Chapter One of The 24th Name
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Here's Chapter One:
When I knocked on the door, a guy pulled it open and blinked into the sunshine. He shaded his eyes and found my face. “No girls?” he asked. He thought he knew me, which happens a lot. I’m mostly average. A little taller. More scars. But overall, mostly average. I look like a lot of guys. Including somebody this guy was expecting. I took advantage and pushed the door open. The guy backed up into the hallway. I closed the door behind me. In the darkness, he saw his mistake. “You’re not Rick.” He was confused. Probably like most days. You would think if you liked drugs you’d be in a place where there wasn’t as much sunshine as Florida. Maybe Seattle. Maybe Chicago. But no, Florida was the drug capital of America. For a while, it had to be proximity to coastline and ease of transportation, which kept the costs low. But since the 2000s, drugs were more likely to come in pills than in powder. And they were more likely to come from a truck than a speedboat. But maybe guys like this knew they would eventually find themselves passed out and sleeping outside. Most days, it’s better to sleep outside in Florida than Seattle or Chicago. Before knocking on the door, I didn’t know what kind of scam they were running. But I knew it involved women. So I looked up the most popular female baby names in Florida in the 1990’s. In 1990, it was Ashley. In 1991, it was Ashley. All the way until 1998, it was Ashley. Then Emily took the top spot. To give the guy focus, I started with Ashley. “Where’s Ashley?” I asked. Not threatening. Not angry. Just curious. And a little hopeful. Like there was an opportunity for him if I found Ashley. All he said was, “You’re not Rick.” To move things forward, I agreed with him. “I’m not Rick.” He seemed relieved to hear that. Like until that moment he wasn’t sure who he was looking at. Like he wasn’t sure if reality was what he was seeing. Now, he was more confident. He shook his head confidently. “There’s no Ashley.” “What about Emily?” I asked. “What – first you wanted Ashley. Now you want Emily?” Fear jumped back into his eyes. Then he saw an opportunity. “You want a blonde Emily or a dark-haired Emily?” “The Emily who’s my sister,” I said. Confusion returned. “I think I should call Rick.” “You should call Rick,” I agreed. “How long will it take him to get here?” The guy picked up his phone. “He lives next door.” Rick took thirty seconds to arrive. He was overweight and sloppy with a piece of donut stuck in his dark stubble. It was a little insulting that the guy thought I looked like Rick, but that’s what happens when you’re mostly average. Rick didn’t come alone. He had a guy with him who looked like he had just been told to put down his video game controller and grab his gun. His eyes were jittery with excitement and his fingers were twitching. He ran his hand over a bulge under a coat that no one was wearing in Florida this time of year. Rick started with the same question everybody was asking since I arrived in Florida. “Are you a cop?” I answered with a question. “Who are you, Rick?” “The landlord,” Rick said. “This is my place.” “I’m not a cop,” I said. “Where’s Emily? She was living here a month ago.” “I don’t know,” he said. “People come and go.” “Can you check your records?” I asked. He stared at me. “Just did. No records.” “Here’s the funny thing,” I said. “Emily said she found a place where she didn’t have to pay rent. In fact, she got paid to live where she was living. Five hundred bucks a month. Which she thought was great. But that creates a problem for you. It makes you something other than a landlord, doesn’t it? That makes you her employer. You have employment records?” Rick threw up his hands. “Listen, whoever you are. She’s gone. She moved on.” “Where did she go?” When you work as a spy, networks are everything. You leverage networks on your side, and you work to identify the networks on the other side. Networks are like a spider’s web. It’s why they first called the internet the “world wide web.” Networks are nodes connected by strands. Nodes get their meaning from the Latin “nodus,” which means “knot.” Nodes are where strands are tied together. When nodes are people, they’re where the power lies. Powerful people gather information and resources from the strands. They make decisions. They distribute resources. Nodes are the most important part of a network, but nodes don’t come first. If you want to penetrate a network, you don’t start with the nodes. You start with the strands. Because strands move around. Strands go between nodes. They travel. One day, they’re connecting two nodes. The next day, they’re connecting two different nodes. All that travel means strands are easier to find. It also means they know a lot. A strand is how the CIA found Bin Laden. Bin Laden was a node connected to the other nodes in the Al-Qaeda network. The strand connecting them was a courier. To find the node, the CIA had to find the strand. The game for almost ten years was: Find the strand connecting Bin Laden to the Al-Qaeda network. Find the courier, and you find Bin Laden. Find the strand, and you find the nodes. When you’re trying to figure out what a network is doing, you start with the strands. Rick didn’t move too much. He didn’t connect much. Which meant he was a node, not a strand. I took a step closer and said again, “Where did she go?” Rick shook his head. “I don’t know.” Another step closer. The overgrown gamer with the gun took a step closer to me. Now, we were all three tight and close together. I said, “I know how it is, Rick. You’re the guy getting paid to pay other people. That’s middle management. Middle management is stressful. You need to keep two groups of people happy all the time: the people below you and the people above you. It’s why middle managers get overweight and eat donuts and have heart attacks: too much stress. And then a guy like me comes by. I might be a threat to the people above you or below you. Or both. You want to protect your people.” I nodded at the gamer with the gun. “Like Dingle McHuckleberry here. I respect that.” Dingle reached inside his coat, but Rick stopped him and asked again, “Who are you?” “Just a guy looking for an Emily,” I said. The druggie behind me said, “He was looking for Ashley earlier.” “No Ashley is here. No Emily either,” Rick said. “They were here,” I said. Rick shrugged. “We’re a sober home. Licensed by the state. We help young people through the phases of addiction. We’re a clean operation. You’re welcome to look around.” “Thank you,” I said. “I will.” Rick was right. It was a clean operation. A look inside the first two rooms off the hallway showed nicely made beds and sheets with floral patterns. On the walls were dark posters of rock bands wearing makeup. No discarded needles on the floor. No mold problems. Maybe Rick paid for a maid service. It was clean. But it was a flop house, even if he called it a sober home. Like “death insurance” had been changed to “life insurance.” Same thing by another name. This was a place where drugs were handled and sold and used. Otherwise, Dingle wouldn’t have a gun. In the third room down the hallway, I found a strand. He was a good-looking guy who looked like he should be in college. Clean-shaven and showered with dark curls around raccoon eyes. Not big in the shoulders, but he didn’t need to be. He was smiling at the girl sitting on the bed next to him, and that was all she needed. He wasn’t a drug user. He didn’t have the same sallow skin as the girl next to him. He wasn’t a drug user, so he wasn’t a node. Which meant he was a strand. When I walked into the room, the good-looking guy looked up. He took a second to realize he didn’t know me. Which is the effect of being mostly average. “Rick wants you,” I said. “Rick?” he repeated. “Why does Rick want me?” “You’re Derek?” I asked. “Angelo,” he said. “That’s right. Angelo. He said he wanted Angelo,” I said. “Why?” I shrugged and held up a hand. “Hold up here.” I poked my head into the hallway and yelled at Rick. “I found Angelo.” Rick’s pudgy face turn red with anger. “What the--?” Which confirmed Angelo was a strand. Rick didn’t know Angelo was there when he invited me to look around. Now, Rick had to fix his mistake. Rick pulled Dingle down the hallway and said something to him. Dingle rustled inside his coat for his gun. I stepped back inside the doorway and counted Rick’s steps. They stopped outside the doorway. Dingle’s steps continued. The first thing through the doorway was Dingle’s gun, which was a mistake. It was a .40 cal Smith & Wesson. He probably bought it because somebody said a .40 cal has good stopping power. But a 9mm would have been just as good, especially in a tight space like this. Plus a 9mm would have been less likely to deafen him after he pulled the trigger. Or maybe the .40 cal hadn’t been Dingle’s choice. Maybe someone had given it to him. Maybe Rick. Either way, it shouldn’t have been the first thing through the doorway. Video game first-person shooters have advanced a long way. Better graphics. Quicker movements. Multi-player capability. But apparently, they haven’t integrated one thing that everyone who has been in a real gunfight looks for. It’s the one thing every real soldier has been ordered to do in the three hundred years of giving soldiers orders about guns: Don’t let go of your weapon. In a video game, it makes sense to put your gun through the doorway first. You get points for blasting other players, so you want the gun up and ready to fire. In real life, putting your gun through the doorway first gets it taken away by a guy like me. I’m a little quicker than average. When the gun came through the doorway, I grabbed the barrel and twisted down. Dingle’s finger came off the trigger before he could react. The gun slipped from his hand. “Hey!” was all Dingle said. I took a step back and released the magazine. I racked the slide, and the .40 cal round popped into the air. I grabbed the round out of the air and threw it at Dingle’s face. He covered his face and tripped backward out of the doorway. An angry Rick came through it. “Who are you?” he asked. “You want to know my name?” I asked. “Yeah,” he answered. “What’s your name?” “Bob,” I said. “Is it really?” he asked. “No,” I said. Rick looked at Dingle, then shrugged at me. “Doesn’t matter. You done?” I flipped the lock spring on Dingle’s gun, pulled the slide off and put it in my pocket. I let the rest of the gun fall on the floor. “I’m done,” I said. “But I’m taking Angelo with me.”
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