An excerpt from Alex O'Donnell & the 40 CyberThieves
Copyright © 2010 All Rights Reserved. Regina Doman.
Once upon a time. . .
. . . there lived a man name Ali Baba,
who was hardworking but poor until one night,
when a mysterious turn of good fortune
The Arabian Nights
The crickets were louder than the sound of the neighbor’s air conditioner, the television across the street, or the incessant shushing flow of traffic. But the man ignored them as he sat down at his desk by the window, opened his laptop and eagerly touched the ON button.
As the cheery tinny jingle of startup music began, he reached into a desk drawer and pulled out the USB drive: the battered one with a cat-face sticker grinning up at him and plugged it easily into the laptop port. He couldn’t wait to take the MouseCatcher for a ride.
Sure enough, the walking cat icon began pacing back and forth at the bottom of the screen, wavering slightly as the program booted up. The man grinned at the cat as he drummed his fingers on the keyboard bank, and thought to himself that he should add some music to this long opening sequence. Maybe the Looney Tunes theme song. Next upgrade.
At last the computer cat arched its back and stretched its claws, and the program began. The man opened a computer browser window. Okay, MouseCatcher: where do we go tonight?
It was a complicated computer interface that had started as an implant on browser code but now allowed a multi-faceted access to the main hub of the internet. The servers read the MouseCatcher as a view-only admin which was fine with him. He didn’t want to affect data changes or capture viewer input. He only wanted to watch.
“Thirty-three percent software engineer, thirty three percent computer hacker, and thirty three percent damned curious guy,” he murmured his mantra to himself as he fiddled with the browser window. He had gone to Amazon.com, and his eyes fixed on his own little white cursor on the screen, as he changed the preferences on MouseCatcher. Show one user. Select Show ten users. Select Show one hundred users. Select Show All Users. He hit the enter button.
Instantly his screen was crowded with thousands of white arrow cursors flicking in and out of the screen like so many electronic flies. Maybe millions of them. People all over the world going in and out of the website, and he could see them.
But more importantly, he could follow them wherever they went.
His own cursor had changed into the shape of a cat, and he moved around the mass of darting arrows, musing. So many, so many: which one would he choose?
A random capture was always the most fun. He snagged one, and the cat emitted a red superhero cape. He removed his hands from the keyboard and sat back to watch. The ride was beginning.
The pages began to change as the user being followed clicked on icons, leapt from page to page to page. First he clicked on the bestseller of the week icon, where he lingered, either reading or comparing prices. New browser window, but the MouseCatcher nimbly leapt along with him. Search engine: maybe a title+cheapest price input? Yes, because the search results included lots of deep discount prices. Wonder who I’m following tonight? The man right-clicked to see if he could get any information: the cookie indicated a Kansas user with the IM name of jerry2002dknight.
Bargainbasementcloseoutbooks.com—at last the user selected one, went to the bestselling titles page, then the shopping cart—there the mouse lingered. Suddenly it flicked back and forth, as though sensing the Cat whose claws were tracking its movement.
Relax, Jerry. I don’t want your credit card number; I just want to watch what you do. But he scribbled some notes on the paper, wondering if the MouseCatcher was producing a slow response time on the other user’s end. Not good.
At last jerry2002dknight’s cursor shifted through the payment screens and the “Thank You for Your Purchase” screen blinked on. The user’s mouse hovered, dragged, suddenly highlighted the link at the bottom that led to a .sex site and clicked.
Abruptly the man darted to the keyboard and disengaged MouseCatcher and the flying cat became a sitting one. Curious or not, he wasn’t following anyone into a porn site. Hope you’re not married, Jerry.
Now he fiddled with the cat cursor, which strolled around the screen. Finally he retreated a step back to the homepage at the discount book site and selected Show All Users. As he guessed, there weren’t too many cursors flitting around this site. He wondered what this site actually was. Probably some fly-by-night site operating out of someone’s basement. A slick graphic interface with inventory access to a competitor’s database and a subtle redirect. A scam operation.
He considered the thirty-some cursors flitting around the screen, some sluggish, some purposeful, and selected an odd one. MouseCatcher, spring! The cat leaped and its red cape flew out behind it as it cruised after the user, who halted and remained on the page an absurdly long time. Perhaps the user had gone to get a cup of coffee? The man’s own stomach grumbled, but he sat, waiting, stroking his graying beard. This was part of the game.
At long last, the cursor moved slowly up to the bar on the browser and began to add some letters to the address in the browser.
The browser clicked a login page. “Welcome to Bargain Basement Closeout Books’ Employee Area.” The man whistled. How random is that? I’m following a site employee.
The MouseCatcher had no problem reading non-encrypted passwords, so he followed the user into the administrative area of the site. He watched while the user scrolled down through lists of menus and clicked a tab that said, “SSH.” A new tab opened with a black screen and white font face, a blinking green box indicating the cursor.
Ah. Wonder if he’s doing a backup or something?
But instead, the user began to type something unusual:
>Connected to hitechhelpdesk.com.
The man tensed, recognizing the process. No, wait. This isn’t a site employee. This is a hacker. He’s using this server to hack into someone else’s website.
He switched the MouseCatcher into keylogger mode so that the Cat would keep a record of everything the user did, and watched intently. If I don’t capture his passwords, I won’t be able to follow him, he justified his actions to himself. Plus, I don’t mind sneaking after someone who’s already doing something illegal…
The user had arrived at the server of the next site: a tech site with the label www.hitechhelpdesk.com. Quickly the user went to a directory and typed a command to “show hidden files.” A new file suddenly appeared:
Ah. That’s why he came here. He’s been hiding an invisible folder on someone else’s site for safekeeping. Wonder what it is?
A command appeared on the black screen.
Data flickered rapidly across the screen. Suddenly, the MouseCatcher flickered and lost his cape. The digital cat paced mournfully around the screen, and the man realized what had happened.
The user had vanished.
Bewildered, the man stared at the screen. Where did he go? Did he log off the Internet? Or has he gone someplace where the MouseCatcher can’t follow?
Puzzled, the man checked the keylogger data the MouseCatcher had collected and scrolled through it. It took him a few minutes to understand it. The final lines read:
Determining remote address...
Found current post: MTI3LAuMC4Mjc
The Sesame program jumped to a website, grabbed data, decrypted it, and…generated a link to a web address.
That’s where the user went.
The man’s fingers hovered over the keys.
…What’s to stop me from going to that website too?
It was too tantalizing. Before he could help himself, he gave the command and hit the enter key.
Where am I?
A page had loaded swiftly: deep, utter blackness.
Purple letters began to appear on the page.
Who are you?
A security question. The man floundered, but then suddenly, the MouseCatcher, which had been sitting sedately at the bottom of his screen, began to flash, and its cape fluttered.
So the guy I was following is still here, the man realized. And the MouseCatcher’s hooked right onto him again. Good cat!
An answer appeared below the question.
Hasherking,, master of trees.
An image of a blowfish appeared. And the words hovered before him in long script.
What is this?
And the user the man was following typed his answer.
We are Samurai. The Keyboard Cowboys.
The black page faded into gray that became white, gleaming white. Then something came into focus. A cave with gleaming walls, in high definition sharpness.
The man whistled at the graphic interface. You couldn’t see a pixel anywhere. Nice! Must be one of these new gaming sites. This is what that guy was trying to get into.
Suddenly a ninja in black stepped onto the screen. The ninja’s movements were a bit more nuanced than those of the typical online avatar, and the man marveled at the computer engineering that had created it.
So this is what the user looks like in this environment. Wow. I can see why he wanted to get in here!
The ninja turned so that his back was to the man, and began to stride purposefully down the cave tunnel. He didn’t seem to notice that the MouseCatcher, now looking pathetically pixelated in this hi-res environment, was following him.
The shining bronze walls of the cave moved around him, the scene changing like a camera following over the assassin’s shoulder.
The man watched, fascinated. Okay, a gaming site sure isn’t what I expected to find. Well, I’m hooked onto this guy, going where he goes…
They began to pass niches in the walls of the cave that looked like passages. One passage had gold coins in bags lying spilled on the floor. Another passageway had ropes of pearls and gleaming jewels cascading out of chests. A third niche was scattered with what looked like credit cards in bright colors. Another gave a glimpse into what looked like an art gallery of paintings. The ninja ignored all of these, passing them more quickly than the man trailing him would have liked.
Oh well. But I’m just here to watch.
The ninja abruptly turned left and entered a room full of windows: each one looking out onto a different scene. One was the skyline of Chicago: another looked out on a Caribbean island: another on the ski slopes of Switzerland. The ninja paused before a window that showed the rooftops of Vienna, Austria. And nothing happened: the scene froze.
The man waited. The ninja continued to stand still. Nothing on the screen was moving. The man watched and waited, but nothing seemed to be happening. Tentatively he clicked, but there was no response to his cursor.
I bet there’s a floating menu I can’t see, the man guessed. He must be giving some sort of input.
He seemed to have guessed correctly because the ninja abruptly turned and strode out of the room. He was back in the passageway again before the man realized what had happened.
This game is pretty fascinating. Wish I knew what was going on. Wonder how you join?
The ninja looked at his feet and the room tilted downwards as he did. With one finger, he touched a puddle on the ground and backed up.
Out of the water, a large column of brick came with a sloping board on it, with faint surface variations that resembled a text box.
Maybe I’ll get to see what happens here.
All of a sudden, grooves appeared on the rock, forming into random shapes. A string of numbers appeared, grew sharper for a moment, and then slowly sank back into the surface.
Cool, the man thought.
Then more numbers, then letters appeared, in random patterns, which sharpened and then sank down before the man could read them. He glanced at the keylogger. It hadn’t captured any input this time.
Having subsumed the input, grooves appeared in the stone again which shifted and formed into a message:
ALL INPUT HAS BEEN PROCESSED AND ERASED
It sank into the blank square of the rock.
The man was watching the numbers flicker away when the ninja abruptly touched a round black stone embedded in the cave wall. And vanished.
The MouseCatcher flickered, wilted, and lost his cape again.
The guy must have logged out, and in the process, detached the MouseCatcher. That’s the second time that happened. Weird.
Um—now how do I leave?
The man was tempted to just close his browser, but he strongly suspected that he’d better log out properly if he wanted to cover his tracks. Tentatively he clicked on the black rock, but in response, the square blank block in front of him glowed. The man hit an arrow key to turn around, but each time he did something, the stone merely flashed a white glow.
Ah. It’s a menu, but I can’t see all of it. Still, I need to close it, or give it input before I can do anything else. What does it want me to do?
He typed an “A” but the stone surface hiccupped and the A vanished.
No letters then. Number input?
Pausing for a moment, he quickly typed
The stone seemed to approve. The numbers grew sharper, then slowly sank into nothingness.
But then the stone smoothed itself out again, wanting more from him.
Trying to remember what he had just seen the ninja do, it suddenly dawned on the man what the string of numbers and letters had been.
It wants a street address.
Now the man was a bit nervous. He’d never given any personal input when he’d used the MouseCatcher before. I’d better just shut down and go, he told himself. But the black rock remained un-pressable. And the square rock screen glowed insistently.
Wait: it said that all data would be processed and erased. Maybe that means, if I give an address, it’ll erase it.
Maybe it’ll just mail more clues to the game to that address. I could find out what this place is I’ve stumbled onto.
It was a tempting possibility.
Almost before he realized what he was doing, the man entered the number of a post office box in his town.
The address sharpened for a brief moment, then sank down before the man could change his mind.
But the same comforting message appeared:
ALL INPUT HAS BEEN PROCESSED AND ERASED
Feeling a bit reckless, the man hit “enter” and now the large stone sank back into the pool of water and vanished. And conveniently, the round black rock on the wall flickered, as though to indicate that it could now be pushed.
Gratefully, the man pushed it.
The cave rushed by him, faded to black, then all that was left was the plain black screen with white font, with the last string of letters.
The man realized what he needed to do next. He typed
The screen responded:
>cleanly logging out
>you’re safe - bye.
The black box closed, and the session ended.
He had left the cave.
If that was a game, it was the oddest one I’ve ever seen.
If it was a game.
Feeling a sense of worry, he re-saved his session log so he would have a record of everything he had just done, and then closed the MouseCatcher down. Then he pulled up some menus, enhanced his security, erased his browser history, made sure his firewall was in place. He closed down the browser, background programs, and the laptop. As an extra precaution, he even unplugged it from the wall.
Back in the real world, he checked the locks on the house door and closed the deadbolt before he turned into bed beside his sleeping wife.
Outside, the crickets continued cheeping, as though none of this had happened.
He had chosen to marry a poor but good
woman, and lived with her and their three sons
in a small village outside the mountains.
The Arabian Nights
Music blared from the speakers of the beat-up red Toyota as it flew down the highway, windows open, speakers cranked up. The air conditioning was broken, but at least the stereo system worked.
The young driver, steering easily with one hand, was on the shorter side, stocky, long-haired, tattooed, one ear pierced, wearing black sunglasses. He was driving just over the speed limit, fast enough to pass other vehicles, slow enough not to catch the attention of any policemen. Behind and around him, the car was crammed with stuff: books, clothes, duffle bags, a large picture of the Sacred Heart, and an odd array of boxes and cabinets and cases. One item hadn’t fit into any of the cases, and lay on the seat beside him—a long Japanese sword, gleaming silver.
Alex O’Donnell was on his way home from college.
He whistled along with the music as he sped down the miles of cracked asphalt on the Pennsylvania turnpike, dexterously avoiding the potholes. He breathed in relief when he hit the turnoff for 80 East. A few more hours or so and he’d be back in Virginia, Fairfax County, the suburb of DC where he lived.
It had been a good year at Mercy College. It should have been his graduation year, but he had a few more courses to take, due to some costly prevarication his freshman year, where he’d changed majors three times before settling on his final choice, political science. He had a couple more credits to earn: no biggie. One last semester, and he’d be free. Most of his friends had already graduated, and he figured that was just as well: he’d have more time to study and less time for the goofy adventures they’d always seemed to get sidetracked by.
He shook his head, thinking of some of those adventures, which had involved near escapes, brushes with the law, even danger of death. Yes, it had been interesting, but he couldn’t expect the rest of his life to be quite as adventurous. At some point, he was going to have to settle down, get serious about life, maybe even cut his hair.
He checked his cell phone, wondering if Kateri was nearly home by now. (She refused to talk on a cell phone while driving, even if it was legal in New Jersey, so he knew better than to try and call now.) They’d said goodbye only an hour ago, at dawn at a rest stop where the highway forked into north and east branches just outside of Harrisburg. She was headed north: he was going east and south: their paths had split. He missed her already.
He had promised to be a good boyfriend, send her presents, call a lot. She thanked him and wondered aloud if that meant she’d have to be a good girlfriend, and what did that mean?
“It means you love me, no matter what,” he had said, grinning.
She had only rolled her eyes and kissed him.
Then she had gotten into her own beat-up car, an old farm truck, gathered her long, wild black hair into a ponytail, waved a final goodbye, and driven off. As he had watched her go, he felt the same wistful longing that he always regarded her with, but it was magnified by the circumstances. Kateri was cool, almost too cool for him. She was a slight, sturdy girl with a blockbuster personality. She always wore ripped jeans and wrapped thin braids in her hair with colored thread like a Native American: lots of people thought she was Cherokee. But she was Asian—well, half Vietnamese.
And to Alex, she had about her the mystique of the Far East, even though her father was Polish-American. She had that aloofness, those dark, inscrutable eyes—and that hair! Long, black, wavy, tumbling down her back like a waterfall. And she was—well, put together nicely. Since Alex himself was on the shorter side, he liked that she was so petite. For a long time he hadn’t been able to figure out if he just had a massive crush on her, or if this was true love, but now he decided he was willing to gamble that it was the real thing.
Back a few years ago when they had met at Mercy College, it had been a moment of no significance for either of them. Neither of them had cared much for the other. They ran in different circles, had different interests. Ironically, they only met when Alex had developed a slight crush on Kateri’s roommate. Even after being formally introduced, they had spent most of their time arguing with each other. But in the course of several very colorful and fairly epic adventures, somehow he had swept Kateri off her feet—literally at one point—and, he admitted, she had knocked him off his high horse as well.
So for the past year or so, they hadn’t been able to get enough of one another, and now, driving home, he was starting to wonder if that had ramifications for both of their futures.
For a person as organized and goal-oriented as she was, Kateri was fairly cagey on that point. He strongly suspected that her future plans had never included taking up with a sword-wielding martial artist from the suburbs like himself. She had just graduated—the Kovach family wasn’t rich, and she’d gotten her mental health degree as quickly and cheaply as possible. Last summer she and Alex had gone to the missions in South America together, which had been another set of adventures, but this summer she had indicated the time had come for serious plans.
Alex agreed, but he wasn’t entirely sure she was ready for the serious plans he was starting to think about now.
The problem was, he didn’t want to be in the position of proposing marriage to a girl who was going to say no. And Kateri just might say no to him, whether she liked him or not.
He sighed as the song shuffle came to an end, and briefly clicked his mp3 player to shift to a mix of adventure movie themes. He was coming into the suburbs of DC: home. A whole different adventure. His mom’s health was better these days—she had multiple sclerosis, but was surviving. Even though she could no longer walk, she had managed to keep going strong, even on crutches. His kid brothers were always in trouble, between sports, karate, and computer club. And he wondered what his dad had been up to. Most likely, Dad had figured out a new way to hack into the government computer database and reprogram their coffee makers. Or create software that would change every traffic light from yellow to purple, or something. Alex had better get home and find out.
In another hour, Alex turned off the highway and into one of the hundreds of neighborhoods that sprawled out from the DC beltway. He drove past green spaces and gated communities and gateless communities, condos and apartment buildings, tiny rows of little shops, boutique strip malls, and gargantuan big box stores separated by landscaped slabs of banked earth and color-coordinated flower beds.
He turned right, and took a highway that shunted him through several miles of woods and towering concrete sound barriers and slid off an exit into another older town of assorted stores that stood like islands on half-acres of concrete, past trees huddled like lost tourists in groups around drainage ditches, past overgrown woodland developments, and developments built hurriedly on old farmland, vinyl split-levels and ranches with strings of spindly bushes and privacy fences dividing the lots. He pulled over to check out a neighborhood yard sale.
Then he took a bypass to avoid the shattered remnant of an old main street with one or two blocks of old-time buildings, which had survived just to sell postcards and antiques to Civil War pilgrims. He turned right into an even older development of small brick Cape Cods separated by lines of chain-link fences that were mostly hidden beneath piles of vines and embedded in hedges. This development had trees stuck at random in yards and sidewalks, some trees so old that their roots buckled the cement sidewalks and their branches spitefully dropped limbs during every storm.
Last year’s hurricane season had seen the demise of the two octogenarians who hemmed in Alex’s parents’ house. During the tornado in the wake of Hurricane Zeno, the two trees had fallen upon each other viciously, as though motivated by a long-held grudge, and toppled into the yard, narrowly missing the roof but destroying the front porch and the chain-linked fence. Insurance and the town had paid for a new fence (green chain link) and sidewalk, and Alex’s mom said she had never liked the front porch anyway, which was too small to even put a lawn chair on. The facade of the house now had slightly pinker lines of bricks flanking the front door where the posts for the porch had been, and the ragged yard had a growing fishnet of crabgrass spreading over the eight-foot circles of clay that marked the trees’ graves.
Alex parked his car, levering himself into the five-foot curb space between a minivan and a compact with one practiced maneuver, and got out, grabbing several bags and his sword. With a karate yell, he leapt over the fence into the yard, instigating cries of “Alex is back!” Seconds later, the front screen door banged open to let loose two sandy-haired boys who immediately threw themselves upon Alex with yells of their own. Alex thrust the sword into the turf, dropped his bags, and tackled his first assailant, dropping him to the ground. He flipped the ten-year-old over his back, and roared in dismay, “You guys haven’t been practicing!”
His brothers ignored him and went for his luggage instead. “Hey, did you get Drive Maniac III?” David said by way of greeting.
“No, I did not!” Alex swiped his backpack back from David. “Hey, leave that alone!” he said to Sam, who was swinging the sword around, decapitating tiger lilies. He yanked the weapon away and turning, grabbed a metal throwing star from David’s hand.
“Did you bring me a present? Are you home now for good? What did you bring home?”
“No, yes, wait and see.” Alex said, stepping inside and sliding the sword easily into the hooks by the door that marked its place. The staircase wall was filled with weapons both Eastern and Western, and Alex’s sword was positioned just between his dad’s Spanish rapier and David’s gladiator dagger. The messy room was decorated with bamboo scrolls and glass Japanese fishing weights that dangled in nets from the ceiling, souvenirs of his dad’s army years overseas. With careful aim, Alex tossed the throwing star, and it made a new jag in the trim over the mantelpiece, which had been its home ever since it had accidentally landed there many years before, making a gash which grew bigger by the years, and to which his mother had resigned herself.
He strode through the tiny living room past the blaring video game console with the cracked screen to the bedroom next to the kitchen, meeting his mom who had struggled to her crutches to greet him. Her blond hair was cut short, and she was wearing an oversized shirt in a cheerful pink print and jeans.
He kissed her. “Hi Mom! I’m back!”
Mom accepted his hug affectionately. “Did you have a good trip home?”
“Oh, yeah. I would have made it in three hours if I hadn’t stopped. Hey Dad!”
Dad was home from work—that was unusual. Maybe Mom had had a bad day? He was also intent on the bedroom computer—not unusual at all. Finishing a keystroke sequence, his dad tore his eyes from the screen and set them on his oldest son. “Alex! Glad to have you home!” His dad’s black beard and sideburns had a bit more gray in them, but the eyes behind his glasses twinkled and the laugh-lines were firmly fixed in place. Mom must not be doing too bad.
As if answering his thought, Mom said, “I had a doctor’s appointment today, so Alan stayed home to take me.”
Alex kissed his mom and dad. “Good! Hey, I’m going to run to the post office. Anyone need anything while I’m out?”
“Diet Coke,” his mom said. “And green tea for your dad. Can you go by the grocery and see what’s on sale in the meat section? I haven’t planned dinner for tonight yet.”
“How about I pick up Chinese? My treat.”
Mom grinned. She always looked cute when she smiled. “Sure! I’ll take you up on that.”
His dad had swiveled his chair inexorably back towards the computer, but dug into his pocket. “You said you were going to the post office? Here. Check the P.O. boxes for me.” He flipped the keys over his shoulder and started on the keyboard again.
Alex caught them with one hand. “No prob, Dad.”
Whistling, he went out to his car. His brothers were bringing in his luggage and belongings from the car and piling them on the front room carpet. “Hey, bring that stuff upstairs!” He snatched up something wrapped in a brown paper bag, grabbed the Sacred Heart picture and propped it on top of an overstocked bookshelf near the rosary prayer table.
“Are you going out? Can we go with you?”
“Only if you behave!”
Without answering, the younger boys jumped into the car with him and settled themselves comfortably in the back and front seats. David grabbed the mp3 player and cranked up the loudest song.
“Turn that thing down,” Alex said, checking his mirrors while he reversed out of his parking spot. “So what’s been going on?”
“David’s grounded again from computer games but he’s still watching me.”
“Shut up!” David said. “Dad’s working on new tracking software.”
“How’s the MouseCatcher coming?”
“Dunno. He used to talk about it all the time, but he’s been quiet lately. Bet he’s working on something. So how’s the hot babe?”
Alex groaned. “David, let’s get this straight. Women and girls are ladies. Not chicks, not babes, not anything else. Okay? Show some respect, or Kateri’s going to slam you upside a wall when you’re least expecting it.”
“Is she coming down? Do we get to meet her?” Sam, the ten-year-old, cut in.
“I don’t know. All depends on whether she can afford it. Life’s hard when you’re a poor college graduate. I might go up and see her sometime.”
“Can you take us?”
“Yes. I’ll enslave you to Kateri’s younger siblings and you can work on the farm and learn some manners.”
“Pig manners.” That was David.
“You start acting like a pig, I’ll let them send you to the slaughterhouse. Okay, stay here!” They had reached the Post Office. Alex grabbed the brown paper parcel and got out.
“Present for Kateri. Got to mail it.”
“What is it?”
“Something I found at a yard sale. Stay in the car, don’t fight. At least not to the death.” He strode through the glass doors to the lobby and joined the line. While he was waiting, he picked out a box and two rolls of colored bubble wrap, and packaged the present. It was going to be expensive to send, but he couldn’t resist. He mailed the package, and recollecting himself, stopped by the line of boxes to check the mail for his dad.
His dad had a string of post office boxes, the result of several failed online business ventures, maintained now primarily for collecting junk mail and catalogs. After the hunt and peck of locating and emptying the boxes, Alex had an armful of junk mail. He figured he had better sort through it. No use bringing even more stuff into their crowded home.
Catalog, catalog, catalog. He kept one of each and threw out the duplicates. Mom loved catalogs, and who knows what she was into these days? Restaurant supplies, gardening, skiing? Maybe the last catalog was David’s. Next he sifted out the credit card offers and tossed them. The fundraising solicitations were a bit harder to detect, but he trashed all the ones he could find. Now he had about fifteen envelopes left. Slipping into his typical role as Dad’s unofficial secretary, he started opening letters and checking them out.
Ah. Several of the “serious” letters were actually money-begging letters from political PACs. He tossed those and opened the remaining handful. That’s how he found the check.
It was printed, like a payroll check, from the Sundance Fun Foundation, but the memo said “Winnings.” Paid to “Cash” in the amount of $1,234,567.89.
“This isn’t real,” Alex said. He flipped to the back of the check, expecting to see “This is a sample” inscribed in red on the back.
Nothing. “This isn’t real,” he said, looking for background printing, any sign that this was just a scam. “Nah. This isn’t real.”
But the typed amount said one million, two hundred and thirty four thousand, five hundred and sixty seven dollars and 89/100.
Finally, not knowing what else to do, he folded the check, stuck it in his pocket, grabbed the rest of the remaining mail, and went to the car.
As he could have predicted, his brothers were fighting, but fortunately blood had not yet been shed.
“Where are we going now?” Sam demanded between yells and accusations of David.
“Just going to try something. I’m curious.”
“CKTC!” David shouted.
“Hm?” Alex was turning on the motor.
“‘Curiosity killed the cat.’ Mom’s taken to using the acronym with Dad. That’s how often she says it these days.”
“Interesting,” Alex murmured.
In the lobby of their family bank, Alex handed over the check to the teller, folded his arms, and leaned forward on the ledge. “Can you tell me if this is a real check?”
The teller did the same thing he had done: looked it over, flipped it to the back, scanned it again. “Looks okay to me. Why?”
“I got it in one of those junk mail letters.”
She nodded with a knowing smile. “Want me to try to deposit it?”
“Sure, might as well.”
“With that kind of amount, they’ll probably put a hold on it. Maybe two to eleven business days.”
“That’s fine. No rush.”
It couldn’t hurt to try.
And though he often wished he
could make his fortune, yet not for all the
gold in the moneyhouse would he have changed
his wife and fine sons.
The Arabian Nights
The girl sloshed through the muddy field in her barn boots and paused, looking out over the rooting animals to the hilly landscape and the silver clouds beyond. Part of her hoped that she didn’t get any response from the stack of resumes she had just sent out. Working in an office just wasn’t going to compare with farm work. Even farm work with smelly pigs.
Absently she poked a stick at two of the younger hogs, who were squabbling over the same banana peel. “C’mon, settle down,” she said equitably.
Her attention was caught by the roar of a truck, and she looked over at the rundown little farmhouse where the remainder of her ten brothers and sisters lived with her parents. A white mail truck was cautiously backing up their winding gravel driveway.
Curious, she dumped the rest of the compost onto the grunting pigs, grabbed the bucket and the hose, and walked back towards the house, coiling up the hose as she went. Between the wet and the mud, the hose was dirty, which meant that by the time she reached the house, her hands and overalls were muddy as well. She deposited the coil of hose in its place by the cellar steps, stacked the compost bucket with the other empty plastic ones by the porch door, and walked to the truck, fully aware that she was a mess.
Wiping her hands on the wet grass helped a little. “Sorry,” she said to the driver as she took the stack of mail and bulky package. Walking back to the house, she glanced at the address on the box. It was from Alex. Kateri rolled her eyes and went inside to wash up.
Inside, the farmhouse was the usual jumble of large-family detritus and farming implements. The fragrant smell of stir-fried pork with fish sauce came from the stove, where her mother, a short Vietnamese woman in a long blue apron, was cooking dinner. Kateri set the package on the kitchen table, and began to open it. What had Alex sent now?
She groaned as she pulled off the last round of bubble wrap from the bulky object inside. It was an Oriental statue, super-gilded and beflowered with purple magnolias—the Chinese good-luck cat with raised paw.
“Pretty,” her mom said. “Chinese.”
Kateri sighed. “Oriental.” Alex was like most Westerners, jumbling together Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Filipino, and Vietnamese culture into one thing: Oriental culture. She’d tried to explain to him that Vietnamese culture was very different from Japanese and Chinese culture but he couldn’t seem to grasp the distinction. Nor did he get that she preferred plain American to Chinese kitsch.
She read the card he had scribbled. Miss you. Hope you can come and visit soon. She didn’t know how to answer that. If she found a job, she couldn’t visit. But until she found a job, spending money on pleasure trips didn’t seem wise.
“What does the card say?”
“He wants me to come and visit him.”
“You should.” Mom tested the pork.
“But I’m still job hunting.”
“If you find a job, you won’t be able to go. So go now.”
“Mom!” Kateri exclaimed. “You’re so—impractical sometimes. Like Alex.”
Her mom chuckled. “Aren’t you and Alex still dating?”
“Yes. Sort of,” Kateri set the cat on the table and raised an eyebrow at it. What exactly am I supposed to do with this thing?
“You keep saying that,” her mom wagged a bamboo spoon at her. “‘Sort of’ dating never got anyone anywhere. Either choose or not choose. Court, or don’t court.”
Kateri laughed. “You sound like Yoda.”
The problem was, she liked Alex. A lot. And that was illogical. He was a suburban guy. White collar. Wouldn’t—couldn’t farm, didn’t have a job, couldn’t do anything practical, an expert in nothing except video games, martial arts and swordfighting.
Well, she admitted, sometimes those last two items were practical. Those skills had already come in handy a few times in their friendship.
She had to confess it was fun to be with Alex. They connected on a very basic level. But was that really enough?
I’m like that peasant girl in the Hiroshi Inagaki film and he’s like the samurai. Except they were Japanese. But it didn’t work out between them either.
“What is wrong?” her mother prodded.
Kateri exhaled. “When it comes to Alex, I just have too many questions about whether or not he’s right for me.”
“That is fine!” her mother said with a shrug. “Courtship is the time for asking questions! Too many people only start to ask questions after the wedding is over!”
Kateri pushed back her hair. “So what do you do if you still have questions after the wedding is over?”
“Ignore them,” her mother said tranquilly. “After you have leapt off the cliff, it is too late to wonder how high the mountain was.”
She handed her daughter a small bowl of pho soup, and Kateri drank it and pondered, giving occasional glances at the smiling ceramic cat. Her mother went outside to yell at Kateri’s brothers, who were supposed to be weeding the strawberry crop.
What she had to do, Kateri resolved, one of these days, was sit down with Alex and have a serious talk about their relationship. What were they going to do now, practically speaking? I’m graduated, I’m going to get a job, and you’re going to do what? Play at college for another year, and then do what? While I wait for you? It might be better for them both just to work, study, and go on with life. Neither of their families was wealthy: it would be more practical to focus on making a living. And if after two years, he was ready to get married and she wasn’t dating anyone else—then maybe…
The problem was, she really did like Alex.
Emitting a cry of frustration, she finished the soup, snatched up the cat, and stalked to her room.
She had shared the large bedroom with four sisters, but now they had all moved out. Only Faustina was still single, and she was living in New York and working as a secretary: Teresa and Marietta and Philomena were married. But the remnants of their tastes and souvenirs of their pasts were still scattered about on the walls: posters, photos, scrapbooks, stuffed animals. Polish flags and Vietnamese art. A large poster of an unborn baby in the womb, pro-life bumper stickers, collages from protests and slogan signs. Though the variations on themes were unique, the décor was the typical mishmash of teenage life. Kateri didn’t have the heart to take everything down and start over, even though no one else slept in the double bed with her any longer, and the daybed really was just a couch these days.
Maybe I’ll be leaving this room soon too.
The thought depressed her, even though her job search was not going well. It seemed the market was flooded with mental health majors: what had seemed like a shoe-in was proving to be scarce. No one was even offering internships. With years of pro-life experience and sidewalk counseling under her belt, she had counted on one of the crisis pregnancy centers she’d worked with being able to hire her, but it seemed like everyone was under a budget squeeze. She’d have to move to New York, most likely, to find any kind of entry-level job. And she hated the city.
Given that her life was in such flux, her instinct was to take a step back from her relationship until she figured out where she could find a job, and what God wanted her to do with her life. It might be easier on Alex too: she knew he still didn’t have a job. But how could she tell this to Alex?
Out of habit, she started cleaning the room, the best way to improve her mood. After straightening up her dresser and folding her clothes, she cast about for a space to stash the oversized cat statue. After a few minutes searching, she moved a stack of hats—random straw farm hats and soft felt hats—off the green dresser and slid the cat on its surface. Now the hats didn’t fit. She was about to toss them on the floor to deal with later, when something made her put the stack on the cat’s head. They fit perfectly: the cat’s head was just the size of the bottom hat. And her baseball cap could dangle from the cat’s upraised paw. It looked almost as though she and some decorating maven had gone out to purchase a unique hat stand and come back with the cat. A perfect fit.
Her cell phone rang with a familiar tune: the theme from Karate Kid. Alex was calling.
Was this the time for her to break it off with him?
She stared at the singing phone and glanced back half-heartedly at the smiling cat. Alex would ask her about her job search, she would confess her failure and inadequacy, and he would reassure her. He would brainstorm for new strategies, new ways to get a job. He was probably praying for her. No, she didn’t have the heart to break up with a guy friend who was supporting her during this uncertain time. But would it be any kinder to do it later?
Growling again, she picked up the phone and answered. She’d thank him for the statue, maybe agree to come down and visit for a weekend. No time like the present. Pun resented.
So it was that one week later, Kateri was on the bus to DC. She was taking the bus because her brothers Mark and Tobias needed her old truck for their job, and the other spare car had a bad fuel pump and had stopped shifting. Alex had agreed to split the bus ticket with her, since it saved him the trouble of driving to pick her up. Even though she hated to leave the farm work and the job hunt, she probably did need a break: she fell asleep as soon as she got on the bus, and slept until they had nearly reached the beltway.
When she opened her eyes, she stared out the window at the passing scenery in some incredulity. Obviously this had all once been farmland. But now it had become a monotonous pattern of strip mall—housing block—strip mall—housing block. Sometimes the developers had left the trees in. Other times they seemed to have sheared them all down. Either way, a completely artificial carpet of civilization had been dropped over what was once arable land: she could even spot an occasional barn marooned between lots. She felt nauseous. Or maybe that was just the fumes from the hundred thousand shiny compact cars that darted everywhere like oversized bugs.
By the time they reached the bus stop in Northern Virginia, she had counted six Home Depots and ten Bed, Bath and Beyonds, and countless supermarkets and clothing stores. So this was where Alex lived. She was ready to leave.
But there in the massive bus station was Alex, waiting for her as she stumped off the bus with her luggage. As usual, he was dressed in black—black t-shirt and trench coat, jeans, and boots. Black sunglasses, too. He was smiling at her, and holding a huge bunch of long-stemmed red roses.
She sighed: even jobless and short of cash, Alex could be so generous. And so impulsive. Too impulsive. She kissed him, took the roses, and only then noticed that he was still grinning.
“What?” she said suspiciously.
He took her arms and pulled her close.
“Yes, in God, family, and one another. But that doesn’t—”
“No, my family. Is rich.”
She stared at him.
“We’ve come into money. C’mon. I’ll tell you how it happened.”
Incredulously, she glanced down at the roses.
Alex said significantly, “They were not on sale.”
Once she had gotten into the car, he told her about the money. How he had gotten the check. How he’d deposited it, on a lark. How it had actually cleared.
“We have over one million dollars in the bank. And we’re still not sure how it happened.”
Kateri frowned. “But if it’s a check—you must know who sent it.”
“The Sundance Fun Foundation. And here’s something weird: it closed its doors two days after our transaction went through. It’s listed as a place that holds contests, but none of us remember entering any sweepstakes. The only thing Mom can think of is that it might have been one of those things where you’re automatically entered into a drawing when you sign up for a service.”
Kateri was still trying to take this in, and a feeling was growing inside her. “I don’t like this,” she murmured. “You’re right: it’s weird. You should—”
Alex shot her a look. “I know what you’re thinking, Kat. I’d like to do some research, find out more, but the odd thing is, Dad doesn’t want me to. Plus he doesn’t want us to tell anyone about the money until he can figure out where it came from. I had to promise him up and down that you were one of those inscrutable Asian types who would never breathe a word to anyone.”
Asian types. Kateri sighed again. “And of course, your dad agreed.”
“You know I’ve told you how much he loves anything from the Far East. I know he’ll love you, too.”
She shifted a bit nervously, having remembered again that she was meeting Alex’s family for the first time. A significant relationship moment. A sign that things were ‘serious.’ Again, she felt she was in the wrong place at the wrong time. “I hope I’m going to be more than just your trophy Asian girlfriend.”
“Oh, absolutely, you are.” Alex said. “But I’ve always liked trophies. They tell me that I’ve won big.” He pulled to a stop at a red light, leaned over, and kissed her.
Why did his corny romance always give her goose bumps? “Nowadays everyone gets trophies, even if they didn’t do a thing.”
“The analogy holds,” he murmured. “I didn’t do a thing to deserve you, did I?”
Groaning, she pulled away from him. “The light’s green.”
He obligingly turned his attention to driving but kept talking. “Obviously, Dad doesn’t want us to spend the money. Unfortunately my brothers were with me when I went to deposit the check, and we’ve had to threaten them with Chinese water torture to keep them from talking. But that hasn’t stopped them from begging us to upgrade our video game systems, get new computers, cool cars—”
“Probably good not to rush into anything.”
“Exactly. Though I can’t help looking at the new Toyotas.” He heaved a sigh. “Mom’s been trying to persuade him to use some of the money, but he doesn’t want us to touch a cent.”
“What is he waiting for?”
“Federal agents to show up on our doorstep? The IRS? Who knows? Anyhow,” he glanced over at Kateri. “I’m so glad you’re here. You couldn’t have picked a better time to visit. It’s very interesting at home just now.”