a novel by Steve Masover
If he was going to play secret agent, Christopher Kalman needed to head for the bus. It would be simpler to log into online chat from where he sat in the Triangle’s third-floor library, but he couldn’t put his home and political collective at risk. The chat could be traced. Besides, he’d given Chagall his word.
It would cost an hour to take a circuitous, backtracking route to the Daily Grind, a café on the far side of San Francisco that sold internet access for cash. Chagall was fixated on that sort of paranoid rigor. Christopher didn’t see the need, not if they were careful with security protocols. But he’d promised to take precautions against being tailed to their first real-time appointment.
The prospect of “meeting” the self-proclaimed saboteur made Christopher antsy. If his anonymous contact was a setup, or if Chagall were seriously dangerous, internet chat would place Christopher—and everyone he worked with—that much closer to an unknown threat.
He stared at the progress bar on his monitor. The Moscone Center’s floor plans were nearly finished downloading, but he wouldn’t have time to look them over until later. Not a problem. The coalition organizing to disrupt the International GeneSynth Convention wasn’t meeting until Sunday. Still, the pressure was on. A month and a half remained before the conference opened, but the Triangle was planning a clandestine action in addition to their part in the public protest. The dual-track activism had been straining Christopher’s limits even before Chagall came knocking.
Ninety percent complete.
Logistics research lacked the chaotic zing of an actual demonstration, but at least it satisfied his urge to put the world in order. The mantel clock showed 2:40. An hour and twenty minutes until their online rendezvous. He needed to hustle.
Christopher switched off the monitor when the download finished, and unkinked himself from a chair rescued years before from some forgotten curb, a sturdy, Mission-style piece that he could never quite adjust to fit his tall, barrel-chested frame. He descended the wooden stairs quietly, in case Marty was asleep. Christopher stopped to check on his housecomrade, leaning in through the half-closed door of the bedroom next to his own, at the front of the collective’s century-old Edwardian.
“Who’s that?” Marty grunted.
The curtains were drawn across the bedroom’s bay windows. Christopher could just make out a ghostly arm raised against the light leaking in from the hallway. “It’s Chris,” he said. “I’m heading out. It’ll be an hour or so before Jonah’s back from school—can I get you anything?” Marty had taken a nasty fall off his bike the evening before, just a few blocks from home. He’d resisted a trip to the emergency room, but when Nora brought him home from the hospital the back of his shaved head was quilted with stitches and surgical tape.
“No, Chris. Nothin’,” Marty said. “Just waitin’ for the drugs to kick in.”
Marty’s Irish brogue, faint but discernible after a dozen years living in the States, sounded thicker than usual. Christopher figured it was the painkillers. “I’ll leave the door open a crack,” he said, “so Jonah remembers to look in.”
“That’s good. I’ll be okay, just tryin’ to sleep it off.”
Christopher loaded up his messenger bag, crept another flight down to the front stoop, slipped quietly through the building’s steel gate, and turned onto the tree-shaded street. Just short of the metro stop, he pivoted up Fillmore, then zigzagged around the hulking US Mint before heading north again.
Someone had postered the neighborhood’s telephone poles with calls to march on the anniversary of the Iraq War. The flyers demoralized Christopher, one staple-studded wooden pole after another. He crossed the street to avoid them. Direct Action to Stop the War had mounted the Bay Area’s share of the biggest protests in human history—eleven million people around the world, two hundred thousand in San Francisco alone—and five weeks later the US launched an airstrike on Baghdad. The Triangle, everyone they knew, every leftist group they’d ever organized with, had given everything they had. And they lost.
* * *
Three buses and two transfers later he set out on foot in the wrong direction, then circled an unnecessary block as he looped back toward the café. Christopher was drawing on techniques he’d picked up over years of evading police after rowdy demonstrations, or after wheat pasting agitprop on bus shelters and banks. He stopped in front of a jewelry store window to watch the street’s reflection. The glass mirrored a face that was beginning to seem more his father’s than Christopher’s own: sharp, wide-set eyes planted amid blurrier features, dark hair receding as inexorably as the polar ice caps. He would turn thirty-five in May. A milestone, but was he on the right road? “Nothing ventured, nothing gained,” he muttered to himself. The cliché did little to settle his nerves.
If anyone had been following, he’d shaken the tail. Retrieving a battered, gray fedora from his messenger bag, Christopher approached the Daily Grind. He never wore hats and felt sheepish playing dress up, but the café ran a webcam aimed out from the counter. He hoped to find an off-camera table. The hat was just in case.
In case of what remained fuzzy.
So far, all he really knew was that an anonymous persona had contacted him, insisted on taking elaborate measures against police surveillance, then asked him to draft a manifesto about Frankenfood. Chagall refused to supply even a nom de guerre; Christopher settled on naming him after a painter his mother had loved. From Chagall’s guarded first contact through an intricate set of formalities involving encryption keys and single-use e-mail addresses, it took weeks for the saboteur to get to his point:
We’re looking for a writer to produce a political manifesto on genetically engineered agriculture. Publicly posted material suggests your views are close to ours. In the wake of spectacular political theater, my partners and I offer a staggeringly large and broad audience. All actors to remain anonymous, including writer. Action’s logistics stay secret until it happens. The audience for your manifesto is everybody who reads news and anybody with an e-mail address.
As Chagall kept reminding him, there was nothing illegal about writing political screeds. And the task was right up Christopher’s alley. He was an activist. He wrote. Genetic engineering was already on his publicly discoverable docket because of organizing against GeneSynth. None of which explained the hypervigilance. Unless Chagall meant spectacularly destructive when he bragged about political theater, his caution around drafting piecework propaganda arced way over the top.
Any activist would covet a staggeringly large audience, but Christopher remained skeptical. Odds were good that his anonymous contact would turn out to be a blowhard, the type who imagined that being targeted by police proved revolutionary cred. He could be a reckless fool. He could even be a cop himself: Chagall’s approach might ultimately boil down to an FBI phishing expedition. Christopher was the one who insisted they communicate over IRC, internet relay chat. In real time, he stood a better chance of taking Chagall’s measure.
Leaving his bag at a vacant table, Christopher kept the fedora pulled low, shielding himself from the webcam above the register. He paid for a double cappuccino and an hour’s wireless. Back at the table he booted his laptop into a secondary operating system. Linux loaded, and he verified the machine was spoofing a counterfeit network card.
At the tail end of the dot-com boom, Christopher had taken a secure activism workshop taught by an affinity group called Rebel Geeks. There hadn’t been much call for expertise in network protection over the years since, not among his crowd. But without some kind of background, Chagall’s instructions would have tied him in knots. He fired up chat software, engaged his encryption keys, and typed the URL Chagall had supplied.
Six minutes ’til the scheduled meet-up. His table was beyond the camera’s field of view, so Christopher stuffed the fedora into his bag.
He looked around the café. The Marina was a far cry from the Castro or the Haight. Only the women wore makeup; none had their lips pierced. A melancholy track from Beck’s Sea Change played on the sound system.
A woman in a flashy ski jacket and worn sweatpants sat by the window, staring as if frozen at a gruesome photo on the front page of the New York Times. He’d seen it online that morning. Four commuter trains had been bombed in Madrid the day before, their carriages ripped open, jagged with savagely torn steel. The news was a jumble of blame and speculation: Al Qaeda, Basque separatists, unknown fanatics. Even seeing the image from a distance, he felt suffocated by the horror. Nearly two hundred dead. He shifted his gaze to a burly Central American lugging a bus tub into the back room.
Chagall logged in exactly on time.
CHAGALL: All clear?
CHRIS: Present & accounted for.
CHAGALL: If you need to stop this session for any reason, don’t wait to explain.
CHRIS: Understood. Everybody in my part of the world is looking at news of yesterday’s incident in Spain.
CHAGALL: That type of incident has nothing to do with us. I don’t want to know about your part of the world. Let’s keep to necessities.
CHRIS: Okay. Strictly business then.
CHAGALL: Right. And it’s your move, you requested this.
Nothing to do with us was the response Christopher wanted to hear. But Chagall was as gruff in real-time as in e-mail. Christopher would have to stay on point and hold his ground.
CHRIS: Let’s say you screw up whatever it is you’re planning to do. What protects me from taking your fall?
CHAGALL: Fair question. Begin with this. First contact through your public address was a needle in a large haystack. Now messages are anonymized, encrypted, deleted after reading.
CHRIS: What if e-mail is intercepted, or archived and hacked?
CHAGALL: Highly improbable. Even so, your part is just words. Theoretical. Justification for types of action taken for types of reasons. Worst is you’d be reviled for ideas. Admired too, by some.
CHRIS: Hope springs eternal. But I’m a conspirator via our contact.
CHAGALL: Conspiracy to express political speech. Delete communications as agreed, and even that much is speculative.
CHRIS: So my protection is to remain in the dark.
Christopher sipped at his coffee while waiting for Chagall to compose, encrypt, and send his response. Security slowed their pace. The pauses left him time to think. The saboteur’s ideas about insulating Christopher from prosecution were naïve or disingenuous, overlooking how due process had been gutted in the few years since the Al Qaeda attacks. Chagall was ignoring John Walker Lindh, the so-called “American Taliban,” who was railroaded into a twenty-year sentence after the attorney general publicly distorted a confession compelled by torture. And he seemed blind to José Padilla, a US citizen being held without charges in military prison, for an unproven role in a bomb plot that never got off the drawing board.
CHAGALL: That’s a component of your protection, yes. But, again, your identity can’t be linked to ours given attention to security.
CHRIS: Let’s focus on message, complexity, style. Audience remains undefined. You keep saying “everyone.” That’s not helpful when trying to set tone and depth.
CHAGALL: Aim for reading level of nationally circulated newspapers or magazines. Must reach diverse sectors, speak across the usual divides. Christian Right to Sierra Club. City and farm. Address human basics, avoid partisan trigger words. Write about rules against identifying GMO food in grocery stores. Regular people have reason to be scared, for their own safety and for their children’s. Don’t write for professors.
CHRIS: I need to confirm again: no one gets hurt. No one.
CHAGALL: This is fundamental. Same commitment as Planetary Liberation Front and allied groups. Years of hard-core political sabotage and their hands are clean. We adhere to the same principles.
CHRIS: That’s fundamental for me also. No compromise on this. But I need to press for at least the category of action. Are you going to burn genetically engineered crops? Destroy a grain silo?
CHAGALL: Will not say.
CHRIS: Bust up a lab, like the Plowshares Eight?
CHAGALL: Priests taking hammers to nuclear weapons is dramatic. Chaining ourselves to microscopes in a soybean research lab would look ridiculous, like a high school science fair. The Plowshares Eight were setting up a courtroom drama. We’re not seeking jail time, we intend to be free to act repeatedly. Look, it doesn’t serve anyone to describe the plan. Would only increase danger to each of us.
The Feds classified destruction of property as terrorism, whether anyone was injured or not. In the opposite corner, Chagall had compared his own group to the Planetary Liberation Front, which held that attacks on grain silos and fields of genetically modified crops were defensive so long as no one got hurt, defensive because gene splicers were pumping poison into the food supply and the greater biosphere. Because the damage might never be undone, and biotech had to be stopped.
Christopher agreed with the PLF, in principle and from the sidelines. He had never committed hard-core exploits himself. For better or worse, the Triangle’s direct action tactics rarely edged past symbolic effect. It wore him down that for all their years of commitment, to their household and to their work, there was so little to show.
But he still had no idea what Chagall meant to do. Or whether he was a cop. Or, if he wasn’t, whether he could be trusted to plan and act conscientiously.
Christopher steered their online chat into questions of political philosophy: Subcomandante Marcos and the armed Zapatistas’ deference to civil society, Václav Havel’s critique of capitalism and communism as two faces of the same technocratic coin. From there he began to tease out the spin Chagall wanted to put on biotech agribusiness. There were any number of approaches possible—contamination of the planet, corporate “ownership” of life, health dangers, hubris. It was a matter of which angle to emphasize.
The politics rolling off his correspondent’s keyboard looked genuine. No cop who’d gotten that fluent in progressive arcana would waste his time on the Triangle’s brand of nonviolence. He’d be looking for a bigger bust to justify the investment.
Flexing his shoulders, Christopher looked up from the laptop.
It took a second to register her attention.
A dark-eyed, oval-faced woman was gazing right at him. She sat two tables over, and she didn’t look away. Instead of lowering her eyes, she offered a dazzling smile. “That looks engrossing,” she said.
British accent, he thought. Her voice filled the space between their tables like velvety caramel. “Old college buddy,” he improvised. Her teeth glowed, polished ivory against walnut skin. “A lot of instant message bluster for very low stakes.”
“And here I thought I was witnessing the birth of café-based day trading.”
Christopher grinned. “Honestly, I wouldn’t know a bull market from a short sale.” Could she possibly be hitting on him? He had to disengage, whether or not. He’d made promises to Chagall. Their elaborate security rites would amount to nothing if someone ID’d him at the Daily Grind, geeking like a madman at such-and-such a time and date. His screen flashed the arrival of a message. “I, um …” He gestured toward the computer.
“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have intruded.”
“No, no—it’s—Paul and I haven’t managed to connect in forever.” Paul? Who the hell was Paul?
She gave a kind of sideways nod, and returned to her pint glass of milky tea.
Christopher dragged his attention back to the laptop.
CHAGALL: Multiple angles best for inviting all readers to see they have a stake. Your task to balance these as aspects of a single argument.
CHRIS: You can express yourself. Why add me to the mix?
If the saboteur was leveling with him, this was the biggest piece missing from his puzzle. Yet Christopher could barely force himself to keep looking at the screen. Why had a complete stranger struck up a conversation? Could she be a cop?
Don’t go there, he told himself. No tinfoil hats. But he couldn’t remember the last time a beautiful woman chatted him up. If romance was like weather, his life was a drought. Longing for rain, occasionally taunted by anemic drizzle.
CHAGALL: Our action isn’t trivial and there aren’t very many of us. Operations require full focus.
CHRIS: So you’ll take nontrivial risks but can’t be bothered to explain your own political motives and goals?
CHAGALL: We admire your articles in activist press. We’re isolated, you’ll reach our audience better than we can. As described in prior exchange we’ll develop the text with you, over multiple drafts. We have the final edit, ensuring manifesto says what we mean.
CHRIS: Bringing me into your closely guarded secret takes a big gamble for marginal payoff. I don’t get it, and I’m *not* convinced to sign on. I would need better assurances before letting you use my work. But let’s say I mean to write something on this topic in any case. Let’s say I start on my independent project, and if you don’t persuade me, I’ll use it some other way.
He glanced up surreptitiously. The woman was still buried in her newspaper. Could he end the IRC before she finished her tea? If nothing else, he needed to divert her interest in his overzealous session with Chagall. The saboteur wouldn’t approve of his tangled motives, but maybe that didn’t matter. Chagall would never know.
CHAGALL: An independent start is acceptable for now. But we’ll continue to recruit alternates. Must cover contingencies.
CHRIS: Fair enough. Suggest some specifics. How many words, on what deadline?
CHAGALL: As many words as it takes. Keep it short and sharp enough to avoid losing readers. For deadline, best not to imply when action will occur. How long for a first draft?
CHRIS: Maybe two weeks? Maybe three?
Again, carefully pretending to stare at his laptop, Christopher stole another quick look. What paper was she reading?
CHAGALL: Let’s make contact in two weeks. You initiate, at next address in sequence. Send draft if ready and willing.
CHRIS: I’ll have more questions before sending draft, but will propose next steps.
CHAGALL: Over and out then?
CHRIS: Appreciate real-time dialogue. Until next time.
Hands hovering over the keyboard, Christopher vacillated. He and Chagall had agreed on a protocol for securely deleting the IRC transcript. But the woman with the velvet voice might up and leave while his computer looped through random overwrites of each incriminating byte. And he wanted to read through the exchange again. To study Chagall’s responses, to mull them over. Compromising, Christopher let his fingers fly, encrypting the file as temporary protection. He could follow the protocol later.
As the machine shut down he snuck another peek. The woman wore a thin gold necklace, no rings, and she didn’t look up. Her ears were small, accented by a pair of dangling pearls. An intricately lacquered barrette held her jet-black hair. Her newspaper wasn’t the Chronicle or the New York Times. Not the Washington Post either. Puzzling. Between layout and typeface he usually recognized broadsheets at a glance. When the laptop powered off, Christopher snapped the clamshell shut. He looked up again and met her gaze.
“Done with all that, then?”
“Sorry to be distracted.” He scooted over to the table beside hers, still out of the webcam’s range, and nodded at her newspaper. “What paper are you reading?” he asked. “It doesn’t look familiar.”
She raised a quizzical eyebrow. “Sunday Times.”
The penny dropped. Her accent. “Are you from London, then?”
“Brighton, really. I went to university in London. Do you know newspapers by gestalt?”
“I do layout for a living,” he said, waving a hand vaguely. “You get sensitized. But why the Sunday paper on a Friday?”
She shrugged. “The news is stale, but Fridays are when I have time to catch up with what’s going on back home.”
“I’ve never visited the UK.”
“But you inhabit the language. And the music? The Beatles, Elton John …”
Christopher smiled uncertainly. He didn’t want to give a dull impression, but a taste for pretentiously obscure bands wouldn’t flatter him either. “I’ve listened to my share of the Beatles,” he said. “Though the truth is I lean more toward the Clash.”
She examined him for a moment. “The Clash politically, or the Clash musically?”
“All around, I guess.”
“When I came to this country a couple of years ago I landed in Kentucky,” she said. “I have an aunt in Lexington. I didn’t sense the Clash got a lot of play in the bluegrass state.”
“I can imagine. Are you visiting, or is San Francisco home now?”
“I’m in medical school, at UCSF. You?”
“Born and raised in the Bay Area.”
“I haven’t seen you here. At the Daily Grind, I mean.”
“I live in a funkier part of the city,” Christopher said. “Well, it was funkier before the dot-com bubble. Maybe we’ll get our groove back now that all that’s over. Anyway, I don’t often get out to the Marina. My name is Chris, by the way.” He offered his hand.
“Suvali,” she said. “Pleased to meet you.”
Her hand was slim, delicately boned, but her grip was stronger than he expected. Christopher couldn’t place her in the café before Chagall came online, but that didn’t prove anything, let alone that she was an agent assigned to watch his IRC. He wasn’t going to get worked up over baseless conjecture. Suvali was a friendly medical student, looking to talk about something other than malpractice insurance. End of story.
“I’m sorry I interrupted you earlier,” she was saying.
“It was nothing.”
“I have a brother who gets wound up over his computer.”
“I—really, I’m not like that.”
Suvali laughed. “But you were! You reminded me of Satveer, exactly.”
“Is he a gamer?” Christopher couldn’t imagine striking up a conversation with anyone who evoked his own brother. But his family was a special case.
“Oh, no. Satveer liked that stuff when he was a kid, but now it’s all programming for banks and government ministries.”
“Well, I couldn’t program my way out of a wet paper bag. Rehashing glory days with your college roommate isn’t exactly programming for banks.”
“It looked very intense. But why don’t you just phone?”
Christopher reached for the name he’d made up just minutes before. “Paul lives in Australia,” he said, “so between the time zones and the cost of a call …” He needed to change the subject. “Don’t you e-mail back to England?”
“Sure, but e-mail is like writing letters. ‘Dear Mom, the weather’s terrific in California, wish you were here.’ It doesn’t pull you into the screen the way internet chat does.”
Christopher flinched. Seven years on, but he still shied at even the most oblique assumption that he, too, had a living mother. “Everybody has a nomination for most annoying technology,” he said. “For me it’s cell phones. I refuse to carry one. I even hate to call people on their own cells.”
“Really?” When she tilted her head, the pearls in her ears swung like eager little pendulums. “Why is that?”
“You never know what you’re interrupting.”
“But it’s on them, really, for picking up.”
He shrugged. “The interaction makes me feel clumsy.”
Suvali smiled as if to herself. Christopher wondered if she’d pegged him that way already.
“I guess—I suppose London must be calling,” he said. “I should leave you to your paper. Maybe I’ll branch out this way again.”
“Maybe I’ll be ‘behind the Times’ if you do.”
“Friday afternoons at the Daily Grind?”
“So long as the weather’s nice enough for walking. I like to get some distance from the med center on my days off.”
Christopher gathered his things, wondering whether she could really be interested in some random buffoon banging on a laptop. Maybe he did remind Suvali of a brother. Could that be a good thing?
He took his leave, wound through the tables, then turned back at the door. She was watching. She’d caught his eye, they had talked, she was watching as he left the café. He waved, and she returned his salute.
As he turned onto Chestnut Street, he was giddy with wondering.
Chagall rolls up his ski mask, listening to the guard’s Jeep recede down the logging road. A crisp autumn breeze dries the sweat from his face. The engine’s noise echoes faintly off an escarpment to the north and west.
He stands and stretches. Chagall scatters brush across his spy post, and turns to the equipment yard across a scraped and graveled clearing. Halogen lights illuminate feller bunchers, grapple skidders, brush cutters, and knuckle-boom loaders inside the locked compound. Mud-crusted instruments of pillage and blight. Facing the cold steel, what he sees is slaughter. These ponderous beasts have ripped forests whole from the living Earth. In the quiet, Chagall hears an echo of venerable trees screaming.
Donning a pair of thin gloves, he circles to the back corner of the yard. Chain-link fencing gives way to his wire cutters. He snips a vertical incision, two feet off the ground. Then another, parallel to the first. The tool bites into the woodland hush, sharp and steady as a metronome.
A six-cylinder thrum, rising. The saboteur freezes.
The Jeep’s engine is getting louder, straining back up the hill, close enough already that he should see headlights ripping across the trunks of mill-bound trees. There are no headlights. The guard is driving dark.
Chagall steps back from the fence, scanning to see how well its vertical tension hides the damage already done. He pockets the cutters, grabs his pack, and beats a retreat beyond the reach of the compound’s lights.
The security vehicle clatters over road ballast and lurches to a stop. Chagall breathes humidly through his ski mask, crouching behind a manzanita thicket. The rent-a-cop shines a spotlight on the gate and its intact lock, then sweeps the equipment inside. A grapple skidder stands between Chagall’s handiwork and the Jeep. It’s the same guard as last night and the night before that, a slope-shouldered hulk with a wrestler’s low center of gravity.
Chagall has been casing the site for three nights running, hiking in from a camouflaged campsite six miles south and east. Tonight is the first time the guard doubled back to the yard.
The uniformed man emerges from his vehicle, leaving the engine running. Swinging a flashlight as long as his forearm, he paces the length of fence. The beam skims a half-million in heavy machinery. Not a close inspection. His attention is slack, he’s following a boss’s orders. The poor bastard’s job is tedious until the moment it’s not.
The guard remounts his Jeep and guns away into the dark.
Chagall settles himself behind the manzanita. Best to wait a good long while before finishing his business.
* * *
Tonight he’s putting a different spin on routine that has played out hundreds of times, in a dozen variations, over decades. Chagall’s motive has little to do with gumming up the work of a local gang of forest slayers.
Like others before him, he has wrecked diesels up and down the coast to hinder insatiable lumbermen. He has broken mink and chinchilla out of factory-farm prisons, burned construction sites at the edge of city sprawl, toppled electrical towers that rip through remote wilderness. Popgun sabotage, all of it. He understands by now that industry hardly registers a solo saboteur’s attacks. It doesn’t matter where in the great chain of annihilation Chagall and those like him strike. The predators ignore their toothless nibbling.
Chagall has always acted alone, planning for as long as precision takes. Opportunities to partner up are easy to find online, but saboteurs in his mold have proven over decades of eluding law enforcement that their best protections are isolation and independence. Chagall shuns unknown quantities sniffing around his avatars on the net. Or he did, always, until several months before. At the tail end of summer, a digital phantom who signed off with the naked letter “R” approached with a bold proposal. Romulus, as Chagall calls him in the privacy of his own mind, has set his sights not only on a high-value target, but on a new paradigm. Information, Romulus writes, is more volatile than gasoline, and he can hack an online media blast at thermonuclear scale. A brick-and-mortar attack that means little in and of itself might loft a propaganda blitz to heights Chagall can never realize solo. Or so he claims.
Romulus offered proof of his skills. A series of artful database incursions yielded confidential medical records belonging to executives of a half-dozen corporations, demonstrating not only ability, but also willingness to step farther over the line than an undercover lawman would dare.
But even if Romulus isn’t card-carrying FBI, he could be an unmasked hacker run by a clever cop. Just as risky, he might be wet behind the ears. A postcollegiate misfit with little experience outside his electronic playground. Or a habitué of darkened rooms, surrounded by multiple screens and frustrated by the limits of his virtual reach.
Unwilling to trust any partner, Chagall has chosen their political focus himself: genetic engineering, for the scale of its threat and the readiness of an opposition movement to crystallize. Romulus initiated their conspiracy, but Chagall will pick their target too. He’ll demand further criminal proofs of the hacker, and he’ll draft the communication that will follow in the wake of their physical attack. It occurs to him, as he waits to be sure the rent-a-cop is done with feints and dodges, that he ought to recruit a third-party writer, neither Romulus nor himself. Their political justification should be drafted in someone else’s voice.
How much will he need to expose to the hacker? What will Romulus guess about him? That he’s a disaffected child of the cities, radicalized by liberal arts faculty at some obscure university? A forest-loving solitary, maddened by encounters with clear-cut? A farm boy disgusted by life indentured to poultry processors, trained as an Army sapper, embittered by officers blind to his talents?
Any of a hundred stories that lead to fury might be ascribed to Romulus or himself. Psychological profiling is useless to cops and saboteurs alike. Chagall could have come from anywhere, could have been almost anything, before he burrowed underground. The same is true of the anonymous bit jockey, who will get a taste tonight of what Chagall can do.
* * *
He listens from his manzanita blind, but registers only nocturnal scurrying through fog-dampened duff, only a breeze sliding through treetops across the land’s dips and curves. The valley is haunted by emptiness that persists long after men and equipment knock off for the day. The sound of wildlife ebbing. No trace remains of elk like those Chagall stalked as a boy, never mind the bears and wolves that flourished before his time.
A winged thud and a tiny, terrified scream roil the stillness. A long-eared owl on nightly rounds, he guesses, or perhaps a great gray. Another deer mouse plucked from nest and litter. He is brutally comforted. The web is not wholly wrecked.
Gathering his equipment, Chagall approaches the compound again. He completes the rectangular breach, bends back the wire fence, and hoists his pack through the opening. Rubber overshoes, same as the plunderers wear, ensure that even his footprints leave no clue.
Crude matériel has no place in his repertoire. He won’t haul jugs of gasoline, or shovel sand into crankcases. He’s beyond cutting brake lines and slashing tires. Garden-variety monkeywrenching is useful enough, and he is unashamed to have done his share. But Chagall now plays for higher stakes.
Selecting a brush cutter alongside the fence, Chagall jimmies open its gas cap, releasing a cloud of refined petrochemicals. A tool he has forged for the purpose catches on a filter set deep in the fill pipe. Twisting, Chagall reams open the tank’s throat.
He removes a handcrafted device from his pack, and inspects its timer and trigger. His hands are sure as he fastens wires to a soldered cradle, yet Chagall performs the rites of war attentively, as if this were his first time in the field. Exactness is all that stands between success and martyrdom. He slots a blasting cap into place, and slides a gauze sleeve over the cradle to guard against accidental sparks. Now he lowers the device into the brush cutter’s fill pipe, pulling back a centimeter when the detonator touches liquid.
He repeats his drill, rigging two knuckle-boom loaders farther down the row, then a clot of skidders at the center of the yard.
* * *
At just shy of three thirty Chagall circles the perimeter, checking for evidence he doesn’t mean to leave behind. The timers are counting down to four fifteen. Satisfied, he shoulders a lightened pack and exits the way he came in.
There’s no need to wait for the fireworks. He’ll see the glow as he crests the southern ridge, heading deeper into the wild than heavily equipped pursuers can follow.
Copyright © 2015 by Steve Masover. All rights reserved.