Killer Tim, part 35: Billikin
Tim wonders whether they would let him in again. Nine hours ago he planted the trigger file. They’re overdue. The file should’ve been opened three hours ago. Tim could launch it himself, if he got inside Tennessee Street. Where’s the poetry in that? They might not be so accommodating on Tim’s second visit. Something tells Tim to go to Tennessee Street. But not yet - still too crowded.
Tim never had much need for patience. There are always options, necessary tasks, time-insensitive, in the queue, pooled, pending, piddling. Paltry, perfidy, petragree. There’s time time time, thinks Tim. No rush brush crush. Yet Tim is restless. Why not walk a little longer way?
Tim imagines the Dubose maze laid over, imposed super the City. Wending wun down wun round to Liberty. He thinks, Is this what missing is?
Not Karen, Tim thinks. Missing Karen is like missing warmth. Cece. Tim misses her like he misses parallelism, reason, ratios, tides, metes. The closer Tim gets to Cece, the more dangerous her life becomes. Tim forces himself not to look at the clock. He knows what time it is.
Not Liberty, Tim repeats in his head as he prepares for his afternoon walk. Not Liberty as he locks his apartment door and takes the stairs. Out the front door not Liberty. South on Steiner not Liberty. Mind the mid-Mission not Liberty Liberty Liberty fourthwrought and gliberty.
Thirty feet from Bush, Tim stops. In an instant, a route forms. It gets him to Tennessee Street after the rush, and goes nowhere near Liberty. Tim continues south on Steiner, sure Billikin took the bait, or soon will. Then Billikin’s data bomb becomes Tim’s data bomb. And Cece’s.
Cece’s thoughts are as far from data bombs as they could be. What occupies Cece at the moment is a job offer, one she never saw coming. What Cece is waiting to see coming is the M Ocean View train that will take her to the J Church. She is tired of her last school project. She's tired of riding these noisy trains twice a day, some days two round trips. She is done with the post-grad life, fed up with family.
As the train appears down 19th, Cece admits the only thing she’s not tired of is chasing the people who hacked the SFPD. And maybe walking.
The crowd on the platform mulls toward the approaching train in clumps. Cece turns and walks the other way, toward the exit on Nineteenth. The Balboa station can’t be much more than a mile, Cece thinks. I’ll catch the J Church there. She crosses Nineteenth and walks up Holloway. As she walks, she adjusts the strap of her backpack, tucks the edge of her hijab into her coat, looks at the blue sky above Mt. Davidson.
I picked up Tim’s walking habit, Cece thinks as she finds her stride. Best to shun some of Tim’s other proclivities. She catches herself. Proclivities. Cece chides herself, now murdering people is nothing but a bad habit? It doesn’t matter that Tim’s victims are violent felons.
Cece wends down quiet side streets toward the Balboa Park station. All of Tim’s victims were
violent but one, she reminds herself: Blisflix. Cece considers what Blisflix, the recently former detective who couldn’t nail Tim, was doing in Cece’s neighborhood in the early morning. How long will it take for me to fall off their radar?, Cece wonders. She turns a corner and sees City College ahead. Walking feels good.
So much for the J Church, Cece thinks as she walks east on Ocean toward the 280 overpass. What’s another two miles? Even with these shoes.
Tim knew Blisflix was working for them all along, Cece thinks as she walks. He probably knew Blisflix’s list was a plant. Would that matter? Why did Tim put me to work sniffing them out on the SFPD network? Total waste of time, thinks Cece as she heads north on San Jose Avenue. This is what it’s like having a real job, she thinks. A game piece getting pushed around the board, no control, no stake in the outcome.
Like the job Cece got pitched through her professor this morning, in security. The only security work she does is supposed to be a secret. The only people who should know Cece was working for the SFPD are the ones she was after. Chances are good they’re behind the job offer. Just like they hired Blisflix, Cece thinks as she walks. Look how well that worked out for him. She wonders what Detective Smith is up to.
Cece knew Smith and Blisflix were mismatched. She wonders whether whoever paired them actually wanted them to catch Tim, or anybody else. What a sham, she thinks. The whole thing one big setup. Her feet tell her to catch the streetcar at Glen Park. Was Tim playing or played? As Cece walks under the 280 overpass toward the streetcar stop, she thinks, I should take their job just to find out who these people are.
My lucky day, Cece thinks when she sees the J Church rumble into view just a few seconds after she reaches the stop. She prays for a seat. He prayer is answered: the streetcar is nearly empty. She thinks about nothing except her aching feet, all the way to Liberty Street. Cece steps gingerly off the streetcar and walks west on Liberty. A half block from her home, two smiling women approach her from the street.
Cece makes them as cops before either woman says a word. “Cecelia Khoury?”, asks the woman in gray tweed. Cece stops, nods, folds her arms. “I’m Special Agent Becker, this is Special Agent Rzepka,” the woman says, pointing to her partner. Cece waits for them to offer her a card. Instead, the women look back at Cece, as if waiting for her to speak. She doesn’t, just looks from one to the other. Their smiles droop.
“Special agent of what?”, Cece asks.
The first woman removes a badge and ID card from her jacket pocket, shows them to Cece, puts them back. “Cyber Division,” the woman says. “FBI.” She looks at her partner, who responds by showing Cece her credentials.
Cece shifts her tired feet. “What can I do for you?”, Cece asks finally.
“We’d like to ask you about the project you worked on for the police,” the first woman says.
“Shouldn’t you talk to Detective Smith?”, Cece asks.
“We’d prefer to talk to you,” the agent replies without missing a beat. “If we may.”
Cece tries to come up with a reasonable excuse to give the agents for not talking to them, finally says simply, “No.” She walks past them. As Cece reaches the front steps to her house, she thinks about taking off her shoes and soaking her feet in Epsom salts. She looks back. Special agents Becker and Rzepka are looking back at Cece, stone-faced. Cece shouts to them, “Buy some good walking shoes,” and turns away.
Once she’s inside the house, Cece considers how long to wait before she calls Detective Smith. She dismisses the thought of contacting Tim.
Tim is not thinking of contacting anyone. He is thinking of traffic on 18th Street. Trucks are too many. Too many are trucks. Rimini imminy.
Ruckity tuckery. Ha’penny lappidry--
Another truck passes. Tim calculates the car/truck ratio over the 40 minutes he’s been standing there. Tim considers whether the trucks belong to Billikin, calculates the odds at less than 40 percent. He turns and walks toward Third Street. There is an uncharacteristic bustle to the evening that Tim can’t trace. He walks a wider square circle, plots it on the maze in his head.
Across Third, Illinois, Mariposa back across Third, to Tennessee. The building on the corner appears unchanged, sidewalk quieter than usual. Travel a block in any direction from this corner and the air is amped, brittle. Tennessee and Mariposa screams, “Please don’t notice me!”
Tim walks south on Tennessee and stands in front of Billikin’s building. The empty flagpole leans over the edifice at a 90-degree angle. Silent salute complete, Tim continues south on Tennessee. He considers Cece’s choice, now that Billikin took the bait, then flew the coop. Tim blends with the foot traffic on Eighteenth Street, picking up the city rumble with each step. He reminds himself to keep a steady pace.
Moving. The City and everything in it, in motion. Pushed and pulled, plopped and propelled. Spinning in lines of square circles. Nearflung. Farsought. Forefeature. Overcastrophe. Pay due the ardor of. Tim’s feet barely hit the ground as he weaves a wan path through the Mission. He sketches a timeline that starts when he tells Cece about the data bomb. She has 24 hours: do nothing and let it detonate, or disarm it.
After six hours of walking and standing, Tim feels more energized than he did when he left his apartment. Dusk hovers as he nears Steiner. Tim spots the unmarked car parked two doors from his building. Not SFPD. Federal, despite the California plates. No agents sitting inside. Tim is feet from his front steps when two men approach him from across Steiner. Tim stops. The men show him their badges without speaking. The agents return their badges to their pockets in unison. They keep their eyes on Tim, still not saying a word. Tim waits, eyes them back.
Tim expects the younger and shorter of the two agents to speak first, so he focuses on him. He’s right. “We’re investigating a data breach.”
Tim waits for the agent to continue, but his partner chimes in: “We understand you’re a computer expert of some sort.” Tim doesn’t reply.
The first agent asks, “Is there somewhere we can go to talk?”
“No,” Tim replies.
The second agent says, “We want to discuss hiring you.”
“No, thank you,” Tim says.
The agents look at him blankly, then look at each other just as blankly. “No? Just no?”, the second agent asks.
“We were informed that you would respond in the affirmative,” the first agent says.
“By Detective Smith?”, Tim asks. The agents stare back. “Did she also tell you to wear comfortable shoes?”, he asks.
“Hiking boots,” the second agent replies.
The first agent ignores his partner. “You spoke with someone we suspect is involved in the breach,” he says. Tim realizes Smith gave the feds him instead of Cece.
“No,” Tim says. “That isn’t accurate. The responsible parties are inside the department.” Except for Blisflix, Tim thinks, who’s nowhere.
“We’d like to talk to you about that,” the first agent says.
“No,” Tim says. “Talk to Detective Smith. She knows more about it than I do.”
“She says the same thing about you,” the second agent says.
“She’s mistaken,” Tim replies.
The three stand in silence, looking, waiting. The first agent reaches into his coat pocket, removes a business card, and holds it out to Tim. “Call us if you change your mind,” he says. Tim takes the card without looking at it, keeps it in his hand. He watches the agents walk to their car, drive off. He waits for the other.
One minute later, a sedan as nondescript as the one the agents drove pulls away from the curb a half block away. Tim wonders about Smith. The detective is up to something, but Tim isn’t sure what. Smith told the feds to ask Tim for help. Like Tim is off the list of suspects. Like the feds haven’t linked the breach and the murders. Only possible if the SFPD is holding back on the feds, or the feds are that stupid.
Likely a little of both. Smith is off his case. She might be working traffic for all Tim knows. He gazes down Steiner, a dusky still life.
Tim hears Karen open the front door of the apartment building, knows it’s her without looking. “You’re popular this evening,” she says.
“Hello,” Tim says, still gazing down Steiner. “How are you?”
Karen walks down the steps, stands next to him. “What’s down there?”, she asks.
“See for yourself,” Tim replies.
“I don’t see anything,” she says. Tim whispers,
“You waiting for something?”
“What’s with all the visitors?”, Karen asks.
Tim turns to face her. “You look beautiful,” he says matter-of-factly.
Karen smiles at him. “Coming from you, that means something.”
“Visitors?”, Tim asks, ignoring Karen’s comment.
“Ask Mrs. Pellegrini,” she says. “Then ask Mrs. Kahn.” Karen starts back up the stairs. “Then come see me and tell me all about your boring day,” she laughs.
Tim doesn’t watch Karen enter the building. He keeps looking south down Steiner, searching for what’s missing. He realizes no one is there. For the first time in months, Tim feels no eyes on him. He’s no longer the operator. The machinery is in motion. Only Cece can stop it now.
As she rides the streetcar up Church, Cece isn’t thinking about Tim or the SFPD network. Her mind is on the two students she’s tutoring. More accurately, Cece is thinking about when she can stop tutoring and get a real job, one that doesn’t involve messengers or murderers. The only criminals Cece will be working with are of the corporate variety. All their murders are done by proxy. Most, anyway. Good benefits. Stock options, vacation, sabbaticals. Cece wonders whether there are any honest tech companies, and whether she’d know one if she saw it.
Cece steps off the streetcar at 20th and walks up Church, thankful for her new boots. She recalls what Detective Smith said about footwear. A block from her house on Liberty, Cece spots Smith leaning against a parked car. Smith notices Cece a second later and starts toward her.
A man in a brown suit exits the car Smith was leaning against and heads for Cece, who is now standing on the sidewalk. Smith motions to him. “Let me talk to her,” Smith says to the man in the suit. He stops, looks at Cece, and walks back to the car.
“Who’s he?”, Cece asks Smith.
“Nice boots,” Smith says, motioning to Cece’s new footwear. “I don’t know who he is,” Smith continues, “only who he says he is, but isn’t. These guys are never who they say they are.”
“What guys?”, Cece asks.
“Feds,” says Smith, “though I think that’s bull, too. Anyway, they want to know about the people who contacted you about Tim.”
Cece looks surprised. “Why ask me?”, she asks. “Why not ask Tim?”
“I think they did,” Smith replies. “They offered him a job. Do you believe that?”
“Tim wouldn’t,” Cece says.
“Work for them?”, Smith asks.
“Kill them,” Cece replies.
“No and no,” says Smith. Cece stares at her. “Okay,” Smith replies, “no and maybe. These guys aren’t investigating the killings. All I hear from them is who hacked the network.”
“Tim knows,” Cece tells her.
“I know he hasn’t told you,” Smith replies, “and he sure as hell isn’t talking to me.”
Cece looks over Smith’s shoulder. “So...,” she says.
“So,” Smith repeats, “I got you into this.” She turns and looks at the man sitting in the car. “I’ll get you out of it, but not right away.”
“They think I’m a hacker,” Cece says. “The hackers contacted me, not the other way around.”
“Same with Tim,” Smith adds. “He found you too.”
Cece looks again at her house two doors down, then at the man in the car. “I can graduate next term if I get my act together,” she says. “How do I not talk to these guys?”
“It’s simpler to let them ask their questions,” Smith replies. “They know you’re for real.”
“How do they know that?”, Cece asks.
Smith leans forward. “You’ve been on their radar for a long time,” she replies.
“Lucky me,” says Cece.
“Muslim computer scientists catch their attention,” Smith says. “You’re that close to your Master’s. I’m surprised it took them so long.”
“How long until you get me out of this?”, Cece asks.
“They’ll chase their tails for a week,” Smith replies, “then get distracted again.”
The man in the car loses patience, gets out, walks toward Cece and Smith. Smith intercepts him, turns him around, walks him back to the car. She speaks to the man briefly, walks back. “Noon tomorrow,” she says. “We’ll pick you up at school.” Cece stares. “Please?”, Smith adds.
“Three o’clock,” Cece replies, “outside the library.” She leans toward Smith. “We don’t leave the campus,” she adds. “No surprise guests.” Smith nods flatly and walks back to the car. Cece watches her get in the passenger side, watches the car drive past a few seconds later. Cece looks around, wondering who else witnessed that charade. She decides to take a walk this evening, stop by the coffee shop on Divis.
As she walks up her front steps, Cece looks to the east, where the new moon is rising. She wonders, How did Tim become my only way out?
The shadow moon is a click off dead above Tim’s pate as he walks west on Sacramento. Fog’ll gobble it up soon. Boggle doubly trope swoon.
Doghill subtly brompalloon. Sclerrittubbaccollississimmony estentiallellemminence.
The syllables trickle and tickle as Tim trides and rheus. He truminates on a plan b for Cece, knows there’s no need. Slow stares throw screes. Having coffee on Divis. Salving Sophie sonderische. Knows Cece won’t click the antedict. Choose the parabola of grimmest coarsest, roughhewn of the latter lengitudes. Pin-sized depel potenuse.
A left off Sackamenna onto Divis a glistle in night traffic and rectingular storefronts, lit and dark in ones twos threes. Tim’s feet frump. And thump. And scump. A block, two blocks, half block more. Prettle past the coffee shop where Cece sits, facing the window. Prettle along.
Tim is enjoying his walk so much he struggles to stop long enough for Cece to catch up with him. He turns on Post, stands at the bus stop. The sedan following Tim doesn’t try too hard to hide. The small SUV that’s tailing the tailers is less obvious. Cece appears on the corner. She looks left at the sedan, turns right and sees Tim at the bus stop. She walks to Tim and says, “You go first.”
“Nice boots,” he replies.
“Thanks,” Cece says. “Where to?” Tim walks west on Post. Cece gets in step to his right. “So?”, she asks.
“A message arrived,” Tim begins. “In your school account. At 8:58 p.m. If you don’t delete it within 24 hours, many records will be locked.”
“What kind of records?”, Cece asks.
“SQL databases, primarily,” Tim replies. “Some NoSQL, too.”
“How many is many?” “I estimate 10 or 12.” They turn right on Baker.
“Ten or 12?”, Cece asks. “That’s not many records.”
“Percent,” Tim adds.
“Ten or 12 percent of all SQL databases?”
“And NoSQL,” Tim says. “And others.”
“How do you delete so much data with one email?”, Cece asks.
“Lock, not delete,” Tim says. “Libraries. Billikin’s company distributes open source libraries for linking custom databases with servers. The libraries planted code. Have been for years. Does nothing until a condition is met. When it occurs, the data is overwritten when the file opens.”
They continue walking north on Baker. “Any attempt to access the data in the record triggers the overwrite. It’s all in place.”
“Billikin doesn’t know it yet,” Tim continues, “but his data bomb is primed and ready to go live, unless you delete that 8:58 p.m. email.”
They walk in silence for a half a block. “So if I do nothing,” Cece says finally, “the data is locked in 24 hours.” Tim doesn’t respond. “If I delete the email,” Cece continues, “nothing happens.”
“Except Billikin’s data bomb is deactivated,” Tim says, “temporarily, at least.”
Cece stops walking. “What’s the point?”, she asks.
Tim stops three steps away. “Expose Billikin,” he says. “Shut down his shadow police.”
“That you were part of,” Cece says.
“Inadvertently,” Tim replies.
“Blisflix too,” she adds.
“Also inadvertent,” Tim says. “At first anyway.”
Cece starts walking again. Tim joins her but stops when they’re two houses from California. Cece knows he’s timing their pace to the light. “Why did Billikin plant the code?”, she asks as Tim watches the light.
“Extortion,” Tim says. He resumes walking just as the light changes.
“Extort who?”, Cece asks once they’ve crossed California.
“Techies,” Tim replies. “To join him on his crusade.” Cece doesn’t bother asking. Thirty paces later, Tim continues: “Billikin thinks the law is for losers. His algorithms tell him so. In math he trusts. He’s ignorant.”
“An ignorant billionaire,” Cece says. “He must know something.”
“He knows how to make money,” Tim says. “No brains required. Just greed.”
“Billikin wants his tech billionaire buddies to help him murder criminals,” Cece says, “and he’ll hold their data hostage to convince them.”
“Like I said,” Tim replies, “Ignorant.”
“The techies will eat the loss and pass it on to customers,” Cece says. “They’d never play along. Would they?”, Cece adds a beat later.
“They’d listen,” Tim replies, “and they’d play Billikin long enough to take over the whole business. Turn it into ‘Vigilante as a Service’.”
Cece stifles a laugh. “Your not kidding, are you?”, she asks.
“I’m not sure,” Tim says. “They may call it something else. Is that kidding?”
“Kidding is making a joke,” Cece replies.
“No,” Tim says, “no jokes.”
“Why put this on me?”, Cece asks.
“I trust your judgment more than my own,” Tim replies. “I acknowledge my own bias. I want to get him.”
When they reach the crest of Baker, Cece stops and takes in the lights lining the Bay. Tim stops next to her. “He’ll fight back,” Cece says.
“Too late,” Tim says. “He still thinks we’re on the same side.” After a few seconds, he adds, “It’s better if we walk.”
“Why?”, Cece asks.
“Walkers blend in,” Tim says. “Walking couples even more.”
Cece smiles. “Now we’re a couple?”, she asks.
“Co-conspirators,” Tim replies.
“I thought you needed two people for a conspiracy,” Cece says as they walk east on Pacific. “All I’m doing is listening to a wild story.”
“You’ve now listened to information that puts you in a unique situation,” Tim says as they walk. “Do nothing and allow a crime to occur.”
“If I believe you,” Cece replies.
“You do,” says Tim. “The crime would be committed by me, using malicious code planted by a third party. Billikin. But Billikin and I haven’t conspired to do anything.” He signals Cece to stop in a shadow as a car drives by.
As they stand in the sidewalk shadow, Tim asks, “How would you characterize our interaction?”
Cece looks at him, smiles, says, “Friendship.”
“That’s nice,” Tim says without changing expression. “But being my friend is dangerous.”
A car passes on Pacific. Tim resumes walking east. Cece catches up in a few strides. “Smith warned me about the Feds,” she says.
“Tomorrow afternoon,” Tim replies. “They’re mostly harmless.”
“How do you know that?”, Cece asks.
“One,” says Tim, “Smith. You’re legit. Two, they want to know who’s on their networks. You don’t know. They know you don’t know. Soon enough they’ll know you’ve got nothing else to tell them. You go back to writing a paper.”
“What if they ask about you?”, Cece asks as they near Divis.
“Tell them the truth,” Tim replies. “They won’t hear. They listen selectively. To them, I’m just a foot soldier. They’re after the generals.”
They cross Divisadero two seconds after the traffic clears. They walk in silence for half a block, then Cece asks, “What are you thinking?”
“Nonsense,” Tim replies.
“I mean about Billikin,” Cece says.
Tim hesitates before answering. “I’m glad it’s done,” he says. “I wasn’t aware I was glad until you asked me.”
“What’s done?”, Cece asks.
“Billikin’s done,” Tim replies. They turn right on Pierce, head south. “Exposed,” he continues once they cross Pacific. “Cover blown apart.”
“How do you know I won’t delete the message?”, Cece asks.
Tim shrugs. “You won’t,” he says.
Cece is 80 percent sure Tim’s right. She won’t. They walk in silence for close to a block. Near Washington, Cece asks, “Then what?”
“One snoop off the network,” Tim says. “Maybe in jail.”
“What about all that locked data?”, Cece asks.
“Written off,” Tim replies. “It’s just enough to hurt but not to put them out of business." Without looking up, he adds, "The 24 Divis is 10 minutes away from Sutter. You’ll be home by 11.”
Cece stops. “Just like that?”, she asks. “I got questions.”
“Okay,” Tim says, “we’ll keep walking.” He slows so they reach Pine just as the light turns green.
Cece tries to think of a question to ask. “What about you?”, Cece asks finally. “Your debugging of the genetic code?” Tim doesn’t reply. “Okay,” Cece says. “Not safe for walking.”
“I’ll keep debugging,” Tim says, “and I’ll keep walking. Perhaps not simultaneously.”
Cece smiles. “Does that include Divisadero?” she asks.
“In 60 to 90 days, perhaps,” Tim replies. “I may still draw unwanted attention. You have a paper to write.” When they reach Divis, he stops.
Cece stops next to him. “You want me to take that bus,” she says. Tim nods. “No more police?”, she asks.
“Sixty to 90 days,” Tim repeats. They walk toward the bus stop. Cece struggles to form a question. “Tell them the truth,” Tim repeats. “There’s nothing to fear.”
Cece laughs. “Some people might find it rude to have their questions answered before they can ask them,” she says and laughs again.
“Musical,” Tim says.
“Not musical,” Cece says, “rude.”
“Your laugh,” Tim says. “Melodious.” Cece watches the 24 Divis approach. “Not safe for walking,” Tim adds.
“It was a nice compliment,” Cece says. “Unexpected. Honest, as usual. Not at all rude. Thank you.” The bus stops next to her, door open.
Tim watches Cece get on the bus. He doesn’t say a word. He avoids the driver’s look. The door closes. The bus heads south. Tim walks north.
Part 36: Chronicle
Part 1: Tim
Part 2: Three's a Problem
Part 3: Ninth Avenue
Part 4: Peru Avenue
Part 5: Toast
Part 6: Mrs. Pellegrini
Part 7: Charlie
Part 8: 2D
Part 9: Smith
Part 10: Cece
Part 11: Quarter Moon
Part 12: Interview
Part 13: Mieke
Part 14: 2D Ex
Part 15: Logs
Part 16: Steiner
Part 17: Number Five
Part 18: Cold
Part 19: Intern
Part 20: Coffee
Part 21: Sloth
Part 22: Tennessee Street
Part 23: Error-correcting Code
Part 24: Villa Lobos
Part 25: Entrance
Part 26: Cloak
Part 27: Meeting
Part 28: Fog
Part 29: Bootle
Part 30: Drafted
Part 31: Domino
Part 32: Quartet
Part 33: Skippy
Part 34: Blisflix
Part 35: Billikin
Part 36: Chronicle
Part 37: Sutro Heights
Part 38: Conference
Copyright 2020 by Dennis Richard O'Reilly -- all rights reserved