Midwife in the Tire Swing

Chapter 24—The Spamish Prisoner

Ed Hobart lived on the second floor of a garage in an apartment originally built for Harvey Knowles’ mother-in-law. She had died of a stroke while trying to call the dispatcher over at the sheriff’s department from the corner payphone, too afraid of falling to get past the second step on the steep outside stairs. The stairs were the only entrance to the apartment and slick with ice four months out of twelve, slippery with mold and Willipaq’s coastal fog the other eight. “What if there’s a fire?” Ed asked.

“You don’t smoke,” Knowles said.

“I don’t.”

“Then there won’t be any fire,” Knowles replied. He kicked in with a brace of fire extinguishers plus a rope ladder all coiled and ready in its factory carton to seal the deal. That a woman had died where he slept did not bother Ed.

“You’re getting the apartment cheap. ’Cause of the bike.” Harvey Knowles was a rehabilitator of classic automobiles; his pride and joy, a 1973 2.4-litre Porsche 911 that he had painted, buffed and polished in layers of Bermuda Blue, could stay where it was. At full rent its parking space would have gone with the apartment. “You can leave your bike in the garage in winter. A cool tool is one thing...” Harvey had to have heard about his breakup with Sue, everyone had. “...freezing your balls to a bicycle seat when it’s twenty below is another.”

Ed granted that was about right. He moved into the flat of the deceased mother-in-law.

Most mornings Ed rode the bike to work. There was the government truck with University plates for his use and a metered account at Sunrise Mobile for gas. Most mornings—most cold mornings—his first stop before the Wilco was the truck in its slot behind the laundromat. He started it up and left the heater fan going on high. From there Ed pedaled to the Wilco where he presented a manly, woodsy jack-of-all-trades healthy-living exterior to Theo Arsenault. “Double lattes, extra sugar. Two.” Ed left the bike locked in the stanchion at the Wilco and headed for the government truck. When he returned with the lattes, government gas would have made the truck’s interior toasty warm. Directing the hot air stream of the blower motor toward his knees, he held one coffee between them while he pried back the plastic lid of the other. Rich aromatic winds of equatorial mountain plantations filled the cab. Ed sipped.

On those days when Ed got to work before Heidi he returned to the diner and sat in a corner booth, watching her arrive and settle in across the street. She appeared in first one window, than another—the early morning puttering, putting to right things that had been let slide the day before. Heidi sat at her desk and reached to turn on her computer. Was that skin? Ed hoped for a flash of female presence below her throat, some loose buttons. Heidi looked up; Ed ducked behind the Wilco’s window frame, pulling himself away from possible exposure as a peeping Tom. After a pause, he slipped forward cautiously. Nope, not caught, just the phone, Heidi was talking. “Maine State Agricultural Extension,” she would say. What she said when they were both in the office, “The Incredible Farm Service Agency, state your business please,” was just to piss him off, a show of free spirit to undermine the pecking order.

Heidi Nichols was Ed Hobart’s second in command. The term secretary did not quite apply as Heidi had pointed out on her first day. “I have a DVM with a specialty in microbiology and immunology from the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine.” Ed held a master’s degree in soil science from the state university system. He leaned forward to look over her shoulder. “And you are obsessed with tits,” said Heidi. She did not move or cover up.

Ed was struggling not to look down. He tried to bluff it out. “Sure. You are the titular office manager. What else? Feet? And genitalia are pretty homely.”

“Yours maybe... but feet. Whatever, you’re the boss.”

Heidi was now back at the computer, most likely checking e-mails. She fired up her printer and unlocked the bottom file drawer of her desk. And withdrew a pile of manila folders. Ed watched as she arranged pages from the folders in neat piles on her desktop. Heidi peered into the computer screen, squinted, then extracted a set of half-frame reading glasses from the desk. She put them on, squinted again, breathed on them and polished them on her shirt front. Ahh, yes. There were buttons undone.

*  *  *

“Who is Heidi?” Sarah didn’t know what she expected. A denial, an awkward silence.

“My author,” Jerry answered immediately—no pause, no hemming, and no hawing. No blush as when she had asked who was Taffy O’Toole, the ex-wife.

“Your author.”

“That’s right. She writes the letters, I buy the contact lists and send them out. I collect the payoffs and we split 50-50.”

“Hold on. She writes... letters. Who the hell to? And payoffs?” The last word was hushed, drawn out. Outside, up and over the sills of Sarah’s basement windows, from the street came the chatter of two kids as they rode by on electric scooters. Both were using cell phones and wearing helmets. One was shouting into his phone, “Every time I bear down on the accelerator it makes a funny grinding noise.”

“Everyone.” Jerry had been reading the Post. He folded the pages over to convert its tabloid folio into a quarto. “Gang Killed People for Their Fat,” an inside headline called. He waved the folded newspaper, “...and not money, not really. No. Well, yes.”

“Nice. No money but some money is coming in or going out. I am hearing this right? This is evading the question. Who is Heidi?”

“Then again, why the Red Sox? Who’s Yehudi? Get this.” Jerry read from the Post, “‘A gang in the remote Peruvian jungle has been killing people for their fat, police charged Thursday, draining it from their corpses and offering it on the black market for use in cosmetics. Medical experts expressed skepticism that a major market for human fat might exist. The suspects, two of whom were arrested carrying bottles of liquid fat, told police it was worth $60,000 a gallon.’”

“Off topic. I can recall asking if Heidi is the ‘Other Woman?’”

“Heidi is another woman. I have never met her face to face; anonymity is convenient. And the money is pocket change, really. Small business, the backbone of our free market economy, and marginally legal. Gift certificates, really—the equivalent of a blue collar bearer bond in 15, 25, 50 and 100 dollar face values—Amazon, Walmart, Mr. Goodwrench, Broadway shows and Burger Kings anywhere. They’re the commercial paper of the interboobs. I cruise the card exchanges and reinvest our gift cards instead of turning them over into hard goods. Or broker them off in job lots. As close to an untraceable money transfer as you can get. Sounds so dark and devious, exactly why I didn’t tell you. The whole thing brings a small but steady stream of cash, eventually. And for nothing as strenuous as getting to the post office to cash the money orders. Enough to give us a couple of hundred dollars a month to split. I declare it on my income tax.”

“Upstanding of you. You list your occupation as...”

“Author’s representative.” Jerry riffled through the stack of manila folders on the table. He pulled one labeled “Spamish Prisoner” from the bottom of the stack.

“Read one. This is all Heidi’s stuff. Brilliant, I’d say. But of course I’m on the payroll.”

“...so your opinions are suspect.”

“Yes.”

Sarah opened the file older. In it were printouts of e-mails. “This... this... These are e-mail scams. Everyone gets them. This one. This I got this last year. Nigeria. Dutch Shell and generalissimos with high peaked caps and gold braid. Slaughtered children, bodies piled up for burning. That sounds xenophobic, but after all, Nigeria. That’s an oil monopoly on the coast, no? Dead kids are just collateral damage to oil companies. You are a part of all this?”

“You are calling me a murderer just because I dangle a piece of fictional—made up stuff, fiction, get it?—bait on the Interwebs. I don’t go to them; they come to me. No. You’ve got it all wrong. I didn’t tell you about this because, because... Sarah, I know I’m supposed to be working on my post-graduate stuff. I’m not, OK? And I met Heidi in an online writer’s workshop. We were the only ones who fessed up to not writing the great American novel. She’s a poet of spam—got the rhythms down pat: sloppy syntax, inappropriate grammar, the whole mishigas.” Jerry indicated the contents of the folder in Sarah’s hand. “That’s Pulitzer grade stuff. We’ve made a few thousand dollars on it and we’re only getting started.”

Sarah read.

Attn. Sir, may the blessings of God be upon you and likewise upon those of your family who may be reading this letter. May God grant you the wisdom and sympathy to understand my situation and how much I need your help. I am Bakari Mohammed the first son of Mr. Mohamed Isessay son former national security adviser to the ousted Sierra Leonean military head of state, Paul Koroma.

I am writing to express my interest in real estate or landed properties in your country. Though my father died while detained by the new government, before his untimely death he instructed me to leave the country for my safety and start up a business somewhere outside Africa.

The sum of eight million five hundred thousand US dollars (8.500.000.00) was deposited in a security and finance company here in Dakar Senegal by my late father. Actually, I have never met you before; it was a friend of my father who happened to be present at his burial that advised me to consider your country for my investments. No one else is aware of my proposal to you.”

“E-mail scams. Just when I thought I could trust everybody.”

“You are being sarcastic. Well, they will try to close us down. The feds will crack bitcoin, eventually. Or outflank it, buy into it and make it the new base currency of the Federal Reserve. But gift certificates?—not a chance in hell. That’s what makes it so great. Our stuff is so obviously a scam, no one in their right mind would give us a second thought. We don’t ask for money for ourselves. People send us money without being asked. We ran it by a lawyer.”

“Wait. You are financing your postgraduate degree by scamming old ladies in Peoria.”

“This is art. Peoria will soon be under five feet of water, climate change. Whatever life ever existed there will be forgotten, along with Peorian mores, folkways and survival skills.”

“Peoria, Illinois. Survival skills. Like?”

“OK. The Swiss Army knife, fancy fucking.”

“You have never been anywhere. You told me this. I’ll give you points for fancy fucking, but Peoria? Margaret Mead spent years in Samoa. You have never been out of Brooklyn. You told me this. Where did you do the field work?”

“Coney Island, Rockaway. On the beach, me and my laptop. Research takes time. A good year of it, eating Nathan’s hot dogs and picking at sand fly bites.”

“The feds will be knocking at the door any minute now,” said Sarah.

“That’s the brilliance of it all, there’s no need to hide—we don’t know each other, not face to face. We work together like a very small, sleeper cell except we’re not sleeping. We are selling, selling... confidence, Heidi and I. And the stunning brilliance of it all is we never have to use our own names, or real addresses. We set up dummy websites, proxy accounts, and run our business anonymously through what TV news calls the ‘dark web.’”

“You are a swindler. Preying on the hopes and aspirations of unsuspecting...”

“No. We don’t ask for money; they send it. If an alpha male from the nearest hunting pack brings down a straggler there’s always enough left for us little folk to scavenge.”

“Hyena is the word you’re looking for. Surely you didn’t expect people to buy this crap?”

“Sarah, Sarah. If some sucker sends his hard-earned cash to the addresses we post—clearly marked as bogus, by the way—that’s their problem. Well-meaning folks send us coffee table books, riding mowers, and gift certificates. And then they sit back and wait, full of pride at having done the right thing—for the next asteroid impact, organic meatloaf at McDonald’s—they’re just not sure what. Oh yes, and lots of gift certificates. A masterpiece of supply chain management, our website is on an ever-changing redirect. The merchandise is drop-shipped to a warehouse in Midlothian, Ohio where a second tier of sales associates fences it off at forty cents on the dollar. It’s patriotic, too. We have a disabled combat vet supervising there in Ohio. PTSD, a guy named Ian Emory.”

“Huh. I have a nephew by that name. Or half-brother, the jury is still out on that one. Life in New England gets complicated; it’s the long winters, but he’s supposed to be dead. No—doubtful. Someone else, then. You’re going to get caught, the both of you. No matter how slick you are at cooking the books, the cops have endless hours to piss away at taxpayer expense.” Sarah allowed herself to fall backwards into a sling chair. “Smart people send you money because you’re nice. Cool, if you have an automatic algorithm somewhere that separates the irretrievably dumb from the doctoral dropouts. Did you think of this all by yourself?”

“No. Ronnie Maumau Jones, a pimp with his office in a white-on-white Cadillac, he got me to thinking about it. A regular Mr. Congeniality, the Ronnie. It’s cold on those pre-dawn runs with the wind whipping in from Jersey and we got to know each other over coffee. Maumau keeps his girls out late after a last lonesome cruiser. I don’t know him, not in a john and whoremaster way. It’s one of those if you need to warm up, here’s a congenial guy and those last three miles are into the wind right through Grand Army Plaza and Ronnie keeps the coffee hot, along with a dry bar for the clientele. We got to know each other over those big 2-liter pump thermoses he keeps for the girls. Right in the limo.”

“White-on-white limo? If I didn’t know you that would sound racist. I’d be looking for a Jersey connection, not Nigerian. Except who’s ever heard of a New Jersey e-mail scam?”

“The dumber the prospects, the steeper the slope—except with our algorithm. It has all to do with parsing out fractions on an x-y graph—the sucker line is from lower left the top right: that’s our false positive line. The college-educated predominate. And the ones who stop, think, actually read the daily rollouts from Heidi’s word processor—these are our true positives. No negatives, Sarah—please note. Just false positive and true positives. Our glass is half full no matter what. The difference is quality vs. quantity.”

“Oh, dumb guys send you money. That’s because they’re dumb. No magic there. Shit.” Sarah had tried to rise, but was wedged in the sling chair. “Do you hire the Girl Scouts to launder your digital dollars? Scenario: the Buttercup Troop pulls up to an offshore multinational with a boatload of deposit bottles? Oh, the possibilities are endless and sidesplitting.”

“You are righteously correct, my pet—you just can’t automate the turnaround for hard cash; that requires a human touch. For the plot to come together we need mules, vast masses of grunts ready and willing to be an interface between the physical and the digital worlds. So far this is a smalltime scam and we’ve gone at it in a smalltime way. That there is malicious software just like ours to be had cheap or for free all over the Internet keeps my humility to the forefront.”

“You’re going to recruit at high school job fairs.”

“Not students. Not really. But their teachers… Yes. And no, we haven’t recruited anyone as of yet. But who else would buy identical expensive books in quantity only to sell them at semester’s end? We deal in the new currency of international exchange. The initial investment is nothing, zero. Credentials, lists can be stolen by the millions, but spinning merchandise and gift certificates into gold needs the fine touch of an artist, a sales associate. Sales Associates, just like Walmart. The newcomers to the scam, the know-nothings, trolling for false positives.”

“While you troll for true negatives?”

“True positives—less is better. We’re skimming the cream off the bottom. Everyone who responds to an e-mail scam knows there’s a hook hidden in the bait. They want to get caught; it gives them validation for their purposeless lives. Our work is a social outreach for the good.”

“Well, I’m impressed. Can I see some more of that stuff? Give me a hand, OK?”

“You stuck?” Jerry gave a whoop, “Gotcha!” He held the manila folder just barely out of Sarah’s reach as he danced a circle around her and the sling chair.

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