Flags wave mightily within the shadows where the trade winds blow.
I walked a block from my San Diego fourplex housing myself and surfers who were scraping by to pay the rent and ride the waves. Living at the beach is like no other life. It changes your outlook and choices, sometimes, at a very high price. Freedom is expensive.
As the sun set into the Pacific, my thoughts turned to the realization I would be watching the setting sun in Waikiki in less than twenty-four hours. I was looking forward to seeing Jade. She was a local girl in Honolulu. She struggled to pay rent and groceries on minimum wage and tips at a Waikiki beachfront hotel I frequented on my monthly business trip to Honolulu. I recall my mom’s financial struggles working in the hospitality business. Jade was appreciative of my generous gratuities.
She’d greet me with a “Lei”, bring my first Mai Tai, and speak with me on her meal break with the warm waves lapping at our feet. Jade was very curious about my life trading stocks in San Diego. We had a warm platonic relationship, but deep down, I wanted more. She was a complicated woman.
I noticed a sea lion approaching the shoreline which wasn’t common at this stretch of beach.
The animal was in distress and would be soon washed ashore. I’ve seen these sick or injured animals before and was concerned for its safety as the tourists would soon descend upon it. I approached the lifeguard, Bobby, to make the report.
“I’ll report it to the Humane Society who’ll send out a crew, Timmy.”
“I’m heading to Waikiki tomorrow and I can’t have any bad ‘vibes” about the seal’s fate so be sure to report it, ok?”
“I understand bad vibes. Join us at the firepit for pizza and beer tonight. They’ll be some hot babes and you can teach me that stock market trading stuff.”
“Most Wall Street traders would switch places with you Bobby. Stay away, it’s too risky!”
“I miss seeing you walkin’ the beach with Maddie.”
I didn’t tell Bobby the seal was wearing a collar of sorts; a thin rope with a four-leaf clover locket. I surmised it was placed upon the animal by an insensitive tourist. The locket looked similar to the lucky charm my Irish Setter, “Maddie”, wore for the twelve years of her life. She was a birthday gift from my mom who took me down to the animal shelter to find a puppy. The staff gifted me a collar and the locket.
Maddie was my best friend by my side every day until I lost her to cancer earlier this year. I have her ashes in a simple cedar box near my bed. Bobby’s comment about Maddie opened up my emotional wound. I held the cedar box containing her ashes near to me in bed and was crying myself to sleep. A loud knock on my door jarred me awake,
“It’s me, Ricky. I want to talk to ya’ before you leave tomorrow.
“I brought you a brew and a slice.”
Rickie was a “Sun God”. He was tall, sandy blond, late twenties with deep blue eyes and a tanned, chiseled physique. He lived next door and would invite me to sit around a raging fire in the late evening hours on the beach and talk. He asked about my work trading stocks but I tactfully evaded his questions.
I think he took pity on the lonely, geeky day-trader, next door. He often brought up Maddie which made me melancholy forcing tears. I could understand why he was a magnet for beautiful women with his strong arms around me and soft, compassionate voice when thoughts of Maddie made me tear up. He was a nice guy and a friend.
“We missed you at the firepit tonight. I had a “hottie” wanting to meet you, man.”
“I wasn’t in the mood, Ricky. Maddie, the seal, and my business trip put me on a downer.”
He placed his arms around me to console me saying,
“I’m your bro, Timmy. If there’s anything you ever want to get off your chest, I’m here for you, man.”
“I’ll be ok, Ricky. It’s late. Go on home.”
“Home is what I need to talk to you about, Timmy. I’m months behind on my rent and I’m being evicted. I can’t live the ‘straight life’ workin’ some nowhere job and livin’ miles from the beach.
“Help me out of this jam with stock tips, bro.”
“Ricky, I’ve told you and Bobby I won’t trade for you because I don’t mix business with friendship. I won’t be responsible for you losing money.”
“I scraped together some dough and will bet on your stock picks. If I lose it, it’s on me. Really, man.
“It will be the end for me if I don’t get square with the landlord, Timmy.
“Just this one time, Ricky. I’m writing down the names of companies notated ‘Short’ and ‘Option’. Take these names to your trader, place the orders, and tell them to trade in seven days.”
“These are all high-tech military companies, Timmy. How do you know about them?”
“They’re good solid companies paying dividends with the military as their primary customer. I know their earnings reports will be good for your stock picks.”
“Thank you, bro. I’ll place these trades in the morning with a chick I know.
“Safe travels and say hello to those tasty waves at the North Shore.”
I knew I was walking the “razors-edge” with the stock tips but I owed Ricky for his emotional support over the years.
I’m an anxious flier and the distressed seal wearing a curious locket resembling Maddie’s created a negative prelude to my trip. I prayed the seal was rescued and my report would assuage the ocean “spirits” providing me with an on-time, smooth flight to Honolulu.
The Valium washed down with alcohol placed me into a relaxed euphoria and I reminisced about the events of my life taking me to Honolulu.
While the other kids were reading comic books about super heroes, I was devouring computer manuals and mastering the equivalency of an advanced degree in software engineering. I was a latch key kid growing up in a shoddy motel off the strip in Vegas. My single mom was a hotel maid by day and cocktail waitress by night. I never knew my father and mom didn’t speak of him.
I didn’t choose this work; it chose me forcing me into a “Faustian Bargain”. As a high school dropout, I hacked into the myriad of intelligence agencies through the “back door” of a military subcontractor without malice, just curiosity. I immediately signed off with an apology, in code,
By mistake, sorry”.
My apology wasn’t accepted and the FBI arrived at my doorstep to find a kid wearing pajamas with a bad case of acne alone in a shoddy, junk food wrapper laden motel room with his dog. I hadn’t appropriated any secrets, didn’t boast upon international chat boards, and was just a lonely computer nerd picking up “day jobs” doing coding for companies to help mom with the household expenses.
They told me if I didn’t explain how I hacked into their clandestine network, there was a cell adjacent to the “Unabomber” at the Supermax prison and “we’d get along just fine.” They frightened me into compliance.
I was summoned to the Vegas Federal Building where a burly man with a crewcut and no-nonsense demeanor entered the spartan office followed by a man and woman in white lab coats. Their credentials were tucked inside their lapel pockets.
“Who are you people?”
“I’m your ‘Uncle Sam’, son, and refer to the lab coats as ‘Doctor’. Do as your told and we’ll get you out of here as quickly as possible.”
I was provided a series of internet “targets” to hack into. They included banks, public entities, utility companies, and classified government websites including submarine warfare. I breached all of them.
I completed written tests about my “feelings” and was subjected to intense questioning by the lab coats. Based upon the personal nature of their questions, I believe they were psychologists or psychiatrists.
By the time I finished, I was emotionally drained and my mind was “fried”. Their questions brought up painful memories and included uncomfortable sexual interrogatories.
After signing a government “Nondisclosure Agreement”, I was offered a job working for a clandestine agency and my boss’ name was “Robert”. I’ve never met nor spoke with him and we communicate solely by encrypted email. My cover job is a day-trader shorting and optioning stocks.
I was sent to a prestigious Wall Street investment bank where I learned the art of trading first hand from “masters”. I picked up on it quickly and became so profitable, they offered me a job not knowing I worked for the clandestine services. My “keep out of jail card”, the “NDA”, specifically prohibited me from trading within or profiting from the stock market as this skill-set would make me vulnerable to exploitation.
Mom left home with a loser after learning I got a job working for a “computer company”. I left Vegas and found an apartment at the beach in San Diego where Maddie and I could walk up and down the strand, breath the fresh ocean air, and begin a new life together.
Damn, this is a long flight. Five hours. Thank heaven for Wi-Fi. The government won’t pay for a first-class ticket and won’t permit me to pay the difference because they don’t want any attention drawn to my monthly flights to visit the Pearl Harbor Navy base where I provide monthly briefings to cyber-security personnel charged with safeguarding our submarine capabilities. I provide the same briefings to the Navy at their sub base in San Diego.
I play a sort of “three-dimensional” chess game with my adversaries representing both hostile and friendly nations. The majority are amateurs, knocking loudly upon my cyber-door like a pizza delivery man, or leaving their slimy tracks like snails inching along the Web. On occasion, I’ll meet a worthy adversary who will eventually fall victim to my tricks of the trade; honed since I was a kid taking apart and putting together computers provided by the electronic recycling centers who pitied the lonely kid wearing thrift store clothing.
I have one worthy adversary, Ping. He’s an artist, so skillful in his work, he prefers to leave behind a signature similar to a watermark as his way to say “hello”.
Over the years, I’ve come to know Ping as a single man working for a cyber warfare unit of a Far East “Nation-State Threat Actor”, code named “PEONY”. He’s fearful of divulging too much in case there is somebody “looking over his shoulder”. We communicate through a proprietary system of encrypted messaging.
Although we are adversaries and take pride in breaching the others computer network, we have too much respect for each other’s craft to plant a “false flag” breach which was a highly effective espionage tool. A “false flag” breech is a veiled intentional invitation into our network, ensnaring our opponent in a trap where they “feed” upon false information. I’ve planted many “false flags” successfully but never with Ping unless effectuated in a manner obvious to him like leaving the “screen door” unlatched as a warning. He’s always reciprocates saving our country from costly mistakes.
The best hackers in the world are members of an unofficial fraternity, of sorts. We respect each other’s skill set, learn from each other, but remain determined to carry out our political, military, or financial covert missions.
I use a variety of hacking tools including,
“SQL injection; Cross Site Scripting (XSS); Cross Site Request Forgery (CSRF); Man-in-the-Middle.”
That’s the easy stuff. I’ve developed proprietary hacking methods which would be the equivalent of a chess master revealing his strategies.
Ping is the prodigal son of farmers whose legacy farm was appropriated by PEONY and turned into towering condominium buildings. He was sent to the States to study software engineering, earned a doctorate, taught American students, gained a fellowship within a covert government agency, and was secreted home with his bounty of stolen intellectual property. Ping confided his feelings of guilt and shame to me. He loved the United States and wanted to stay but his parents were “bargaining chips” held by PEONY.
A message arrived from Ping which I will translate from encryption into English,
“I went to a museum alone, today. I’m very lonely.”
He lives by himself in a small flat and isn’t permitted a social life outside meeting with his chieftains. He pines for the companionship of a cat, but he’s afforded a single goldfish. He works grueling hours often sleeping just several hours a night, seven days per week. He feels like a prisoner.
He’s told he’ll be retired and reunited with his parents upon finding the treasure trove of secrets revealing our nuclear submarine missile guidance, sonar, and stealth capabilities.
Another message arrived. I’ll translate,
“My Goldfish died. I know your pain about losing Maddie. I’m disappointed by those in the flesh. I can only bond with those in the shadows like yourself.”
I must reply as I can tell he’s in distress,
“You’re loved Ping. Look no further than your parents with whom you’ll be reunited, soon.
“I’m always here for you.”
I understand Ping’s longing for companionship as we work alone in the “shadows” except for a computer screen inviting a guessing-game who your opponents might be; male, female, old, young, age, nationality, etc. I was fortunate to have Maddie by my side.
Some adversaries confessed their inability to take the stress and loneliness any longer, choosing suicide. Their electronic persona disappeared resembling casualties found within a violent video game. Maddie’s love and companionship kept me from a similar fate.
Hacking was remote work in the late-night hours corresponding to daytime internet traffic in PEONY which is fifteen hours ahead of California. My comfortable government payroll checks are direct deposit and I have no personal interface with supervisors except by encrypted messaging with “Robert” who rarely bothers me unless I alert him to unusual activity or a breech.
This time was different. Robert was breathing down my neck about a false flag order I was to effectuate about a submarine warfare maneuver to commence shortly. The exercise was of great importance and I knew there was no “screen door” warning I could provide Ping which he is capable of discovering. It would be the end for Ping. I decided to delay the false flag until I could figure out a “screen door” for Ping.
The Valium and booze put me to sleep and I awoke as the wheels of the airline touched down in Honolulu.
I checked into the budget motel in Waikiki courtesy of the government. Like the airline seat, the government won’t upgrade me for security reasons. I unpacked, walked up to a local’s food joint and ordered “Local Moco”. The air is a little thicker in Honolulu than San Diego but the trade winds are refreshing and suggesting a question, what would I “trade” on this visit?
I returned to the motel and took a nap. I awoke before sunset and walked over to the famous, pink hotel, the “Royal Prince” including a beachfront lanai, bar, and beautiful view of Diamond Head where I’d sit and sip a Mai Tai’ while enjoying the sunset.
It was my custom to place a “C-note” under the Mai Tai glass for my cocktail waitress, Jade. I was eager to see her again.
I waited for Jade to arrive but was met by “Wharf Rat” serving my drink. He was a large, formidable man of Pacific Islander heritage who was Assistant General Manager and “bouncer”.
“No Jade tonight for you, Mr. T.
“Whatcha say I take the C-Note, bra”
“It’s for Jade. I’ll leave it in a sealed envelope for her at the front desk.”
I asked about Jade’s whereabouts but nobody knew anything and wouldn’t provide me with her contact information. We never exchanged phone numbers.
I missed Jade and became overwhelmed with disappointment, worry, and separation anxiety similar to those I felt when mom left me alone to date another loser who would take advantage of her cravings for loving companionship.
I walked to the edge of the shoreline as the cool Pacific waves were rolling in. Diamond head peered down upon me like a doting father I wished I knew. I was happy to be in Waikiki and enjoyed my monthly trips to visit the submarine fleet at Pearl Harbor.
A strong wave hit me above the knees, almost knocking me over. I regained my composure and slowly walked backward facing the setting sun as is the custom in Hawaii to never turn your back to the sea.
To my surprise, riding the waves was a sea lion wearing a four-leaf clover locket! The waves placed the dead seal on the shoreline. As the tourists came running to look at the animal, I snatched the locket, and ran to a corner of the beach. I held the locket to my heart and cried about losing Maddie convinced she was reaching out to me from heaven with the seal encounters.
I watched a pick-up truck marked “Shark Tours” approach and stop. They threw the dead seal in back and drove off. By morning the seal would be cut into shark bait for tourists paying top dollar for the chance to see a shark up close and personal.
I was stressed out about the seal, Maddie, missing Jade, and was concerned about Ping. He might be the next casualty within our video game, of sorts.
I felt a tap on my back.
“I didn’t mean to startle you, baby.”
“Jade! I thought you weren’t working tonight?”
“It’s that ‘time of the month’, felt crampy, and called in sick. The front desk phoned me saying you were worried about me.
“I know you missed me and came to be with you, sweetie. Let me cradle you in my lap.”
“A dead seal washed ashore and my mind turned to Maddie. My thoughts are all tangled up, Jade.”
“I know the feeling, baby. Try to relax and listen to the waves. Look up at the beautiful moon and realize we’re in paradise. Breathe in the sweet ocean air and exhale the stress. Jade’s here to listen.”
“I can always count on you, Jade. I know how much you struggle to survive. My mom struggled, too. I want to help you.”
“We shared a bond from the first time we met, Timmy. The kind of relationship you want and deserve would be too difficult for me right now, honey. In time, it will all be clear to you.”
Jade stroked my hair and held my hand as the full moon hung over Diamond head. I felt loved and wanted it to last forever. We fell asleep together on the beach, but I awoke alone, covered by a beach towel finding hot coffee and fresh fruit including a note left behind,
It was nice to see Jade last night and I basked in the scent of her perfume left on my clothing.
A man was placing beach chairs and umbrellas for the hotel guests. He was playing a Dylan tune on his cellphone speaker,
But all the while I was alone
The past was close behind…
“Hey, attendant, what time is it?”
“About nine am. My name is ‘Jonny’, Sir.”
“I apologize for falling asleep on the hotel beach but I’m leaving for a meeting right now.”
“No worries, Sir. Happens all the time. It’s those pesky island spirits consorting with the spirits of the rum, placing you on a magic carpet ride to dreamland carried by the trade winds.
“I hope to see you again soon, Sir. Aloha!”
Jonny sounded like a frustrated writer. You find all types working in the resorts here.
I made it over to the sub base at Pearl Harbor in time for my briefing. I received a text message afterwards to meet at midnight in a warehouse near the port of Honolulu. I spent the day attempting to find a “screen door” warning for Ping but was unsuccessful.
The trade winds were blowing as if alerting me the “trade” was about to begin. I entered through an unlocked door, and noticed a single chair lit with a hot lamp in the otherwise dark, dank smelling warehouse. The chair had a note taped to it,
“Sit here. Wait”
I heard footsteps approaching but I couldn’t make out any figures in the dark. Another light from above came on revealing, Bobby, the lifeguard from San Diego.
“I’m ‘Robert’ your secret boss you’ve never met. I’ve been masquerading as the lifeguard to keep close tabs on you.”
Bobby lost the kind, beachy vibe, and assumed a menacing demeanor as he approached and leaned into me. I was frightened.
“Why didn’t you give Ping the ‘false flag’ regarding our sub maneuvers scheduled for next week as instructed!
“You gave Ricky stock tips. Why did you violate the provisions of your NDA regarding your day-trader cover?
“Tell me or I’ll make it a long uncomfortable night for you!”
I heard a switch pulled and the warehouse was illuminated revealing Ricky from San Diego, Wharf Rat, and Jade.
Ricky approached and was his usual kind surfer “bro” self. He placed his arms around me and spoke softly into my ear,
“Let it go, man. Let the tide take out to sea all of the lies and deceit which have been destroying your soul, dude. You’ll feel so much better, bro.”
“I thought you all were my friends? I don’t understand any of this.”
“We’ve been keeping tabs on you because you’re a valuable asset. The lab coats said ‘intimacy’ is your ‘Sword of Damocles’ and you’re emotionally ‘fragile’.
“We had to mess with your head to get you to do our bidding, Timmy.
“The lockets were intentionally placed on the seals to create melancholia within your mind and provoking a need for love and intimacy stemming from your dead dog and emotionally distant mother. We assumed you’d find it with handsome Ricky or beautiful Jade and open up to them about your espionage failures.”
“If I gave Ping the false flag and his superiors discovered it, Ping and his family would be murdered. I gave Ricky stock tips because he was being evicted. Just tips. I didn’t trade for him!”
“Let me get to the point, Timmy. We don’t give a damn about false flags or stock tips.
“In return for you providing Ping access into our submarine warfare capabilities, PEONY will pay us handsomely. They’ll deposit the money in a bank which will set up a trading account and you’ll trade for all of us.
“Everybody wins, Timmy!”
“You’re all false flags and traitors to our country!”
“Freedom has a price, Timmy.
“We’re all just pawns to the clandestine services. Look at how cheaply they fly you and put you up in a flea-bag motel. You’re expendable until some smarter kid comes along.”
“It’s time to make a new bargain with old teammates who switched sides for wealth over patriotism. You can come along with us or you’ll become ‘expendable’ tonight!”
“I made a ‘killing’ with your stock tips, bro. Let’s not have a ‘killing’ here tonight.”
Wharf Rat came at me with a tire iron. Jade spoke up,
“Stop it! Can’t you see he’s frightened? He soiled himself.”
She knelt before me and was remorseful.
“I’m sorry about this charade, honey. You were kind and it hurts me to deceive you.
“Tell us if you knowingly accepted any false flag from Ping, baby.”
“Never. Ping would have told me. I trusted him.”
“Let me hold you and take a moment to compose yourself, baby.”
“Get away from me Jade! You’re a computer virus planting malware infecting my heart. You breeched my firewall.”
“Let me take this tire iron to his knee caps for starters. He’ll agree to come along with us.”
“Stand down, Wharf Rat!
“I have bad news for you, Timmy. Ping is dead.”
I leapt from my chair and went for Bobby’s throat,
“You bastards! You’re all false flags!”
I was restrained by Wharf Rat.
“Place him back in the seat.
“Ping had people looking over her shoulder who discovered your friendship. She was hung inside her apartment after a savage mauling.”
“Ping was a woman? Why didn’t she tell me? I felt a bond between us.”
“She was told to pose as a man because her adversaries wouldn’t trust a woman as females are often used to entrap men.”
“What about Ping’s parents?”.
“Slaughtered like pigs as they watched their daughter being ravaged.
“You can join with us or we’ll turn you over to the brass for insubordination with the false flag order and violation of the trading prohibition in the NDA. You’ll do hard time and Wharf Rat will mess you up tonight saying we had to beat the truth out of you.”
I recognized a voice shout out,
“You’re not expendable, Timmy. What you know about cyberwarfare can’t be found in textbooks.”
I heard heavy footsteps from the mezzanine above but couldn’t make out the figure followed by another guy. They approached and I recognized “Uncle Sam”, the same guy who hired me followed by Jonny the beach attendant with his cellphone in one hand and a formidable handgun in the another. The Dylan lyrics were blasting from Jonny’s cellphone speaker,
And when finally, the bottom fell out
I became withdrawn
The only thing I knew how to do
Was to keep on keeping on, like a bird that flew
Tangled up in blue
“Holster that cellphone, Jonny.”
“Roger that, Sir. I thought the lyrics were the perfect metaphor for Timmy’s predicament.”
“I hope you handle your sidearm as well as your metaphors, kid.”
“Mr. Director, Sir, what brings you here?”
“I was going to ask you the same thing, Bobby.”
“We’re debriefing Timmy on his dereliction of duty with the false flag order, Sir. He also provided Ricky with stock pics in violation of his NDA.”
“Bullshit. We heard you from the mezzanine. Ping informed us of your deal with PEONY and trading scheme. She knew you’d have no need for Timmy once you got paid and were overseas. They were going to hand you over to PEONY as part of their bargain, Timmy!
“Ping’s been operating on behalf of PEONY in Honolulu and was ordered to ‘blend in’ with the locals. She’s been under tight surveillance by the FBI.
“Timmy, your insubordination for failing to carry out the false flag and violation of the NDA would put you away for life but Ping cares about you, kid. She wouldn’t agree to the deal unless you received full immunity from prosecution and we agreed.”
“I thought Ping and her parents are dead?”
“Bobby and Ricky thought you’d take Ping’s death hard, leaving you with remorse and a desire to avenge Ping’s death by flipping on your country and joining with them. Frankly, so did I, but you passed the test, kid.”
“Why would PEONY make this deal, Uncle Sam?”
“They want you retired and out of their way. You’re simply too formidable. Ping was their best and couldn’t outmaneuver you.
“We also agreed to a prisoner swap in exchange for Ping and her parents.
“PEONY divulged their offer to Bobby and Ricky for ‘flipping’ and hoped to get their hands on you, kid.
“It’s a ‘Bad Day at Black Rock’ for Bobby and Ricky.
“Like that movie metaphor, Jonny?”
“Roger that, Uncle Sam.”
“I’ll make certain Bobby and Ricky get window seats and suggest they take a good long look at the beach because it’s the last time they’ll ever see it again.
“Special Agent Kalani, join Jonny, and place these two into custody. No need for the tire iron, ok?”
“You’re a double-dealing prick, Wharf Rat.”
“I’ve been watchin’ over Ping like a sister since PEONY planted her in town years ago. I taught her “Ohana”, earning her trust, and she defected to me the week before Timmy arrived.
“Ping’s defection earned me a fat promotion to the San Diego field office. I’ll be surfing your waves, bro. Aloha.”
“When do I get to meet Ping, Uncle Sam?”
“Turn around, Timmy.”
“Hello, Timmy. My name isn’t Jade. I’m Ping.
“I discovered your true identity when you mentioned “Maddie” on one of your trips to Honolulu.
“It disturbed me to remain secretive about my identity but I wanted to give our friendship the opportunity to blossom, and when I developed feelings for you, my heart told me it was time to defect before political entanglements would impede our relationship.”
“She did the right thing, Timmy. It was pure coincidence two deep-cover adversaries met. It would have been too dicey for either side to permit a romance. We’d have to ‘cut our losses’ if you know what I mean?
“She agreed to play along in this charade to help us expose Bobby’s deal and test your patriotism. It all worked out for the best.”
“It will work out for us, too, baby. Look, I’m wearing the seal locket for good luck.”
“I hear that Wall Street trading job is still open, Timmy. Sounds like a fresh start for both of you!”
“Our first order of business, Uncle Sam, will be a cat for Ping, and maybe another Maddie.”
About the Author
Jonathan Ferrini is a published author who resides in San Diego. His partial collection of short stories are included within his book, “Hearts Without Sleeves. Twenty-Three Stories” available on Amazon. Jonathan received his MFA in motion picture and television production from UCLA.