Well, I failed at my NaNoWriMo goal, but I did get a fair bit written, so here it is:
J. K. Hoffman
“Wherein some brief introductions are made.”
I don’t care how worldly or experienced you think you are, there is nothing quite so unnerving as seeing a dead man walking past you. The experience is not minimized by seeing that dead man walking through a barbershop owned and operated by the Molvanian “Mafia”, either. In fact, I think knowing that Molvanian gangsters are involved with a walking corpse makes the entire thing just a little bit worse. Don’t get me wrong, the walking dead is pretty strange, but the Molvanians are even worse most days.
Ah, but I’m getting a little bit ahead of myself, here, aren’t I? My name’s Jake and I’m a thief. Oh, hell, who am I kidding? I was a good thief. In fact, in my day, I was a very good thief. Not quite good enough, I thought, to make a full-time living at it, which is why I kept up the little computer consulting business, but, still, I was a good thief. Now, that’s not to say that I’m not good at other things, too, but, there’s something about having said that out loud. “I was a good thief.” Yep, there is definitely something about saying that out loud that makes me feel different, somehow more important, more sexy, more… Well, more something, than saying, “I was a good system administrator”. Oh, sure, being able to handle two support calls and read e-mail while also rewiring a network in my head is a wonderful thing to be able to do, but it just doesn’t have the same impact as having been a professional thief. Or, at least a semi-professional thief.
You wouldn’t have known it to look at me, though, that’s for sure. No, people saw what they expected to see, namely a professional geek. Usually, a professional geek who was there to help them sort out some terribly complicated and obscure problem that required very specialized knowledge. That was my day job. Really, it wasn’t even so much about what I could do as what I knew. And, back in the day, I seemed to know everything. Or, at least, everything that mattered to my consulting customers. It was a good gig, the computer consulting thing that is, even if it wasn’t all that sexy. It was steady pay and, more or less, honest work. At least, I sure did my best not to cheat in my straight job. I had a reputation to maintain, after all. That was how I got work, based on my reputation as a smart-ass, know-it-all who didn’t always get along with people, but could make computers sing and dance.
The day gig let me travel, too, which was a good cover for my other work. I was out of Houston at the time, but did most of my “work” in Chicago. Traditionally, professional criminals of my variety don’t work in the cities where we live, though, there are always exceptions to this rule. Now, so-called organized crime is a zebra of a different stripe, and my old friends, the Molvanians, sure liked to think they were just as organized as the Italian boys. They weren’t, but no one likes to think of themselves as second fiddles to anyone, so they put on a good show, complete with full Scorsese dramatics. And, I suppose, in one sense, they were organized. They moved in packs, like domestic dogs gone feral, and they had a finger in as many pies as they could manage. But, beyond that? Well, let’s just say they were the living embodiment of what happens when you cross Murphy’s Law with the Peter Principle and turn the result loose in an underworld, free-market economy run by a confused Darwinian experimenter with his finger on “fast forward”. Other than that, though, “organized” just isn’t something I would have ever applied to any of the crime syndicates that I’d ever done work for, least of all the Molvanians. Still, they were a good enough bunch of guys. You know, for a collection of sociopaths and miscreants. They sure knew how to throw a party. Those crazy bastards loved their parties. More importantly, to me, was the fact that they always had something in the works. Often, they had something in the works that a quiet, unassuming guy like me could get a piece of.
The Molvanians’ main problem was that they suffered from an over active collective imagination. They’d seen one too many gangster films in black and white and thought that was how they should run their business. So, when the first of these guys got a little scratch together, he bought himself a barbershop. Now, I don’t know which film noir gangster movie old Jelso had seen, but, somehow he’d made the connection between the old-style, Italian mob and hot lather, so he just had to own, run and use an old-fashioned barbershop. And, that’s how I found the Molvanians. I wasn’t looking for a connection in Houston, but I’ve never liked modern, unisex hair salons, so I went looking for an good, old-fashioned barber. I grew up going to first a German then an Italian owned and operated barbershop. It was the same shop, but changed owners when I was about sixteen, or so. It was the kind of shop where the guys learned by apprenticeship and still used a straight razor to shave the back of your neck. When I first showed up there, I never would have guessed that “Tony’s Barbershop” was owned by Jelso Voldarj, the de facto “godfather” of the Molvanian mob in the States. Come to think of it, I’m not sure I even know for certain who the capo di tutti capo was back in the old country.
In any case, I strolled in one crisp, Fall day, expecting to see the place full of swarthy, old men, dressed in black, pinstripe suits without ties, joking with each other in Italian. What I found, though, was a bunch of swarthy, old men dressed in more shades of earthy brown than I knew existed joking back and forth in a choking, slobbering Slavic language I later learned was Molvanian, peppered with Russian. They were all drinking what looked like espresso out of those demitasse cups that the Italians made so famous. The smell in that little storefront, however, was anything but that dark, rich aroma of fine Italian roast. No, the smell was something more like burnt chicory and old shoe leather rendered down with rusty water. And, when I looked more closely, I could see that they were actually sipping it through these strange straw-like contraptions that had corks on the end that was in the cup. I was about to turn and walk out, but, just then, one of the barbers saw me, jumped from his chair and waved me over.
“Zlkavszka!” he spit the word at me through a toothless grin.
“Um…” I replied. “I’m sorry, but I don’t speak…” I smiled and shrugged because I realized about then that I had no idea what language they were speaking. One of the old men at the back of the shop started laughing loudly and stood up from his over-stuffed, leather chair that looked like it belonged in an old, English library rather than a barbershop.
“He say ‘Hello'”, the old man told me through a slightly more tooth-filled smile than the barber who was waiting for me to sit down. “I am Jelso. He is Yakov.” Upon hearing his name the barber, Yakov, stood a little straighter and, somehow, managed to smile a little wider, even with hardly any teeth in his mouth and absolutely none of his front teeth at all. It was hard to look at Yakov, standing proudly behind his worn, red barber chair and not catch his smile, as it were some kind of Eastern European fast-spreading flu.
“Yakov is good barber. Since you are new customer, he give you special price, yes?” And, when he hear Jelso say the words “special price”, Yakov’s smile slipped just a little bit, letting me know that he spoke English just fine and I was about to be conned. I liked the two men immediately.
“Special price?” I asked. “Can I afford your special prices?” I could tell that the men liked me, too, from the twinkle in Yakov’s eye and the way Jelso threw his head back and laughed. Which was good, because I noticed that everyone else in the room had stopped laughing and were just about holding their breath to see how the two con artists would react to my response.
“For you cup of zvadovar?” Jelso asked me, pointing to a small counter in the dark, smoky back room on which rested the most ornate, baroque brass contraption that I’d ever seen. It hissed like an angry snake and leaked steam from virtually every seam. Honestly, I was afraid of what might come out of the antique machine along with whatever it was the men were drinking out of those demitasse cups. I had also started to wonder just what was responsible for Jelso and Yakov’s particular dental choices and whether or not there was a connection to the wheezing heap of scrap metal in the corner and the fussy, little man with the slicked back hair who tended it like a ship’s engineer fusses over his boiler and engine. He clucked and whispered to the whistling brass machine almost like it was a living thing. Worse than that, though, was how afraid I was of saying no to a man like Jelso. He was happy and smiling and laughing now, but, seeing how the other men in the shop watched him, I had the distinct feeling that he could drop that facade in a heartbeat if things didn’t go his way.
“Sure, I guess.” What else could I have said?
Yakov cleared his throat and motioned to the chair in front of him, still smiling. As I sat down in the barber chair, Jelso snapped his fingers to get the barista’s attention and sputtered something at him in their shared language that sounded very much like the noises coming from the brass contraption on the counter. The dour, little man snapped to attention like a soldier taking orders, then turned smartly to his brass companion and went to work. While the barista practiced his arcane craft under the cover of shadow in that back room, Yakov wrapped a sheet so tightly around my neck that I almost choked. He asked Jelso a question over my seated head and Jelso turned back to face us.
“He say, how you want hair?”
“Oh, um, short, I guess. Off the ears and with a slight taper up the back.” And, before Jelso could even translate, Yakov had set to work on me. I wasn’t sure what they were playing at and why they kept up the pretense that only Jelso could speak English, but they were an interesting pair. They looked so alike that I was sure they had to be related. In fact, at first glance they were so similar in appearance that they could have almost passed for brothers. After a moment’s thought, I asked the question, “Are you brothers?”
“Ha! No, Yakov is, how you say, Uncle.” At this, Yakov gave a little groan behind me, as if anticipating the punchline of a bad, well-worn joke, while maintaining a steady pace trimming with his scissors and comb. For his part, Jelso almost seemed like he was waiting for me to play along, so I asked the obvious question.
“Uncle? But you two look the same age.” Which brought a sigh from Yakov and a slightly wider smile from Jelso.
“Da, that Grandpa, he was only good for two things: drinking zeerstum and complaining about life to Grandma. But, Grandma only good for one thing. Making family.” This brought another sigh from Yakov and small smiles from the other patrons. It seemed as though I had become the latest excuse for one of Jelso’s favorite stories and one of Yakov’s least favorite. I could understand the sentiment. I had a great-grandfather that liked to play the ponies and my grandmother, his daughter-in-law, hated when my father told the story about taking the money to the barbershop so he couldn’t blow it on the races instead of getting his haircut.
“Also, Yakov looks younger than real age. Always he had the, how you say, little-boy face.”
“Baby face. You mean to say that he had a baby face.”
“Da, is what I said, no? Yakov have face of little baby, but is older, is uncle.” By this point, Yakov had set the scissors aside and picked up an electric clipper that sounded like it was about to rattle apart. He started trimming the back of my neck, giving me a nice, even taper, just the way I like it. I didn’t even have to look in a mirror to know he was doing it right. I could tell by the way his hands worked on my head and the pattern of the clippers on my neck that I was getting a good haircut. While he was working, he muttered something under his breath in that gurgling, hissing language that he and his brother spoke, as well as, apparently, the rest of the clientèle quietly sipping their zvadovar, whatever that was really.
“Ah, Uncle Yakov no likes that story. He think it say bad thing about father,” Jelso said with a wink and a nod. “So, what is your name? All this talk and we no know your name!”
“Oh, you can just call me Jake.”
“Yep, just plain, old Jake,” I told him. Before Jelso could think of something more clever to say, the little barista appeared at his elbow with a dingy demitasse cup that had what looked like a silver straw sticking out of it. The fussy, silent man stood almost at attention when he presented Jelso with the cup.
“Not for me, Parsnip-Brain! For customer!” Jelso barked at the ancient barista, who turned toward me and carefully, precisely shuffled to the barber chair where I sat, watching the cup of zvadovar more than where he was going. Miraculously, he made it to me without spilling a drop, or tripping over the tired, cracked, linoleum floor. Watching him, watching the look of concentration on his weary, almost Asian face, hearing the rhythmic buzzing of the electric clippers, I almost felt as thought I’d accidentally wandered into a William S. Burroughs story as interpreted by Monty Python’s Flying Circus. The pungent steam rising from the worn cup smelled like some sort of chicory tea made with rusty water and strained through an old shoe. But, I knew I had to face it, or risk upsetting my host. Frankly, I didn’t know what to make of them, but I was too fascinated to risk missing the opportunity to find out more.
“Thank you,” I said, as I accepted the cup from the barista who responded only with a bow and a smart, military turn before he retreated to tend his baroque, brass charge. Mimicking the other patrons, I sipped at the vile smelling brew through the silver, straw-like contraption. As I did, I noticed that the end in the zvadovar had a cork filter of some kind that was no doubt meant to strain the larger flotsam and jetsam that had somehow navigated all the way through the brass tubes into my cup. Sadly, it did not filter out the taste which, thankfully for you, was indescribable. I think I managed not to spit any back into the cup, but I coughed and choked so hard it made poor Yakov curse at me in his native tongue as he jerked the clippers away from the back of my head. The rest of the room erupted in laughter.
“Not what you expect, eh?” asked Jelso with a knowing grin. He repeated the question in the language the rest of the men shared, which brought a new round of laughter.
“A little stronger than I thought it’d be,” was all I managed to choke out. In truth, it had simply tasted far, far worse than even the horrible smell had led me to expect. In truth, nothing could have prepared me for that bitter, burnt taste. My comment, after Jelso translated it for his audience, brought another round of laughter. Yakov just blew a frustrated breath through his nose, said nothing and resumed his work with the clippers and comb.
“Ah, Uncle Yakov does not like when we tease new friends,” Jelso said and shrugged, but gave me a sly wink, as if I were in on some old, family joke. Yakov, for his part, simply asked a question in an even, measured voice, as if he were trying to keep from losing his temper. I suspected that it must have rankled Yakov a bit, having an upstart nephew who was almost your age for a boss. “Yakov wants know if you want shave, too?”
“Sure, why not?” I replied, and heard Yakov set the clippers down behind me even before Jelso translated my answer. Then, Yakov turned the chair half-way around, so I was facing toward the back room and Jelso, but also able to see Yakov and the wall of mirrors that had been behind me. I didn’t like having my back to the door, but it made me feel a little better to be able to keep track of Yakov.
“So, Jake, what you do for make money?” Jelso asked me as Yakov started a lather machine, picked up a straight razor, and started to sharpen it on a strop hanging from his counter. Ah, I thought, here it comes. Finally, here was what they were going to do to me.
“Oh, mostly, I do computer consulting.”
“Eh? You are insulting computers for living?”
“No, I help people solve computer problems. When they can’t get their computers talking to each other, or when someone breaks into their computers to do damage, I help them fix the problems.”
“Ah, is good! Have small problem you maybe can help with? For haircut and shave and nice cup of zvadovar?”
“Depends on how small the problem is, Jelso. Why don’t you tell me about it while Yakov shaves me?” And, I gave him a little wink and a smile, so he knew I was just being friendly and not trying to tell him that I wouldn’t do it in a polite way.
“Hmph. Da, is good,” Jelso said, in a sort of non-committal way. He took a long, sour-faced draw of his zvadovar through the silver and cork filter, then sighed and started his story. “I have friend with small problem. Has disk that friend can not read in computer. Disk has very important information on it that bad, naughty employee hid from friend. Is, how you say? Pro….”
“Proprietary?” I offered around Yakov’s enthusiastic lathering.
“Da, is proprietary information that friend want keep hidden from competitors. But, naughty, bad employee, how you say? Crypt? He crypt data?”
“Ah, encrypt. He encrypted the data on the disk.”
“Da! Da, is right. Make hard for Jelso’s friend to keep business running, with proprietary information all encrypted, da?”
“Well, yeah, if your friend’s business relies on that information, then it would make it hard if the data were all encrypted.”
“Da, so can you help? Can you fix encryption on data?”
“Well, maybe. Can I get a copy of the disk? I’ll take it and work on it and bring it back, okay?”
Yakov took the moment of quiet to shave me with a frightening speed and an almost unnatural dexterity. In just a few short seconds, while Jelso contemplated how trustworthy I really was, Yakov had managed to remove most of my stubble, quickly and efficiently reducing the white, mentholated foam to a cartoonish mustache and goatee. He was about to lunge in at my upper lip when Jelso came to a conclusion.
“Da. Is okay,” Jelso said. Then, his entire bearing changed from that of a happy, jolly Eastern European characature, to that of a dark, hard, dangerous man used to whispering death sentences over his zvadovar. “But,” he continued,”if you betray me, if you betray my confidence, and you make proprietary information public? That make things very bad for you, da?”
“Da,” I replied. I think I managed to not blink or flinch when I replied, but I’m honestly not sure. “That would make things very bad indeed.”
And, so, I did my first little job for the Molvanians. The details don’t really matter, and would probably bore a non-geek to death, but I managed to figure out which encryption system was used and cracked it. I used, well, it doesn’t really matter what I used to crack that encrypted files, but it was very custom and loaded with pretty black-hat utilities that the average consultant just wouldn’t have been using. I used to call them “trade secrets”, but anyone at DEF-CON would have been able to come up with them. Naturally, I made copies of all the files on the disk. Even back then, I was smart enough not to trust my “grey-market” customers totally. These kinds of guys were a little random and unpredictable, so I learned early to make my own special kind of insurance. I had a series of hidden accounts on servers I’d compromised over the years, each set to e-mail, among others, the FBI and local police, a whole laundry list of very interesting files, not the least of which were the files that old Jelso had asked me to decrypt. Turns out, they were a set of books detailing the Molvanians’ entire juice load business that one of his former employees had locked up and held for ransom. I heard at least four municipalities found parts of the guy and they had to use dental records and the serial number on an old surgical pin to identify the poor bastard.
The next big job Jelso had for me, though, was a little more complicated.
“Wherein some weird shit happens.”
So, a couple of months passed, and Jelso and I fell into a kind of pattern. I came in about every five or six weeks to let Yakov cut my hair and give me a shave and Jelso would have “little projects” that he’d ask me to do. It worked out well for me, because Yakov was a superb barber and, mostly, the stuff Jelso asked me to get done for him weren’t that complicated, or even that illegal, really. Then, after six months or so, the little jobs started getting bigger and Jelso started giving me more than free haircuts. When he found out that I liked old books and obscure books on the occult, just for fun, I started getting those. Honestly, I was a little surprised by that. I had sort of figured that a guy from the “Old Country” would be a lot more superstitious than Jelso. I guess living under Soviet rule does have its advantages. When the jobs got big enough, I started finding money in the books as bookmarks. One time, Jelso asked me to access, backup and format a dozen or so laptops. Not generic, no-name Eurotrash junk from former Soviet Bloc countries, like he normally got, but a dozen, top of the line Toshibas. Real high-grade stuff.
Anyway, when I bring them back after a week’s worth of working on them, Jelso was acting all cagey, like he had something he wanted to tell me or ask me, but wasn’t quite sure how to broach the subject. I figured it was best to let him get to it himself and not push at him. He’d either come to it in his own time, or it was something I wanted to avoid. If I were particularly unlucky, it would turn out to be both.
“So, I hear you like work in Chicago?” Jelso asked me, looking at me sideways over his zvadovar.
“I do consulting work all over, Jelso. Maybe I work more in Chicago because I used to be from there and I can visit family when I go to Chicago on a job. Why do you ask?” I had the feeling, of course, that he wasn’t talking about my consulting work, but my second job, as a thief. I understood his reluctance to talk openly about it. So far, I hadn’t done anything all that illegal for him. Nothing that could trace back to me and get me pinched. I had what Ollie North would call “plausible deniability” Up to this point, I had just been working on equipment and files that I could claim I thought Jelso had a completely legal right to access and use. It was a total lie, of course, but, still, I hadn’t done anything that would send me away. No good thief, one who stayed out on the street working, worked where he lived. At least, not if he could help it. Jelso had heard right. I did most of my other “work” in Chicago, far away from Houston and home.
“I have for you special job, maybe, here in Houston.”
“A ‘special job’, Jelso? What kind of special job?” We were getting down to it, but I wanted hi to say the thing, not me. I never, ever wanted to bring up my second job first. It was a lot harder to get pinched, trapped by the police or the “alphabet boys”, if they brought up the job first. Don’t misunderstand, though, for the right money versus risk ratio, I was willing to do just about anything, but I never saw a reason to make it easy on the other team.
“You like the old books, da? Special books no one else sees or reads, da?”
“Yes, I like books of all kinds, especially old ones. Is that the job, Jelso? Finding you a book?” At this point, he really had my curiosity piqued. Jelso wasn’t the kind who dealt in old books. He was old school. Contraband liquor, electronics, pirated music and video. Every once in a great while Jelso would come up with cultural goods from his home country that had managed to slip past Customs, but, mostly, he always had something that had fallen off a truck somewhere, if you take my meaning. He was a good guy, though, and he had his standards. He might have dealt in zeerstum or turpz that didn’t have any of the normal import tax labels or seals, but he never poisoned his people with something like heroin or cocaine.
“You are, maybe, superstitious? You believe in God, Jake?”
“That must be an interesting book you’ve got there, Jelso. Why don’t we go somewhere quiet and talk about this job.” He’d gotten me at that point. Once, I’d heard that Jelso had been deported from his own country for dealing in stolen religious icons. Saint Simeon’s Church in Lutenblag “lost” a number of platinum-plated crucifixes and at least one Molvanian-cedar icon of Saint Fyodor that was inlaid with some of the earliest glass the Molvanians ever produced. Not worth all that much on the open market, honestly, but they were priceless to the Molvanians.