Closed for Business (xor 3.5)
You’ve heard about this, right?
I’ve heard people here in Wuhan compare life to playing a video game; every day is a mission. Your mission, if you choose to accept it: Get food. Check on loved ones. Don’t. Catch. The. Virus. Stay alive. People wear not only masks but motorcycle helmets with face shields. They wear gloves. They wear clothes covering their entire body. They wear fear in the only thing you can see: their eyes.
Dread, worry, stress, loneliness, isolation, depression, fear.
Not everyone will catch the coronavirus, but everyone has caught the fear.
I’m here to hold back. Hole up. Hide out. But there is no hiding from fear.
On my third day in Wuhan, I decided to go out. I was a little scared, so I recorded a selfie video. Here’s some of the audio from that:
“I might be about to make a huge mistake. The building I’m in has some sort of WiFi and I seem to connect, but there isn’t any internet. No one in the apartments around me would open their door when I knocked, so… I guess I’m going to go out and try to find a cafe or coffee shop and get online.
On the street now. I took the stairs. I definitely do not want to be cooped up in an elevator in this town.
The streets are deserted. Oh, shit.”
I said “Oh shit” because I saw three men in jackets and ducked behind a bush. I dropped my phone and the recording stopped. The trio of men were walking fast, looking official. There’s Marshall law here, so unless on official business, you aren’t supposed to go out.
The men trotted away, out of site. Then, my phone rang. Lita. In the last few days, she had called twenty times, never left a message. No texts. I didn’t have the energy for the conversation I knew was coming, but I owed it to her. I answered.
D: Hi Lita.
L: What the fuck are you doing? Wuhan? Have you lost your mind!?
D: I’m good Lita, how are you?
L: Dude, seriously. Why did you fly to China?
D: I tried to tell you last time. I saw two guys I thought were feds. I needed somewhere to hide no one else would come.
L: So you assumed that Fishburne and his crew wouldn’t travel to the epicenter of the coronavirus?
L: I’m sure you’re right. No one else would be that stupid.
It went on like that for a bit, then she had to leave for a doctor’s appointment. She’d been feeling sick again lately.
Now I’m the kind of guy who thinks like this: After talking to Lita, I looked around and didn’t see anyone. If no one else is out, I should be fine, right? What would you do?
I was a block away when I heard a bullhorn from high above me, like God. It was in Chinese but I was thinking, “God… is that… you?” No. Whatever It was, barked words in Chinese. No sprechen de Francais. I didn’t understand it, I didn’t know if they were yelling at me, I ignored it and kept walking.
After an hour of walking, I recorded this: “Okay, no dice. More “CLOSED” signs. I hadn’t thought it would be this bad. This city is the size of New York. I could not picture New York being like this under quarantine… Under any circumstance.”
Then, Lita called again. I answered. She said:
L: Exclusivor has gone public.
L: She just tweeted. Let me read it to you.
D: Lita, no way Exclusivor is on Twitter.
L: It’s a brand-new account, no followers. She tagged me, you, the FBI and Fishburne.
D: It’s not her.
L: Her handle is “FishburneSux” – sucks is spelled s-u-x.
D: Okay, that sounds like her, but it could be anybody.
L: Maybe, but can I read it?
L: It says, “Hey Fishburne, you asshole!! Too late to catch me in Wuhan, you slow motherfucker. Where will I be next? #hareVturtle @LOLLita26969940 @fbi @deaddistinctive”
D: Wait, tortoise and the hare? Is she the hare?
L: I guess so, the turtle is slow.
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the (recording) lights on!
D: But the turtle won.
L: Yeah, doesn’t make sense.
D: But she wrote, “Wuhan”?
L: Yeah, Exclusivor was in Wuhan. Is that why you went there?
D: No. I mean, I thought she might be, but not until after I got here.
L: I think it’s really her.
D: It’s a hoax.
L: Look, if Exclusivor was in Wuhan, and she said they almost caught her, then Fishburne must be in Wuhan, too. We know he’s listening to these –
D: Fuck. Okay I’m going to go grab my stuff, I need to find a new place to stay. I’ll call you.
I hung up, and spun around and headed back to my room. Should I even go back? Was this like in Pulp Fiction when he went back for his watch? Was it going to end like that? Ugh… I hope not.
I made a mental inventory of what was in my room. I had a couple of phones, cash, paper wallets with over two hundred Bitcoin, my clothes, my passport under my alias Benjamin Dover. Yes, I had to go back.
I was two blocks from my building when I was surprised by those same three people. They wore masks. It’s really weird how everyone wears masks. Honestly, it’s kind of scary. You can’t tell what people are thinking. Only their eyes betray their real thoughts, if they will even look at you. I hadn’t realized how much I relied on reading expressions.
One of them said something in Chinese, but I just shook my head. Then, another one of the masked men said, in English, “he doesn’t speak Chinese.”
I knew that voice. Crap. I didn’t even last a full week.
The first man switched to English and said, “You are not supposed to leave your room!” I began to feel sick to my stomach. This wasn’t going to end well.
They force-marched me back to my tiny little room. When we got there, everyone came in. They closed the door and sprayed something in the air. Then, They took off their masks and my fears were confirmed.
My phone buzzed in my pocket. It was the vibration pattern I had set for Lita. I didn’t answer.
The Chinese man said, “My English name is Peter, this is my wife Mary-Jane. We are aid workers in charge of this area. You are doing a very bad thing. You could spread the virus. It is very irresponsible.”
I didn’t respond. I stared at the third man.
The Chinese man didn’t seem used to being ignored. He fretted, “Well, this is doctor Smith. He arrived this morning to help with the outbreak. A guest of our government.”
Smith? No way.
I said, “How did you find me, Fishburne?”
I was back in my mask, Fishburne was back in his, and we were in the back of a car driving us back to the US Consulate.
Fishburne said, “I heard your recording last week. I was here in two days.”
I said, “This town is massive. You got lucky.”
Fishburne said, “We did some sonic research on the background sounds from when you were dropped off. We found the corner where your driver left you, we asked around. I ran into those two at a coordination meeting this morning. This outbreak has made the Chinese government very helpful.”
I’m so stupid.
I got to ruminate in my stupidity for the night, in a guarded room in the basement of the US Consulate.
The next morning, Fishburne came to get me. We went to breakfast in an empty cafeteria. It was bloody amazing. I hadn’t eaten an American breakfast in eight months. Fishburne had an apple, and watched me stuff myself for ten minutes, then he said, “You’re facing ten years, perhaps time in a Supermax, my friend.”
Fishburne has this really aggravating voice. Just the way he speaks. Argh!! I can’t do it justice. Just, think of the person in the world that you hate the most. His voice sounds like that.
When he said “Supermax,” my appetite died. I put down my fork and said, “You know i didn’t do anything wrong. It was all Zoe.”
“Oh, Sean, I know. Just the same, I’m going to make sure you do all ten years, even if I have to make shit up.”
Now I had lost tomorrow’s appetite. Fishburne would plant evidence, falsify documents, lie to his mom, steal candy from a baby, whatever.
He stared at me, then said, “Unless.”
I said, “Unless, what?”
“You are staying in those cuffs, you are going to prison, you are doing all the time -“
I cut him off, the bombastic bastard. I said, “unless what?”
He looked miffed. He said, “Unless you help me find Exclusivor.”
“Fishburne, we went through all this three years ago.”
“Yeah, but see, you think like her. Wuhan fucking China? Are you kidding? Who would do that? I tell you who, you, and Exclusivor.”
See what I mean? Don’t you just want to punch me for doing the voice?
Anyway, I said, “So, Exclusivor is here?”
“Was here. She’s listening to your recordings too, I suspect. She was here, and you flushed her like a bird dog. The rest of my team is on her trail right now.”
“Lita said she tweeted. Did you see it?”
“Yes. Confirmation she was here. We are working with Twitter to find where it was sent from.”
I thought: ‘Holy crap, I was right. Exclusivor was hiding in Wuhan. Maybe we do think alike.’ I said, “Okay, so you can let me go. It seems like I already helped you find her.”
I finished my food, so I stood up.
Fishburne got up too. He said, “Uh, No, she’s had a three day head-start. Like everyone else in this hemisphere, she’s wearing a mask. But, we matched her eyes from some photos at a train station in Zhengzhou, then another in Beijing, the Saigon airport, a CTV in Tokyo.”
“Fishburne, you’ll never catch her.” I dumped my trash and put my tray on the stack.
Fishburne said, “I agree with that. We’re on her trail, but my experience says she’ll get away this time. But never say never. While she’s on the move, I need your help.” He pointed toward a set of doors.
I shook my head. “No. Not again. She’s my friend.”
“She’s your friend! That’s why you need to help. I’m not going to arrest her.” Fishburne held up his badge and the doors unlocked.
I pushed open the doors and said, “Right.”
“Honest! Think about it. Help your friend. Or time in a Supermax, Sean. You and Kaczinski, Salim, Terry Nichols. You really want to rub elbows with those terrorists?”
“Fishburne, it’s a Supermax, no one rubs elbows with anyone. That’s the point.” We were in a courtyard. The morning sun was bright. It had been hazy since I arrived. Maybe things were looking up for Wuhan.
Fishburne was still talking so I reluctantly tuned back in. “The point is, Harley, the US is in a Cyber war with Iran, North Korea, China, Russia. Everybody is trying to get a leg up. Even our allies, Germany, Sweden. Everyone is trying to get the upper-hand. It’s just a matter of time. It’s us against the globe. The only thing in our favor is they are at war with each other, too. But, if they decide to team up… “
“I can’t help you.”
“Do it for your country, Sean.”
If it were for my country, I’d do it No problem. But I said, “No.”
Fishburne’s face went purple. He chucked his apple at a trash can across the courtyard, missing badly. He motioned to two security guards and growled, “Take him to his room.”
I was pretty happy I’d suffered that conversation and didn’t try to punch Fishburne. It was a first.
When I got back to my confinement room, there were two people already there. One of them was going through my laptop.
I said, “Hey, that’s mine! What do you think you’re doing?”
“Relax, man, I was just poking around.” Oh, fantastic, another aggravating asshole.
He was logged in to my computer. Crap. Who knows what he’d seen.
“You need a stronger password, my man.” He spoke as though in slow motion.
“What do you want?”
“Special Agent Fishburne asked us to have a talk with you, man.”
The ‘talk’ took the rest of the day. And, I had to wear the mask the entire time. These two, they go by the handles Preature and mASSHtrOLE.
mASSHtrOLE did most of the talking. They were hackers, busted by Fishburne two months ago. Their job was to help Fishburne track me and then Exclusivor.
mASSHtrOLE said, “You gotta help us, man. Exclusivor is a fucking poltergiest.”
For the love of God, talk faster!! Okay, for all our sanity, I’m going to speed him up.
You tapped out our abilities. Fuck man, you had to fucking tell us where you were for us to find you. Exclusivor never does dumb shit like that. If we don’t find her, I go to prison, man. I can’t do twenty years.”
I said, “No, I’m not helping. I doxxed Exclusivor three years ago and that was one of the worst things I’ve ever done. I’m not helping Fishburne find her.”
“They want her to help us, man. They aren’t even trying to arrest her!”
“Word of advice: Never trust Fishburne. My answer is ‘no’.”
“Fuck you, man!” mASSHtrOLE stood up and shoved me off my chair. I was twice his age, half his weight, and in much better condition. I got up, and he came at me. He swung, slow and lumbering, but I was just standing up and didn’t see the blow coming. I ducked but he still caught a glancing blow. It was awkward and miss-timed. It felt like getting hit with a nerf football tossed by a baby..
The mistake most people make in a fight, is they come flying in with their arms way out in front, but their head and body back. No one wants to take a shot to the head. I get it. Being hit sucks. But, you just got to accept it. If you are in a fight, you’re probably going to get hit in the face. The thing is, if you do it right, you’re going hit the other guy way harder, walk away with your arms up in victory, and look like a badass doing it. So, you don’t go in with your arms way out in front like you want to tussle the hair on their head, you get right in there, you go in with your arms in position for a jab. Forget haymakers, Ray Charles can see those coming. You want to jab, jab, jab. Straight, swift, frequent, fast, solid, strong. Boom, boom, boom.’
That’s how I did it.
mASSHtrOLE looked up from the floor, blood streaming from his nose. “You broke my fucking nose, man!”
I was like… you came at me… man.
The Consolulate ER nurse was pissed. But, the coronavirus couldn’t be transmitted through blood. I hoped.
A small crowd had formed. Fishburne took me aside. He said, “How did it feel?”
I said, “How did what feel?”
I said, “Oh. It felt spectacular.”
Fishburned jabbed at the air, “Since the moment I met him, I’ve had a fantasy about punching him.”
I leaned in and said, “Fishburne, doing the same to you would make me feel even better.”
Fishburne laughed. “As if. But, hey, I’ve had that fantasy starring you, too, Harley.” He winked at me and whispered. ” I think about it every time I’m in the shower.”
Security guards were posted outside the door and consulate personnel brought in three army cots. mASSHtrOLE, Preature and I slept together in that locked room. My roommates took their bedding from the cots and laid it on the floor, stripped down and had very vocal sex. With his broken nose, mASSHtrOLE was a mouth breather.
It was awful.
Somewhere around about halfway through the second time, my phone buzzed. I hadn’t looked at it all day. Fishburne had frisked me back in my room, and took everything but my phone and laptop. Undoubtedly they were now tracking everything I did.
Lita had texted earlier. There was another tweet from Exclusivor. I connected to the consulate wifi, downloaded the Twitter app, signed in with an account I hadn’t used in years and looked up the handle @FishburneSux. Exclusivor now had three followers. Like the first one, the second tweet mocked Fishburne. It said, “You can’t catch a ghost.” It tagged me, Lita, the FBI, and @SamFishburne.”
The next day, they flew us to Seoul. We were going to spend the coronavirus incubation period in quarantine in a hospital, then I was going to Guantanamo until they could decide how to deal with me. Fishburne and the two hackers were going back on Exclusivor’s trail, which had gone cold in Tokyo.
While I was in quarantine in Seoul, Exclusivor tweeted several more times. Nothing big, just mocking Fishburne. In one, she posted a watermarked image of Wuhan, clearly from a stock image site, and wrote, “Maybe I’m here?!?” She did another with a stock image of Red Square, another of Big Ben.
Exclusivor was on the move, and I was thinking “Guantanamo?” Then I had an idea. Maybe there was a way I could help Exclusivor and stay out of prison.