Many years ago, I visited a museum exhibiting the work of Mark Lombardi, a conceptual artist who researched “the political and social terrain” that surrounded him. Over the course of several years, Lombardi mapped his findings in an aesthetic manner, constructing unique visual representations of complex financial transactions involving war, drug trafficking, exploitation, imperialism, terrorism, and other forms of social injustice. The diverse array of subjects included the bin Laden family, the Italian Mafia, prominent religious figures like Pat Robertson, former presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, and more.
Lombardi’s final collection of diagrams, entitled “Global Networks”, was drawn out on enormous sheets of paper, revealing intricate constellations of corruption, as though the financial connections depicted were as significant as the vast galaxies they seemed to emulate. Regardless of their profound insights, these groundbreaking banners still lacked a crucial component necessary in our understanding of late-stage capitalism: the link between the business world and the underworld.
It was a silent and frigid winter night when I first noticed the eerie red glow that mysteriously illuminated the 42nd floor windows of the Knosol Bank Complex, penetrating the thick fog with its ghostly beams. The city skyline was barely visible from my bedroom window, but this particular financial structure stood out from the rest.
I initially dismissed the strange radiance as just another part of this high-tech world I would never be old enough to understand. But this odd light captivated me deeply, even to the point of insomnia. Its elegant, yet ominous aura instilled an insatiable force of curiosity in my soul — a curiosity that only desperate measures could quench. It was as though I was being summoned. One night, while lying there motionless, wide-awake in my bed, I devised an ingenious strategy — a strategy that was just crazy enough to work. In hindsight, I realize this whole scheme was dangerously naïve.
I awoke the next morning with a twinkle in my eye and a bounce in my step. After a cup of coffee and a bowl of cereal, I ordered an Uber and soon arrived at a local thrift shop. Wasting no time, I purchased a pair of black khakis, a white button-down dress shirt, an accompanying black suit coat, a tie, and a pair of snappy black loafers. I strolled out the door and headed down the block to the nearest barbershop. After my haircut, I walked outside and lit up my last Parliament Light, putting it out of its lonely misery. I pulled out my phone and called my faithful comrade Stewart Thompson, a city-renowned computer nerd and willing participant in select illegal acts involving computers. You might call him a “hacker”.
Pigeons scattered as I walked briskly toward a dilapidated apartment building on 35th street. Stewart answered the door wearing red sweat pants and an ancient AC/DC T-shirt decorated with random holes and spattered with white paint.
“We need to discuss exactly how the hell you expect to pull this off!”
A few strands of dark, greasy hair fell from behind his ear and slid along the thick frame of his glasses. He quickly tucked them back where they belonged.
“Just trust me,” I said, with a shit eating, ear-to-ear grin of confidence. “You’ve got nothing to lose. Besides, have I every gotten you in trouble before?”
“No, but this is serious shit, man! If we get caught, we’re as good as dead. The fucking FBI will be on our backs! Maybe worse! Maybe the CIA, or… or the NSA! Maybe FEMA, or COINTELPRO, or other acronyms we’ve never even heard of before!”
The history of petty crimes perpetrated by Stewart and I began the previous year when we ordered hundreds of dollars worth of online merchandise using a credit card Stewart’s girlfriend found on the sidewalk. Many of the items we acquired in this rudimentary “heist” were instrumental in propelling our marginal criminal enterprise into the big — okay, let’s say medium — leagues. The rest, as they say, is history.
“Relax, man. It’ll be fine,” I replied. “I have a plan.”
Stewart’s apartment was littered with old smart phones, desktop monitors, printers, hard drives, processors, scanners, jump drives, and discarded circuit boards. A colorful network of wires seemed to connect the entire operation, like the ecosystem of some grimy electronic jungle. I gawked at several gadgets whose purpose God only knew. But the subdued red glow emanating from this purring and beeping technological mess reminded me why I was there.
We discussed my proposal in great detail for about an hour. Before I knew it, Stewart was hard at work, hacking into the Knosol Bank database. With beads of sweat accumulating on his forehead, he paused every few minutes to sip his coffee. Stewart was in the process of obtaining top-secret information regarding upcoming events and meetings that were scheduled to take place on the upper floors of the Knosol Bank Complex. I knew I had to get to the top of that building to get to the bottom of this mystery.
The table shook and coffee spilled as Stewart slammed his fists down and let out a howl of victory.
“Ha! Take that! The oldest password in the book!”
He was glowing with arrogance.
At last, we had gained access to various private memos. After browsing through a few, I noticed one that caught my attention.
42nd floor conference room
A brief description of the upcoming conference followed, including the name of every individual who was invited. Since the main topic of the conference appeared to be “recent developments in wealth accumulation and global hegemony”, high-ranking executives from the largest Western multi-national corporations were scheduled to attend, including the CEO of Knosol Bank himself. Unsurprisingly, several government officials were invited as well.
As Stewart printed the precious memo, I grabbed my thrift shop bag and headed to the bathroom to put on my newfound budget business attire. Stew then directed me toward a solid white wall where he had set up adequate lighting conditions, and proceeded to take a mug shot of me using a (stolen) digital camera. This image would soon be used in the making of a false identification card, a process Stewart was quite familiar with.
On the morning of the 18th, I awoke with butterflies in my stomach — big ones, trying to burst right through like an impatient fetus. Every muscle in my body was tense and knotted. I tried like hell to think of any reason to abort the mission, but it was no use. It was too late. I had come too far to turn away at the last second. So I reviewed the plan and hoped for the best.
My loafers greeted the monotonous cement stairs leading to the Knosol Bank Complex entrance. It was 6:49. My laminated ID card was clipped onto the left pocket of my suit coat. It claimed that my name was Jeffrey Carlson — one of the names featured on the secret memo we had unearthed. The ID appeared to be legitimate, as did my hair style, my shiny loafers, and of course, my thrift shop outfit. Using the sly social skills I had developed during years of practicing deception, I easily gained access to the private elevator.
I reluctantly pressed the button labeled “42” — the button containing my destiny. My palms began to sweat profusely as the elevator rose steadily toward the great unknown. The butterflies were now fiercely jabbing my internal organs while frolicking in my stomach acid. I could feel my armpits getting warm and damp. Though my anxiety level was quite high, a sudden rush of adrenaline provided the shred of confidence necessary to continue. I felt euphoric and invincible, as if God was on my side. Inevitably, my brief vertical journey decelerated and the private elevator came to a halt. I took a deep breath as the mighty doors heaved apart, revealing the 42nd floor.
Immediately, I was subjected to a sight that could have made Ron Jeremy impotent, a sight that could have made Donald Trump honest, a sight so ghastly, it could have made Ed Gein cringe. Boiling blood pumped violently through the veins in my forehead like a desperate jailbreak as my wide-open eyes stared, paralyzed with fear and disbelief. There before me was the source of the fascinating scarlet illumination I so diligently sought — none other than LUCIFER: PRINCE OF DARKNESS AND KING OF THE UNDERWORLD!
Satan was lounging in a hot tub in the center of the room, joined by several sexy demons who were massaging his entire body with pure Saudi Arabian oil and feeding him a variety of poisonous grapes. This was not your average hot tub. Instead of bubbling chlorine water, it was filled with liquid cash. Satan grunted, and one of the demons promptly bent over, its shimmering red ass facing him. Using a rolled hundred-dollar bill, Satan proceeded to snort a heaping line of cocaine off the demon’s backside, instantly moaning with pleasure and splashing in the liquid cash.
Surrounding the hot tub was a circular table made of blood red marble. Around this table, in large leopard-spotted reclining thrones, sat all of the individuals whose names appeared on the memo. Then I witnessed an astonishing spectacle: Seven winged demons suddenly appeared above Satan, hovering, while strumming mini-guitars, which spouted purplish flames in unison. When the first chorus commenced, the tune became clearly recognizable. It was “Highway to Hell” by AC/DC. I wondered if Stewart would want to rock out, were he here, standing next to me, observing this gruesome display.
In a powerful flash, I saw Satan emerge from the hot tub, roaring with three hideous voices. The words were indistinguishable — maybe Latin — but it was clear he meant business. Ten twisting horns then sprouted from his scaly noggin, each bearing a platinum crown with the name of a large corporation engraved into it. In one swift, mechanical motion of glistening crimson he twirled around toward the south wall where a group of CEOs stood, cowering in fear. In a dreadful rumble that shook the glass and stopped the heart of every mortal present, Satan bellowed:
“There is great opportunity to maximize profit through death, destruction, and exploitation! But the pathetic and sniveling masses stand in our way. The world is ours! Who among you will join me?”
The conference had begun.