The last two cars we’d sent into this damn neighborhood on drug busts both had “unexpected issues.” Both times, the same story — the cruiser stops at a stoplight, and then — Bam! — it just turns off. The thing won’t start up again. We call a tow truck, and wait for a ride. “We’ll serve that warrant later,” we told ourselves. Nope.
The car gets to the mechanic. He says all the computers in the fuel injector are shot. Needs a whole new engine.
Christ. Computers. Even in my car! I remember working with Dad on the old AMC station wagon. I’d get him a beer, he’d show me some grease-covered piece of metal. It made sense, though. “This turns the wheels,” he’d say, and show me the rack and pinion setup. I saw the steering column ending in a pinion gear. I saw how that gear turned against a grooved rack of metal, and then the wheels turned. It all made sense. You could see it. Not like today. Cars today are way more complicated. Everything’s got a computer.
My first cruiser dying just seemed like one of “those things.” The second time it happened, though, I knew something was up. You think I’m gonna wait three times? Buddy, you'd make a terrible cop. “These things” don’t happen twice in the same neighborhood. Especially on the day you’re headed to bust some gangbanger named “Borscht” moving 40 thousand bucks of coke a week.
That second time, one of the detectives in the car noticed something weird. He said the traffic light dimmed a bit just before the car died. Keep an eye out for the weird stuff. Sometimes the little things mean something big. The traffic light dimmed.
It was the nerds. I knew it right then and there. This bunch of nerds rented an old industrial loft above a Mexican grocery on Mission street. They called it “noisebridge.” The place was full of weird shit.
Apparently — according to a note on the door — The FBI would stop by from time to time, to talk to them about running some kinda “exit node.” I have no idea what that means. But these guys do. The pricks even had instructions for themselves in case the FBI comes by again. If they’re pissing off the FBI, why wouldn’t they be helping some drug runners? Maybe that’s how they’re paying the rent.
I’m lucky enough to have bought my place back when computers were only for weirdos, and people talked to each other in public. If I hadn’t bought my place years ago, god knows how we’d afford to live here.
What I do know is that if someone figured out a way to bust the electronics in my cruisers, it’d be this bunch of nerds with a loft full of electronics tools, in their “anarchist collective.”
I do my homework, though. After a few months, and a lot of help from the cyber forensics team, here’s what we’ve learned. Bear with me, cause I’m not a nerd. Just a guy that has to deal with ‘em.
The place is protected by a damn computer virus. Any machine we bring near that building gets infected almost immediately. By what? Could be anything. Could be a kid walking by with a cell phone. Could be a laptop in someone’s backpack. One of the cyber guys claimed he watched a parking meter infect his machine. Those things take credit cards now, which means they have computers in ’em, too.
This infection “takes over” a computer. Makes it a zombie. Now that computer is controlled by the virus. Does whatever the virus says to do. The cyber guys said even if you cleaned one machine, the others near it would immediately infect it again. Apparently there’s no way to keep a computer safe unless it’s hiding in a steel cage and nobody touches it. What the hell.
One of the infected computers controls a magnetic loop under the traffic light. The investigators guessed the virus could use this magnetic loop to take over the computers in my car and fry ’em.
It all sounds like nonsense to me, but these guys are good. I trust them. Yeah, they’re nerds, but they’re our nerds. They’re telling me this virus has taken over the whole damn block, and it’s probably what fried our cruisers. We had all the evidence we needed for a warrant.
I asked the cyber guys if they could show that the nerds were controlling this thing, and they said no. Said they were “Tor” and “proxies” so this thing looked like it was as being controlled from Ukraine. Only way to prove it was them would be to go up there and catch them in the act.
Damn computers. It’s like they run the whole world now. The cyber guys said we were lucky we didn’t get hit by a “bitlocker.” Some virus that locks down computers and makes you pay with hacker money (they have their own money now?) to get your data back. He said most police stations that get hacked just paid up.
They’re not robbing banks, they’re robbing police stations because we aren’t as good with the damn computers. Without a death we could point to, nobody was going to give us the money we needed to go after these guys. They had “bigger fish to fry,” apparently. Hosing two of my squad cars “wasn’t enough” to justify the investigation. Apparently there’s some form somewhere in the FBI you’ve got to fill out to get this kind of cyber investigation.
Of course there’s a form. I’ve got a copy of it sitting half filled out on my desk right now. I stopped when I got to the line where it says you have to show over a hundred thousand bucks worth of property damage to justify the investigation. Our cruisers only cost a few thousand bucks to fix.
I’d have to send twenty cruisers over there to get fried by their toy before the FBI would help us. Twenty damn cruisers, just to catch these nerds.
Money, bureaucracy, and computers. It’s all the same. Just a bunch of ways of telling us “no.” If only these punks would kill someone, then we could go after them. Until then, it’s like they’re above the law because there’s no damn dead body we can point to. Where’s the justice in that?
The world used to make sense, dammit. Now there’s computers and money running everything; you turn the steering wheel and the horn honks and some nerd comes out to explain that the steering isn’t ready yet. You try to start the engine and the bank says you need to make a deposit if you want to catch the damn bad guys. What the hell.
Sometimes you just gotta do these things the old fashioned way. So I go to their dingy loft above a Mexican grocery, hoping to figure out what the hell happened to my cruisers. It’s a crap shoot and will probably lead nowhere, but hey. Maybe they’ll threaten me and I can finally bust them.
The doorbell’s an old payphone with wires coming out. Their logo — some kind of circuit diagram — is in a banner above the door. I press a button on the payphone, and the door buzzes.
I walk up a flight of stairs fresh from the Nixon era, expecting to see a bunch of Russian hackers with shaved heads. Nope. Just some kid in a hoodie.
Of course it’s a hoodie. There’s only one person in there, and it’s some girl in a hoodie. Maybe 23 or so. She looks up at me from her computer screen, and the clickety-click of her typing stops. This one makes eye contact. Most of these nerds don’t, but she does.
“Yes?” she asks. She’s sitting up straight, like her head is a stop sign. It’s unnatural. Her eyes are brown, and innocent. She smiles. I feel bad — and then remember who she’s been dealing with.
“What’d you do to my cruisers?”
I watch as her pupils narrow, and the muscles around her eyes tense. Then comes the feigned confusion. She had clearly practiced looking relaxed, but not enough to make it believable. Of course she knew. The little things.
“I’m sorry,” she said, without breaking eye contact. “I’m not sure what you mean.” She smiled a bit. She knew, and she knew I knew.
“I assume you know about the virus.” She said.
“Is that you? Or just one of your friends?”
A firetruck raced down Mission street, and the siren’s call was muffled through the windows. Living in the city you learn to tune out other people’s emergencies.
“I have no idea who that is. The packet logs say there’s more traffic than usual from Ukraine, but it’s too damn noisy to say anything for sure.”
Was that a joke? This place was called “noisebridge.” Who knows.
“I know it’s you guys. Just tell me that so I can go in peace. I can’t bust you, I don’t have any proof. I just have to know.”
She doesn’t answer. She just keeps looking at me.
One afternoon I made eye contact with a black cat on the sidewalk near my house. He wasn’t afraid of me at all. Just stared at me. I’ve always kept that image in my head, of the animal that thinks it’s tough because it doesn’t understand the danger it faces.
You can’t lose a staredown. Nobody will respect you. And yet this cat wouldn’t back down. Maybe he was too dumb to understand how bad I could put the hurt on him. Or maybe he knew I’d never do it.
Whenever some punk kid stares me down, I remember that image of the cat. Of course I wasn’t going to lose. It’s a cat.
I’m staring down this 23 year old girl who I know is up to something. And I keep thinking of this damn cat. This woman wearing a hoodie, with her machine that’s a mystery to me, and yet seems to run the world, this girl who might have fried my damn cruiser — I start wondering if I’m the cat.
“Do you know why I’m not afraid of you?” She asks. Her eyes say she loves me, and god damn if I don't want to believe them. I guess I’m the cat here.
“Because your job is to protect people.” She smiles, guilelessly.
“Not everyone. Not bad guys, ” I tell her.
Another fire truck howls outside, interrupting the usual chatter out on Mission street. The late afternoon sun comes through window, and I realize I’m standing in a sunbeam on the hardwood floor. Like a cat.
“Have you noticed the drop in crime around here lately?” she asks.
I had noticed. You notice these things. Petty robberies and assaults were down, which is why we had more time to go after that coke-runner. Borscht. Also from Ukraine, the same place controlling this virus, apparently.
“What of it?” I shift my weight to my right foot. I do that when I’m impatient. It’s a tell, sure. Not a bad idea to be able to let people know that you’re tired of their nonsense.
“Who do you think is doing that?” She smiles again.
Nobody does these things. They just happen. She wants to say she’s doing this. Maybe I can get her to incriminate herself here.
“How?” I ask. I really am curious, but that isn’t why I ask.
She spins her laptop around and shows me some video. Something taken at night. It’s dark. And there’s… Ogala ? Officer Matthew Ogala in plain clothes… taking a paper bag from some guy slouched over in a chair with a joint hanging out of his mouth. It’s Borscht, and he’s bribing my guy Ogala.
He’s on the take. No way. Not Ogala.
“What do you want,” I ask her. No sense in dancing around this.
A schizophrenic man on market street pauses his angry shouting of different types of root vegetables. He stops just after barking “PARSNIPS”, as if he could hear our conversation and found it interesting. Living here, you get used to tuning that kind of thing out, which means you only notice when it stops.
“If you bring Borscht down, he’ll rat out Ogala. Ogala’s the reason things have been peaceful around here.” She frowns a little as she says this. Her eyes are wide. Pupils dilated, eyes straight into mine.
“POATOES!” the man continues, this time triumphantly. As if he were thrilled that potatoes exist, and excited that they are the way they are. “RRRRRRADISHES!”
We both smile, and catch each other doing so. Involuntary bodily signals are a firehose of information. These mental types with their logic — it’s like trying to drink from that fire hose. Or pick it up with your fingers. You need your whole back for something like that.
She’s different. Clearly. Most of these nerds wouldn’t have noticed the man shouting, let alone that we both smiled at his choice of timing.
“What do you mean? How’s Ogala keeping things calm?”
“He’s friendly. He talks to people — like that man — as if they were actually people.”
“Roo-roo-roota-bay-bay-baya-baga. Rutabaga.” the man continues, getting softer. Now he sounds like he simply enjoys the way it feels when the sounds come out of his mouth. “Turnips?” he asks. A fire engine answers in the distance.
“How did you get this?” I ask her. “Are you working with this guy? He’ll kill you, ya know.”
She laughs a bit, and the hair framing her face bounces. I miss her already.
“We stole it from him. He has no idea we exist. He’s much more worried about you.”
I’m still trying to make sense of Ogala.
Some guys put on the badge, and it brings out the best in them. Courage, Honor, Loyalty — the things every man should have but most don’t. The guys that make you proud to be on the force. Ogala was that kind of guy. Made you feel proud — and foolish, apparently.
His wife has one of those carts where you can get a bacon-wrapped hot dog. He often talked about working the cart with her, and said they were making good money. Maybe they were using that cart to launder the money.
“Ogala was kind to people who were used to being treated with contempt. They spread the word, and Borscht picked up on it. All of the addicts hanging around BART know they can get a fix if they tell him something he doesn’t know. They told him there was a new cop who wasn’t an asshole, and I guess he smelled his chance.”
I have a sick feeling in my stomach. I’ve had guys on the take before, and it doesn’t normally bother me. You can tell they’re doing it. Just keep your business private, that’s all I ask. This is a rough job and that's one of the few benefits you can get.
“Do you know why computers are so easy to hack, to take over and control,” she asks me.
No, I say. I might as well be licking my damn paws. I don’t care. I’ll be the cat here. Her smile is comforting.
“It’s because they always follow the rules. You can tell a person to do something, and if the person doesn’t want to, or thinks it’s wrong, they’ll tell you to go fuck yourself. A computer doesn’t have that instinct. It always follows the rules. That’s why it’s so easy to control them.”
“Yams.” The man on the street had figured it all out. Yams, all the way down.
I’d love to take down Borscht. I certainly don’t want to lose Ogala.
Maybe these nerds aren’t so bad.
“I think,” I tell her, knowing I’ll miss her and lamenting that I’ll never see her again, but that’s ok, because there are reasons things happen even if I can’t always make sense of them. “I think,” I say, I stammer, I’m, not one to stammer, as I see the steering wheel turn and the gears mesh on the racks, the orbit of life reveals a mechanism so intricate, even dirt has its place,
“I think I’ll have a hotdog,” I announce, with the confidence of a five year old.
“That sounds great.”
“Yams,” says the man, once again, for comedic affect. He sits down on the sidewalk, and the sun keeps spinning around the earth, epicycles encoded on the antikythera mechanism, the ancestors arranged in a binary tree observing judgments exhibited by and upon and towards and out of and around and through, but most of all, heavily in support of the shared dream we call life.
Yams, I say. Sweet potatoes with marshmallow topping. That’s what I want. Some yams.
Time for a nap.
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