Aaron arrived at his office one morning to find two men waiting for him in the hallway. Wearing matching grey suits and dark shades despite the dim of the hallway, the pair screamed law enforcement, federal level. They held out their identification for him to scan, a motion which gave him the peculiar sense of contentment he got when something from the movies happens in real life. One of them, taller than Aaron and half again as wide, had the rigid at ease posture and close-cropped haircut of former military; the other, short, stocky and grey-haired with rimless round glasses and a pencil mustache along the edge of his upper lip reminded Aaron of a flaccid Teddy Roosevelt.
“Agent White,” said the larger man, flipping his badge shut. “Agent Strunk,” he said and tilted his head on its tree trunk neck at the smaller man. “FBI. We’d like to ask you a few questions. Can we step — ”
“May we step,” interrupted his partner.
“May we step into your office?”
A flight response flooded his limbic system, his mouth filled with slick, coppery saliva. There were people Aaron’s age and IQ level sitting in cells right now after what had surely seemed like harmless visits from the FBI. The internet had been a wild west for its first few years and some of the pioneers believed it should stay that way. Like any lawman or god trying to impose order on chaos, the government had started by coming down hard, handing out sentences out of proportion to crimes, creating laws and enforcing them ex post facto. It was possible Aaron had committed a crime he’d been up until now unaware of, or had done something that had been, up until now, legal.
Aaron assessed the breadth of the two men, one across the shoulders and the other across the middle.
“You can try,” he said. “I’m not sure we’ll all fit.”
He took his seat behind the desk to establish territorial authority. The two agents crammed into the room such that Agent Strunk’s paunch rested on the edge of the desk and White straddled the desk’s corner, the desk giving a minor lift to a prodigious bulge in his pants. In gaming speak, an agent referred to a non-player character, a program within the program. It was one of the many instances where programmers scared a word out of its meaning: within a program, an agent was any character who lacked agency.
His left arm pinned to his side by the filing cabinets, Agent White put his right hand on his hip, jostling Agent Strunk with his elbow and pulling back his own suit coat to reveal his firearm. Aaron felt sufficiently cowed.
“We’ve been trying to reach you by phone,” said Agent White. “But someone kept answering in Chinese.”
“Vietnamese,” Aaron corrected. The listed number for Death Information Services actually rang at the My Lai. In return for operating as Aaron’s answering service, Aaron paid Dac’d entire phone bill, since the My Lai never got calls of its own. Even knowing the rare call that came in would be for Aaron, Dac still answered each time in cheerful Vietnamese, which deflected all but the most determined callers.
“Mr. Zeitlin, I’m going to shoot straight with you,” Agent White said. Aaron wondered if, given the reveal of the gun, this was intended as a joke. “Agent Strunk and I are part of a special task force on Information Terrorism. I’m sure you’ve heard about it.” Aaron shook his head and Agent White nodded glumly. “To be honest, since the whole War on Terror revved up, there have been less man hours — ”
“Fewer man hours,” said Agent Strunk.
“Fewer man hours and…fewer attention?”
Strunk shook his head.
“Less attention. Given to our unit. Meaning each of us tasked to Infoterrorism must do their best — ”
“His best,” said Agent Strunk.
“Huh. To make the most of those hours. Meaning, we have minimal patience for the usual…what’s the word I’m looking for?”
“Obfuscation,” offered Agent Strunk.
“No, that’s not it.”
“Prolixity,” offered Agent Strunk.
“Well, that, of course, but no.”
“Dissembling,” offered Aaron.
“Exactly,” said Agent White, snapping his fingers. “Used by your sort. We’ll ask questions and you will answer them directly and concisely. Understood?”
“Sure,” Aaron said.
“Good.” Agent White took a notepad out of his inside jacket pocket. “What is the nature of Death Information Services?”
Aaron ruminated a moment, omitting needless words from his response.
“Digital estate management,” he concluded.
“And what does that mean?”
“Don’t try to irritate me, Mr. Zeitlin. What do you know about an individual who operates under the alias Iktomi?”
Like anyone with a tendency towards paranoia, Aaron had an intense dislike of coincidence. It might be perfectly innocent when the exact song you’ve been humming comes on the radio, but it indicated to Aaron that the world was either too small an information set or too intentional. He found the religious implications of intentionality unpleasant and harder to swallow than the idea that someone nearer by was having a laugh.
“Alias Iktomi?” said Aaron. “Who’s he when he’s at home?”
“That’s one thing we’re trying to determine,” said White.
“I don’t think I know anyone with an alias,” said Aaron, which was a lie.
“We have reason to believe you’ve been in contact with this individual.”
“What reason is that?”
“We believe you and him — ”
“You and he,” said Strunk.
“ — float in the same circles.”
“I don’t float in circles anymore,” Aaron said.
“But you are something of a celebrity within the hacker community, Mr. Zeitlin,” said Agent White.
“Are you asking me or telling me?”
“There is no hacker community,” said Aaron. “You think we have meetings?”
“You were involved in the creation of the social networking site, InterEm, isn’t that correct?”
“I was involved.”
“You must make a lot of money,” Agent White said, giving a critical eye to the cramped office with its flaking paint.
“I’m no longer involved,” said Aaron.
“Do you know a Mr. Eric Hardy?”
Aaron grinned bitterly. If anyone was likely to be fucking with Aaron, it would be Eric, if for no other reason than he’d done it before with such success. He could imagine Eric in the silver tower InterEm’s money had bought him, tugging at strings to see which way Aaron jerked. But there was no possible profit in it, and Eric didn’t have the imagination to fuck with someone just for kicks.
“I knew a Mr. Eric Hardy,” Aaron said
“You two are no longer acquainted?”
“We stopped sending Christmas cards a while back.”
“I was led to believe you were Jewish.”
“That was part of the reason.”
“Was there bad blood between you?”
“If he’s a suspect in anything, anything at all, I’m happy to testify against him.”
Agent White looked at him to determine if he was being serious. “He’s not a suspect,” he said. “I saw him in a magazine. I don’t think the article mentioned you.”
“They generally don’t,” Aaron said.
“I assume you also know a Mr. Jaime Martinez?”
“I knew a Mr. Jaime Martinez.”
“Then you know Mr. Martinez recently expired.”
“He didn’t expire,” Aaron said. “He’s not a Sports Illustrated subscription.”
“My apologies,” said Agent White.
“Condolences,” said Agent Strunk.
“Those too, but I thought right then, apologies,” Agent White said. Agent Strunk found this acceptable. “There have been attempts to access Mr. Martinez’s identity,” Agent White continued.
“I’m sorry, that identity had expired.”
“Irregardless of that,” Agent White began, but Agent Strunk cut him off by clearing his throat loudly. “Nevertheless, certain of Mr. Martinez’s accounts have been hacked. We believe Iktomi is responsible.”
“You think this Iktomi person had something to do with Jaime’s death?”
“I’m afraid that’s none of your concern.”
“Any man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind,” stated Aaron, although it had occurred to him how minimal he’d been keeping that involvement lately.
“John Donne,” explained Agent Strunk, giving Aaron a nod to indicate he was duly impressed. Aaron found himself nodding back.
“Mr. Zeitlin,” said Agent White, casually touching the butt of his gun, “let me leave things at this: there is an ongoing federal investigation surrounding this individual, an investigation in which you are now formally a part. Your friends and loved ones may also be subject to investigation.”
“I don’t have any friends and loved ones,” Aaron said.
“Or,” said Agent Strunk.
“Regardless,” Agent White said tentatively, looking to his partner for approval before continuing, “we always get our man.”
“I thought that was the Mounties.”
“It’s us too.” Agent White pulled his jacket over his gun and buttoned up. “I would strongly suggest that if you remember anything about this individual, you contact us immediately.”
“Of course,” said Aaron, smiling politely. “If that’s all, you gentlemen will forgive me if I don’t climb over the desk to let you out.”