction on the matters of etiquette, Kindred society, and how to best serve Mistress Cobbler pleasingly, as I will be staying under her until matters are more settled in New Orleans,” Emil says in three groups of thirty more syllables.
GM: There is an exasperated sigh.
“You shall re-ceive,” click, “you shall have lessons,” click, “in-struc-tion, then, but you have ex-tort-ed me for en-ough,” click, “too man-y,” click, “suf-fic-cient moneys, boy.”
Emil: “Very well. Instruction.”
“Are you free…
“… day after?” Emil asks in clear separated triplets.
GM: “The foll-ow-ing day,” Blanche replies perfunctorily.
Then he hangs up.
Emil: Emil takes a bite out of the pizza crust. For some reason it is much more satisfying now.
Day ? October 2007?
Emil: Emil stands next to the window, staring down at the city sprawled below him. The hefty block of an air conditioner fills makes for a comfortable hand rest below the windowsill as it blows refreshingly cool air past his face.
He holds the burner phone close to his ear, having dialed a number he hasn’t used in some time.
It rings, and rings, and rings.
And then it picks up.
Emil lists off a series of numbers into the receiver, and waits for the same from the other end of the line.
“I’m in town. 8080 Main Street. Get one of the deliverymen to bring me a pizza. I’ll pick it up out the back. Plain is fine, but make sure the box stays shut, I want it to keep hot.”
The phone snaps closed as the line cuts and returns to his pocket.
It’s about a half hour later that his phone buzzes.
Emil zips up a light hoodie and pulls gloves taut over his hands.
He takes the stairs.
Emil: Down a hallway, it smells like chlorine. The ceiling fan tilts and swivels on its gimbal. It’s dark outside. He can see that, no light at the end of this tunnel.
He pulls a cloth out of his pocket and wraps it around his face before pulling up the hood. He opens the door. The delivery man is outside, holding a pizza box with a cartoon Italian chef on it, smiling at him.
Emil looks at the man. He looks young, though he can only tell by the hands. His face is masked by a curved mirror, which reflects little but shadow and the lightly lit hallway behind Emil back into his view.
Emil: Emil whispers a series of numbers at the man, and he nods. There is no tip. He takes the box and closes the door.
It smells like pizza, he wonders if they misunderstood.
He’s up the stairs shortly, his face uncovered, his hood pulled down. He opens the box, and finds a slice of pizza, plain and hot. Beside it is a laptop, branded Acer.
He opens the screen to find a sticky note pasted on it, which he places on the oak veneer of the desk.
Emil sighs at the message and files away a good moment to remind Cheng that a hidden sticky note does not a secure transaction make.
It takes some time to set the laptop up, but once he has it and is able to plug in the complimentary earbuds the hotel provided, is finally able to relax.
Emil: For a moment.
He stops eating the fresh slice of pizza that came with the laptop to start up the video feeds into his home and check the call history for both the landline and his lost cellphone. He expects he’s missed some calls.
GM: It feels good being treated like someone important after literally mopping floors.
So does eating some actually warm pizza.
And Mom said he shouldn’t spend so much time online.
“You’re not establishing real relationships there, Emil. You need to network with people in person.”
Emil’s cellphone has a missed call from Lucky. There’s no call duration for any left message, though.
The other calls to his cellphone and family’s landline come from mundane-looking contacts.
Emil: He needs to sell Lucky on why he’s gone if he’s going to keep his promise to him. Maybe he just ran away, maybe he’s in witness protection, maybe there’s no good explanation for it.
He files that information away for another moment. It might raise less concern if he called Lucky during the day, should he call him back at all. Then again, doing so might raise his suspicions enough for him to investigate.
He turns his attention to the streamed feed of his house, of his brothers. It’s late, but he doubts either of them are sleeping.
GM: Contrary to his expectations, they are. So is his father.
They’re sleeping quite soundly, from the looks of things.
Emil: Without him.
GM: His bedroom sits empty.
Emil: Just like Mom. He’ll tell them I’ll be back in two weeks, maybe more.
But I won’t.
He takes another bite out of the pizza. It’s soggier.
He switches from the livestream to already recorded footage, he wants to hear what his father told them when he got home.
GM: Emil is going to college at Rice University in Houston. There’s a program that admits Tulane transfer students: a holdover from Katrina that’s still around. It had an imminent deadline Emil forgot all about. He had to catch the next flight back to Texas to take care of things, no time for goodbyes.
His brothers are disappointed but understand. Ben says Rice is a better school than Tulane anyway.
Emil: The look on Ben’s face makes Emil want to give him a hug. Course, as his hand is stopped by the glass of the monitor, it hits him how unrealistic even that wish has become. Maybe Mom had a point.
GM: “I hear Houston has really up to date computer infrastructure.”
“How do you even know that?” Justin scoffs.
“But the underground is pretty cool.”
GM: “Have you been there?” asks Ben.
“Yeah. You can spend a while in it. It’s really big.”
Emil: As much as he would wish Justin would humble himself, Emil can’t help but respect his desire for exploration. He’s seen more of the country in his youth than some get to see in their lifetime. And he always knows where to go for a good time.
Emil decides to make a visit to the undergrounds himself come daytime. For now though, he shuts the laptop and locks it away in the closet safe.
Out of a spot of midnight paranoia, he blocks the room door with a fabric armchair, and falls into the bed.
GM: Somehow his days of sleeping easy seem well in the past.
Wednesday morning, 17 October 2007
Emil: Eventually, he wakes up. He’s covered in sweat from a bad dream he can no longer remember the details of.
The water pressure in the shower is terrible. An overworked hotel employee comes upstairs to fix it. He tries to shower again, but the treatment leaves the water smelling like vinegar, and an errant stream sprays out of the rusted head directly into Emil’s eyes.
The continental breakfast could be charitably described as adequate. A man wearing a Texas-sized cowboy hat chooses to sit next to Emil despite the many empty tables surrounding them. Between open-mouthed chews, he waxes poetic on how amazing it is that the hotel sources foods from all the world’s continents to make this breakfast and still offers it for free.
“Thass h’wut they call cuss’mer service,” he drawls, spitting bits of bacon-wrapped hot dogs over Emil’s pancakes.
GM: He never takes off the hat. Not once.
This is just how it is in the South. People will plop down next to you and start conversations. Emil can’t think of many times that happened in California.
Emil: Now is that so terrible? Emil’s not sure.
Back home people who snoop have the decency to hide what they’re doing behind a veneer of disinterest and politeness. Honest social interaction comes in the form of Internet stalking and money in the hands of PIs and hackers like Emil. All to avoid acting with any semblance of real interest in someone else.
After all, freedom is independence, and what kind of loser are you to be dependent on knowing other people deeper than the grooves of their specially engraved business cards.
Maybe that’s part of why he was so reluctant to leave New Orleans.
But none of that matters. Here, Emil’s desperate curiosity doesn’t make him the black sheep he was back home. Snooping in other peoples’ business is a southern pastime, especially so in this technological oasis of a city.
GM: Snooping on each other’s business is everyone’s pastime.
Southerners just might be more open about it.
Emil: And by way of technicality, Emil is in fact a Southerner.
He pats his pocket and feels how light the wad of cash is that remains to be spent, it gives him some pause when he considers the cost of paying for further nights in this “inn.” Anyone with sense would just move to one of the multitude of motels littering the medical complex.
But Emil isn’t one to live on nickels or dimes, in fact he never keeps his change. So why would he care much about sense? For him, there’s always another way.
Emil: Picking up his jacket and phone, he offers his bacon-spittle covered pancakes to the cowboy before he rushes back upstairs. He doesn’t stay long enough to hear his answer.
He has a plan.
Opening up the black laptop, he finds that despite ordering a ‘plain pie’, Chen was generous with the toppings. A generous suite of penetration tools reveal themselves on the desktop after Emil taps out a long passphrase into the BIOS screen upon restarting the laptop.
Chen seems to have named the various programs after a series of sites in Houston. He even modified their README.md files to seem like his personal travel logs from the various city locales. Within the descriptions, small hints at each program’s function reveal themselves to Emil’s experienced eye.
How much time does that man have on his hands?
The amount of work to write those logs up must have taken hours. Chen must have been waiting for him to show up in the city for some time now to have prepped to this degree.
But why? No one likes their own city that much. Right?
That’s a question for another time. For the moment, Emil’s happy to use the tools provided; he has some California-style snooping to do.
Wednesday morning, 17 October 2007
Emil: Any respectable effort to penetrate a system should be built on a stable foundation of research. At least initially, Emil doesn’t need to use the tools Chen provided. It’s always better to work iteratively to achieve goals, starting small and constantly reassessing the optimal direction. A search engine is all the technology that’s necessary for a starting point, though privacy is never a good thing to neglect. He flips on a VPN and gets to skimming through search results on the hotel’s management. He stumbles upon an article from the Houston Chronicle on the subject of the at-the-time recent influx of big name franchises into the local hospitality sector. The article is interspersed with interviews from both newly minted franchisees and local hoteliers.
They’re coming into our buildings, paying off the authorities we voted in to kick us out! Then they’re slapping a new name on our family-owned property and calling it a brand new f**king Marriot, reads a quote from a particularly incensed hotelier.
Councilwoman Weatherford can go straight to hell, it continues. The appraiser she sent gave me a number a quarter of the true value. Didn’t even have the decency to call me before they sent the condemnation notice. No negotiation. Nothing. F**kers.
The article goes on to give a layman’s explanation of eminent domain and condemnation. The government isn’t meant to force the sale of land for anything but the construction of public property.
Mayor Roger Blumenfeld, who campaigned on a promise of “demolishing” governmental waste through privatization, dismisses all claims of illegality, stating that It’s what the people want. More money in their pockets at the end of the day. That’s what matters. If the law isn’t on the people’s side, we oughta make it so, right?
GM: Some things change between cities. Emil’s had three to compare across the length and breadth of the country.
And some things seem like they don’t change at all.
Emil: It soon becomes clear to Emil why this article appeared in his search, as what follows the prior text is what he initially assumes to be an ad-buy. There’s a professional-looking photo of the very Holiday Inn Express he’s staying at which takes up nearly half of his screen space. Much of the building is blocked by a smug-looking mug that is poorly shopped over the original image.
His assumption is confounded by the wall of text that follows the image, which consists of an interview with that same smug-looking man who goes by the name of Walter Pavaghi-Rodríguez. Walter takes the article on a sharp detour to delve into his history of connection to Houston, which he repeatedly refers to by a series of nicknames, most prevalently “the Big Heart,” which it earned for the assistance it extended to the victims of Hurricane Katrina. His first wife’s family, the Rodríguezes, whose surname he still appends onto his own despite the divorce, have deep roots in the city, which he claims to feel intensely by proxy already despite only living in the city off and on for a few years.
Further images follow, a series of shots of Walter clearly having been shopped over a variety of pastoral scenes. One of them has a cowboy hat edited on his head. It would be convincing if not for the fact that the editor forgot to match the lighting.
In the gaps between the photos, Walter talks about how excited he is to work together with the people of Houston in upping the standard of hospitality service in the area, starting by heading the construction of brand new hotel franchises in cooperation with the InterContinental Hotels Group, Marriot International, local hoteliers, and the city government.
Emil’s not sure the legality of calling a rebranded hotel a brand new building, but despite the decades old stench of cigarettes and the general worn-down feel of this establishment, it appears Walter had no problem giving this flagship of his investment that label.
But just because the men executing the law shake hands with the man doesn’t mean what he’s doing is lawful, and certainly doesn’t make it moral. Emil’s heard the name Pavaghi before too, in the French Quarter where he had his shoes shined. Always it was punctuated by the utterer spitting on the ground. Walter’s theft of decades-old family owned establishments is not dissimilar to the demolishment of centuries old buildings in the French Quarter. Anything goes if it makes a buck.
And oh does it work, the system supports it here as much as anywhere. Luckily, that makes Mr. Pavaghi-Rodríguez a perfect target to revoke the privilege of privacy from.
The only question that remains is how. Given his age, background, and general smugness, Emil doubts that the man cares to change his passwords between accounts. To be fair, most people don’t care enough to do that. Some people don’t care enough to even make a single good password. That means that all Emil needs to do to break into this man’s private world is find one account of his that’s vulnerable to password cracking.
To get to those accounts, Emil might spend time pouring over a thousand different possibilities, but since he’s in Walter’s hotel, there are likely accounts he made offline that he can access off of the hotel’s wifi, which he has open access to.
He starts by attempting to break into the hotel’s router. Any traffic over the network would go through it and if there are any shared files on the network, he will be able to see them. The work is simple to do, and fairly quick. Standards don’t appear to have been raised much past what he might expect of the family-run hotel that this was before the condemnation.
Running through all the different services running on the router would take time that Emil doesn’t want to spend, luckily Chen sent him just such a tool to automate away much of the process.
Emil doesn’t go so far as to kick up his legs on the desk and wait as pretty printed data packets from the hotel’s different users come spewing out into a text document on his laptop, he has to use his time wisely.
There’s a lot of garbage coming onto the screen, from datatypes that Chen didn’t feel the need to format properly so that things which Emil presumes to be GIFs come out as long streams of hex values, and also from the unsecured messages expectorated out of the network by fellow hotel Wi-Fi users:
Long apology emails from husbands forced out of their houses and invitations for women with names like Chastity and Chardonnay to come to hotel rooms sent by those very same husbands a few moments later.
And then there’s the deluge of porn-disguised malware and money exchanges from schmucks with more time and cash than sense. There’s even someone threatening a physician at one of the local hospitals that if he doesn’t deliver another load of oxycodone to the dumpster behind O’Connell’s Pub he’s gonna break both his hands.
And this is all at nine in the morning. He doesn’t want to imagine what sort of shit people get up to once the sun dips below the horizon.
But after a time, he finally latches onto something useful: It’s a text output from a program called HotelSwift with a list of hotel room numbers and their occupancy rates along with financial figures. Looking into the name, he finds HotelSwift is a nearly decade old hotel management software. Another packet sent, this time with what looks like a mapping of usernames to long alphanumeric strings. Emil supposes that they might be hashed passwords.
Emil presumes that it was installed as the core of the original hotel’s business model ages ago, all the other processes for running the business were built with it in mind, and so like many other organizations, it has kept itself comfortably stuck using this legacy software, unbothered by the abysmally slow rates of updates and patches.
This leaves Emil licking his lips, it’s a good catch to be sure. He spends some time searching for a copy over the internet and his organization’s various internal torrented code repos. Soon enough the 8-bit icon of HotelSwift sits on the desktop of his virtual image of Portal NT, the latest OS to run the software.
It doesn’t take long for Emil to surmise a few key facts about the software: Firstly, it relies on an internet connection to send updates to a main server managing the data for various clusters of hotels. However, in part due to the technology it is built with and for convenience, it can run purely locally and simply send a data merging request to the main server once internet connection is regained.
Secondly, in order to facilitate running completely offline, the application has to store a copy of the table mapping users to their stored passwords so that login attempts can be authenticated before access is granted.
In order to effectively check that someone enters the right password for their account, the software needs to store information regarding their password somewhere. That could be in an external database, it could be in an encrypted file, or it could be stored unencrypted on the user’s computer. The latter option presents a dire risk that is only mitigated if the user is sure that their computer is inaccessible due to high standards of security. Out of what Emil presumes is some mixture of arrogance and lackadaisicality, SwiftHotel’s developers chose the latter method. Perhaps they considered it reasonable to store it locally because whether SwiftHotel provides access to a hotel cluster’s data is restricted by, for one, a user’s location data, so that a hotelier couldn’t commit espionage on a hotel that they don’t own.
Beyond the question of where to store passwords, there’s a further question of how. SwiftHotel does not store their password data in plaintext, which gives Emil some momentary relief in the middle of this confluence of poor decision making. Instead, they obfuscate the passwords by hashing them, occulting them by means of a function which is nearly impossible to reverse yet easy to apply.
That relief is short lived, as hashing alone is not enough to secure an authentication system. As he noticed before, the local software client sends a mapping of usernames and hashed passwords via the network to the main server cluster once an internet connection is established. Because the same hashing function is used both locally and server-side, should a new user make an account locally with the same password as an already established user, their passwords would hash to the same value, thus exposing the login details of the other user.
As Emil learned all-too painfully from his old software being splayed apart by one of his professors, common wisdom dictates that all passwords should be not just hashed, but salted. A value unique to each user should be convolved with the password they choose for themselves before the password is hashed, so as to avoid this vulnerability. By forgetting to salt their passwords, the developers peppered their system with avenues for Emil to attack.
Equipped with this information, Emil sets about to exploit the vulnerability by performing a dictionary attack on the local copy of the passwords, such that he would be able to get access to Walter’s accounts.
Emil starts a script titled T0ur15t.exe, sending it through the web to scrape for information about Walter. Ripping through the text on sites like LinkedIn, Facebook and MySpace. The T0ur15t scrapes every bit of digital footprint Walter has left behind in his life, and compiles it all into a list of keywords which define his life. He has a pitbull named Fluffy, his mother’s maiden name is Acharya, he frequents various pornographic forums under the username xXCorpStar10Xx and thinks no one else knows because he only watches but never posts. The list goes on, all the important verbs, nouns, and adjectives that form his online self.
Using this dictionary of words, Emil uses Chen’s password cracking program, appropriately called, ChenTheRipper to tear through as many permutations of these words, mixed in with the list of the most common, generic passwords. With each password, the Ripper creates a new account on the offline copy of the software and logs the hashed password that it outputs.
Eventually, it spits out a username and password pairing to Walter’s account. All that effort, targeted and condensed into a few letters that used to spell a fantasy of privacy but now form the key to this man’s existence.
All that remains is for Emil to find the locks.
It starts with the hotel, with the money he doesn’t have. A toy example. He unlocks the live version of the management software, on the admin account. All it takes is a few clicks to modify his stay, to make it stay occupied, as long as he’d like. Why question it, the owner made the change after all? It only takes a few more clicks to hide that information from the owner, hiding the data from anyone outside of the network.
Another lock is in the surveillance system. It opens just as easily. He doesn’t want the image of him paying the night before to stay live, so he overwrites it with the hours of footage before of the night shifter sleeping at his desk. Nord does he want people to view him entering and exiting his room. He overwrites the old footage and switches the recording to a loop of the empty hallway. The true footage he redirects to his own server, after all, it’s always good to have eyes outside.
Just a few more clicks, that’s all it takes.
But that’s all child’s play compared to what he has planned. He thinks back to Andy, to the feeling he got when he conquered his system, took it from the inside. He loads the program off his personal repo, METATRON.exe, the all seeing angel. The Prince of Countenances on the right hand of God’s heavenly throne; the One who lives at the top of His Tower.
Instead of being packaged in a game, this version of the software spreads its view, computer to computer, via email. Intercepting sent messages and sent links, and injecting a procedure to install itself silently onto the victim’s computer and into their email as an innocuous hidden process, revealing their secrets to the One Who Must See All. METATRON.exe sits quietly, watching and waiting, letting Emil see through its eyes, but not acting. At least, for the moment.
It starts with Walter, but then it will spread. Oh it will spread. To dirty politicians and corporation executives and all the other grime that hides behind the status quo.
Emil has his finger on the enter key, the call to let his creation loose writ in blinding light on the dark screen of the command line.
And Emil realizes he’s absolutely giddy at the prospect of breaking into these people’s lives, of taking away their privacy without them even knowing. It’s the highest of highs, better than anything. Better than sex and love and any drug. Better than Carter’s blood—For a moment, Emil can see his reflection in the black mirror of his laptop screen as the script runs by, and he realizes he’s smiling far too wide, far too eagerly. Excepting the brown color of his eyes, he stares into the maddened guise of the monster who tried to kill Dad.
Sobered, he focuses himself on the higher purposes of this project. These people take away people’s livelihoods for a buck fifty, erase their histories for a nickel, and plaster the soulless titles of unfeeling corporations onto buildings in the name of the law. It’s not just unjust, it’s unclean, unholy.
He presses the enter key, and the Angels of the Lord are sent to the sinners, sent there to keep watch over them, to stay silent and hidden, until the time is right. The Lord sees all. It’s time for men to remember that.
It’s Emil’s duty to remind them.
GM: The Prince of Countenances watches serenely from on high.
And the transphysical Tower slowly grows.
Block by block.
Byte by byte.
The Word of Salvation Church is one of the largest megachurches in the United States. Emil can tell just from the pictures. It looks more like a football stadium than a church. Attendance averages some 70,000 souls per week. Indeed, the building used to be a sports stadium before it was purchased by Word of Salvation Church. The personnel required to staff such a large facility is enormous, with perhaps 8,000 dedicated volunteers and paid staffers.
In any organization so large, leaks are inevitable. Especially with volunteers who are part of frequent mass and private email correspondences but not actually on company payroll.
Word of Salvation Church draws in sums of money comparable to any corporation. Profits and expenditures are in the millions of dollars. Churches this large seem to be run more like businesses than community churches. The startup capital required to fund Word of Salvation, however, is perplexing. It doesn’t come out of nowhere—it comes from everywhere. Sources range from drug dealers and gangbangers to politicos and tech entrepreneurs, much of it from Houston, but some from as far away as Los Angeles or New York City.
The personal records of its lead minister, Reverend Hosea Walker, seem equally fabricated. Everything about the man prior to 2005, from birth records to academic credentials, is all fake. There is no faking, however, that Walker is an extraordinarily charismatic man. Emil watches a few videos of him preaching. The man’s eyes shine as he speaks, his TV-broadcasted gaze instantly quiets the thousands of people it meets, and his statuesque posture indelibly conveys that what he says is important. Gravely important. Emil can see the reverence, awe, ecstasy reflected back in the thousands-large congregation’s eyes as the Holy Spirit fills them. Their cries and exclamations of devotion are like the roar of an ocean wave—and Walker the sea god steadily guiding its path.
Ever since Walker popped into Houston, other megachurches near Word of Salvation have found their congregations steadily siphoned away or been forced to close their doors altogether. Mayor Blumenfeld, who does not seem to have been especially religious (by Texan standards) prior to 2005, is a regular Sunday attendee and maintains close ties with church leadership. He appears with Walker in many public photo ops. Word of Salvation donated generously to his election campaign in 2006. He is not the only man of prominence to enjoy such a relationship with the church, either. Word of Salvation has cultivated a remarkable network of favors and connections with assorted civic, business, and other community leaders in the two years since it opened, including Councilwoman Weatherford. Even Pavaghi-Rodriguez has had some inevitable-seeming dealings. The church is now a lynchpin in the Bayou City’s politics. Many pieces of recent municipal legislation have been extremely favorable to Walker’s church.
Emil: The name Blumenfeld sounds far too Jewish for this to be a completely natural event. Secular Jews just don’t convert to Christianity.
And that influence Walker has, insane! And in so short a time. Emil can’t help but feel envious of the reverend.
Curious timing as well, appearing right during Katrina.
With a moment of thought, Emil jots a note into the filing cabinet of his head, Is Walker a vampire?
GM: There are photos of him during the day. Sunday mornings are any church’s busiest time.
Emil: Blanche’s words ring out in his head. For the love of God, boy, he’s a vam-pire, sun burns him.
But Blanche is closed minded, and Emil has seen another wear his own face. He can’t rule the idea out.
Or perhaps he is a slave like him.
GM: Whatever the truth of Walker’s vampirism, he appears far from the only individual to exert influence over Houston’s political figures from the shadows.
George Mutscher is the board chairman (though not CEO) of Mutscher Petroleum, one of H-Town’s largest oil companies. Mutscher is also a noted philanthropist who’s had a close personal relationship with several of Houston’s previous mayors and been a regular donor to their campaigns, as well as numerous other politicos. His company has largely supported the same political causes as its chairman. Mutscher even had such a relationship with Blumenfeld at one point, although that seems to have cooled since 2005 and the mayor no longer takes his money.
Photos of him only exist at night.
Emil starts taking notes on one of the few storage media which isn’t vulnerable to hacking: the complimentary Holiday Inn Express notepad he found on the nightstand. He writes in ciphered Hebrew.
He constructs the subtext of the information into a story. Around the time of Katrina, Walker, a vampire, or perhaps servant of a vampire, appeared and began to poach influence from Mutscher, who is even more probably a vampire. There’s likely a thriving rivalry between them. Ripe for exploitation.
GM: Information on who Walker was prior to 2005 seems to be scant indeed. As Emil’s Holiday Inn Express notepad can attest, you can’t hack something that is never posted online.
However, there is more than enough incriminating information posted on the internet to satisfy even the most avaricious seeker of dirty laundry. Reverend Walker, like anyone, appears to have his share.
Her name is Daisy Walker. She’s the reverend’s college-age daughter and looks like the archetypal ‘50s girl next door: wholesome, demure, pretty, always smiling, always dressed in modest attire. Emil can’t find a single picture where she isn’t smiling next to her father’s side.
Her mother died a while ago. It’s just the two of them.
There are also stories where there aren’t pictures. There’s an emailed one sent by a member of Walker’s staff (Emil’s not sure if that’s the precise term, but with thousands of employees, the reverend is large enough to have what’s effectively a personal staff) to a personal friend, both practicing less than secure cybersecurity, about “what got into the reverend’s daughter.” She showed up to a meeting between her father and a representative from Fountain of Life, one of Houston’s other megachurches. They were trying to reach some kind of deal regarding Fountain of Life’s financial woes and seemingly imminent closure (“do not repeat this!”), thanks to competition from Word of Salvation and siphoning of the former’s congregation.
However, Fountain of Life may have gotten a lease on life. Daisy showed up to the meeting wearing very tight, suggestive clothing that “flattered her without seeming like she was trying to flatter herself.” She was very “gussied up.” Walker appeared extremely bothered by the sight of his daughter in such attire. The negotiations with the other church’s representative fell through. Daisy is reported to have looked rather smug about the whole failed business.
Emil: He jots down her age as an interesting factor. It’s only been two years since the construction of Walker and yet his daughter is in college. If she’s really his daughter, and it is very plausible she is not, given that his persona is completely constructed, she knows what he’s hiding from before the alternate identity.
The power dynamic interests Emil. Her willingness to trash the deal implies a lack of loyalty to her father’s business, and yet her modest dress in photo-ops simultaneously implies a loyalty to her father individually, or at least a willingness to help market her father’s wholesome image for the sake of furthering her own societal position, as her success relies on his.
That goal-oriented drive from Daisy alongside the extent to which her immodest dress threw the reverend off his kilter points Emil to the devil in these details.
He pulls his eyes from the screen for a moment and just blinks, his lip curling into a sneer.
“How very Freudian.”
GM: As the hours tick by, it soon becomes plain to Emil that Daisy’s identity is just as fabricated as her father’s. She was supposedly born in Byhalia, Mississippi, on June 3rd 1984, but the records are just as specious. So is the 23-year-old’s supposed pastoral studies degree.
Records concerning her deceased mother, Rose Walker, prove even more specious: Emil cannot find any documentation that such a person ever existed. The remaining Walkers claims that Rose died giving birth to Daisy, the family’s only child. Much like Hosea Walker, Daisy Walker seems to have popped into being in 2005.
Most telling of all, however, are the pair’s photos.
Sunday morning is any church’s busiest time. The father and daughter appear before their congregation every week. There are abundant photos of them up and about on Sunday mornings.
But the sports arena-like church lacks windows.
Emil cannot find a single picture of them outside the church during daylight hours.
Emil: Oh, that’s clever. Two vampires in one happy, powerful family. Sire and childe, likely enough. The question is, where did they come from? And why?
Emil wonders whether the sewer rats know all this already. Carter knew who Codi was, after all, so this may be perfectly common knowledge for those subterranean Kindred. He needs something deeper, needs to keep looking. Keep digging.
GM: Emil follows his hunch back to the city of his birth. There are no records he can find there, either, concerning a Hosea or Daisy Walker. Father and daughter simply pop into being in 2005.
But there are pictures.
Or at least a picture.
It’s slow going as the clock ticks steadily past. (He can always ask that slave of Codi’s to lunch later.) Emil is pretty sure the micofiche newspapers from Tulane’s archives are only online because he was the one to personally digitize and upload them. But there is a story, dating all the way back to the 1980s, about a traveling revival whose charismatic preacher, a one Jedaiah Morrison, led a caravan of mobile homes, pickup trucks, and aging sedans on a regional circuit throughout the Southern United States. He hosted a tent revival outside of the Big Easy whose attendance was packed. He was due to hold another when one man among his congregation murdered another man over an infidelitous wife. The ensuing police investigation tarnished Morrison’s name and caused the revival to pack up and depart shortly thereafter. His daughter Julep gave one media interview where she defended her father’s and the revival’s reputations, posted in the old newspaper archive Emil now sits reading.
Her hair and clothes are different. But her face is the spitting image of 2007’s Daisy Walker.
“God knows our hearts,” Julep said. “And we’ll be back here one day, in some way, y’all can count on it.”
Emil: Emil finds himself licking his lips as his hunch is affirmed. And he has a name now, something the sewer rats likely couldn’t know. Who in their right mind would assume such old info exists online, who except the person who put it there to begin with.
Now he has a dead name, all he needs his a place. Finding the legal address of the pair is trivial to do, but Emil knows that vampires like these are under threat of people like Lucky and his compatriots, who could take advantage of a known address to kill them when they are weak, during the day. Unfortunately for anyone who has to maintain tight schedules and routines, such as those who run a megachurch and hobnob with politicians, the motions of their electronic devices can be picked out of a lineup of location tracking data. Such data is collected and sold, not-so-discreetly, by all manner of applications and websites. After all, when a service is free, you are the product.
GM: Indeed, as Emil well knows, anytime an app or website asks “Can I access your location,” and the service they offer is free, they’re giving that to other people. Using a combination of meeting locations listed in emails and the Walkers’ daily schedules, portions of which are indeed public so that the public can interact with them, Emil can triangulate the data he has to find their phones.
Hosea Walker, it looks like, simply does not use a cellphone.
Daisy Walker does. Her phone’s present location is inside Word of Salvation.
Emil supposes it’s as secure a place as anywhere to sleep. After all, the Walkers own the building. The thousands-large church even has its own private security force.
Emil: Emil finds it curious that someone running as big an organization as Hosea lacks a cell phone, though perhaps not so curious if he lived most of his life without them. Hosea hasn’t exactly been a popular name in recent decades, after all. How old must he be?
The building’s size does little to dissuade Emil’s search. Location data itself has a reasonably high degree of specificity. A-GPS alone gives coordinates with four decimal places of accuracy which translates to a potential radius in the low tens of meters. Due to the widespread implementation of wireless access points in past years, Wifi Positioning Systems or WPS based on RSSI localization and fingerprinting are used in tandem with GPS systems to increase accuracy to between point six and two meters from the true location. In locations that are commonly visited by the same devices, accurate elevation data is also available. WPS information is made freely available on a series of databases for locations open to the public such as megachurches, and in a city like Houston, it’s hard to find a spot that lacks a wifi hotspot or two.
He uses the many images of the building taken by worshippers and press, alongside an aerial view from Google Maps and the public record of the building plan and fire escape plans to figure out the exact location Daisy sleeps in.
GM: The little bubble icon on his screen says that Daisy’s phone is located in the central portion of church’s building. While he’d need floor plans for Word of Salvation Church to say exactly what room in the building it’s coming from, he has the GPS coordinates, and could follow them were he to pay the megachurch a visit.
Some part of him may absently wonder what Carter looks like when he sleeps. Where he sleeps. Whether his resting place is secure, and could be found like he found Daisy’s phone.
Though that question may well be moot, Emil belatedly realizes.
It’s night out.
Time flies when you’re having fun.
For now, perhaps, other obligations and commitments may beckon Emil away from his computer screen. But his program will continue to run and new findings may yet await him when he returns. If nothing else, there is one fact of which the computer science student is certain to the core of his being:
Metatron, and his .exe derivative, truly sees all.