MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
My name is Special Agent Aaron N. Rowsdower. Or at least it used to be. I served at the Federal Bureau of Investigation for over twenty years, and I was a good agent. After all that time, I could tell you some stories, but that’s not what I do best. I solve puzzles and fix problems. I investigate.
A little over a year ago, I was just another agent doing everything I was supposed to do, even if I wasn’t where I should have been. Then the Internet Apocalypse came and the NSA followed. I thought that might be my ticket. A way to help me get noticed by someone in Washington. So, yeah, I was a willing foot soldier of that bullshit NET Recovery Act, tracking down leads that went nowhere, harassing people who told me nothing, but I wasn’t hurting anybody. Not really. The bosses were pleased. Keep it up, they said. This will be good for you.
And that’s when I met Gladstone. I say that like it was some big day, but it wasn’t. As far as I was concerned, he was just a sick, sad man. Someone claiming to be the Internet Messiah, or at least that was the claim some made about him. But I’d seen his file. I saw his divorce and psychiatric disability from the New York Workers’ Compensation Board. To me, he was nothing more than everything that had failed about Generation X. A broken man, failing hopelessly at the new millennium. I had no idea how important he would become to me in the months that followed. To everyone. And I certainly didn’t know he’d bring me to Los Angeles. Something I still can’t forgive him for.
Before Gladstone, I had a destination. Or at least a plan. Maybe that’s not true either, but I did have a job. I was relieved of my duties shortly after his release from custody. Not that it was Gladstone’s fault really, but if not for him, I’d still be at the FBI right now. I’d be a whole other man. So, no, I’m not really Special Agent Rowsdower. It’s just Rowsdower now. Aaron N.
What follows are my reports on the Internet Apocalypse. My attempts to find Gladstone and all that followed. This is a story about how a search for one man gave us a chance to reclaim not just the most significant technology of the twenty-first century but everything we’d lost.
I didn’t want to go back to L.A. Just being there made me feel like a willing part of a global conspiracy. A perpetual fraud selling the lie that a bunch of suburbs connected only by traffic and false kindness could qualify as a city. But I had a lead. Someone who had seen Gladstone after the shit went down. When he was on the run from the same men who will no doubt come for me.
So I went back west. Back to a place where every bartender and waitress calls in sick whenever CSI holds an audition. Where they ask if you’d prefer whites only when ordering scrambled eggs with toast. But at least this woman I was trailing didn’t travel in the usual L.A. circles. After three days of shadowing, I hadn’t seen one yoga class or spa visit.
I followed her to the market at Laurel Canyon and watched her sit outside, sipping coffee while she wrote. I’m not sure what she was working on. It could have been a screenplay or just some bills. Maybe she was writing letters. There was no ostentatious MacBook display. The point was just to take care of business, and it seemed she liked doing it among other people. I saw her compliment absolute strangers on their clothing. Unexpected gestures of kindness that in New York might make you take a step back and double-check your wallet, but I’d watched her long enough to know she wasn’t crazy.
Whether hiking in Will Rogers State Park or window-shopping in Santa Monica along Main Street, she seemed to navigate the world under the false belief that no one would take notice. She was wrong. She stood five-ten easy, and looked taller because her legs went on forever. Her fingers were long too, and her face was slim and elegant, but set above shoulders and hips too broad for her to be some French supermodel dying of consumption.
It seemed like as good a time as any to make contact. Besides, it was raining. At least in West Hollywood, where she’d brought me. I stepped under a black-and-white awning on Santa Monica Boulevard and lit a cigarette, watching her scurry unprepared along the wall of a sound studio on the other side of the street. She stopped for a moment, knowing she’d have to make a decision before the rain turned her white blouse translucent. And as striking as that visual was, I was distracted by the graffiti of Gladstone’s Net Reclamation Movement along the high-ceilinged studio wall in the distance. It was the Wi-Fi symbol wearing an M-shaped fedora, but this one had a more ominous message than the one outside the Veterans’ Affairs Building, where I last worked. That one had read, THE INTERNET IS PEOPLE AND WE’RE STILL HERE. But this was done in black paint, dripping with anger: THE INTERNET IS OURS AND WE WANT IT BACK.
She turned in my direction, but she wasn’t looking at me; she was heading to the dive bar/restaurant I was standing in front of. The Formosa Cafe. She crossed the street, stopping under the awning for a moment to push her fingers through her short blond hair, and flipped the excess water at my feet before entering. It would have felt like a rebuke for smoking so close to a public building, but she looked like she wanted a drag herself. I let her go inside and kept smoking. I only allow myself three cigarettes a day, and I wasn’t going to waste this one. Besides, she wasn’t going anywhere in this rain.
Inside, she was sitting on a barstool, legs crossed, dripping over her vodka or gin. She was set apart from the China-red shadows only by a reflected light shining off the photographs above. A string of autographed celebrities hanging in black and white, smiling for the cameras of a different time. Ghosts of success either keeping guard or bearing witness.
I sat down at the stool next to her and flagged the bartender. Except for some geriatric drinking his medicine at the end of the bar and a twentysomething fiddling with the antenna of an old Sony Watchman in the window, we were the only ones in the place.
“There’s a whole bar,” she said, and poked at her already-drowned lime.
“That’s true, but I’m not here for the Shanghai rice cakes,” I said, referencing an appetizer placard on the counter. “I’m Aaron Rowsdower, formerly of the NET Recovery Act Special Task Force and Federal Bureau of Investigation. I’d like to ask you a few questions.”
The bartender came over. He was pushing thirty. Strong jaw. Blond, with just a hint of carefully manufactured curl. He still had dreams of saving the next “It” girl from invading aliens in a summer blockbuster.
“None for him,” she said. “He’s on the job.” The bartender looked to me for confirmation before she continued. “Speaking of that, shouldn’t you be showing me a badge or something?”
“There’s no badge for being a former agent, Ms. Zmena,” I said, and turned to the bartender. “Johnnie Walker, neat, please.”
She took a sip from her drink, trying not to appear alarmed that I knew her name or as if she already knew mine. But I’d worked this job for twenty years. I knew what the appearance of indifference meant. She tilted her glass and stopped the ice with her teeth, letting the liquor slide underneath. Then she took one cube between her molars and crushed it. “Tell me,” she said, after the damage was done, “are people usually willing to talk to men without a badge?”
“I don’t know,” I said, and placed a twenty on the bar. “I’m new to this.”
Now I was the one lying. I remembered my last badgeless interrogation from weeks before. Back in Perth, all I needed was $100 Australian to get Ozzygrrl69 to tell me what she knew. Oz, real name Melody Andrews, was that former webcam girl Gladstone kept some online company with before the Net went down. She was also the one he imagined as a companion, stumbling through New York, drunk and alone, purportedly looking for the Internet. I had a hunch, only a hunch, that when things fell apart and Gladstone had to run away to the farthest point from his existence, he’d seek her out. Some men can’t heal without women, and I knew Gladstone was one of them. It was clear to anyone who read his journal. And while I in no way believed he’d murdered his ex-wife, I also knew he’d run out of women. Scared and alone in a strange country, it was hard to think of him going anywhere but to Oz.
I’d started tracking her down back in America while I was still on the job. Back when I’d reviewed that ballistics report on Beth “Romaya” Petralia that made no sense. Judging by the damage done, the trajectory of that fatal bullet had to have come from above, not—as the story went—her estranged husband standing one foot away. And just when I started asking questions, Romaya’s body was cremated with seemingly no request to do so. I started to suspect that this broken man had somehow staggered his way into importance. And if not importance, then he’d made the wrong people uncomfortable. Something I’d avoided my whole career. At least until the very end.
So I found out Ozzygrrl69’s real name and all it took was getting on the phone and threatening an internationally sanctioned subpoena. It didn’t matter that I couldn’t imagine what such a document would look like. I was speaking with an entire government behind me then, and Australian online sex syndicates already had enough trouble with the Apocalypse, plus giant killer spiders. They didn’t need more grief. I got her name and found her working in a massage parlor on James Street, above the Sssh Shop and Phero-moans—two sex stores that connected with an adjoining door. I was out of my element, but it was good to know that just like Americans, Aussies liked their smut infused with stupid sex puns.
I’d followed her from home to work and even paid for what I imagined would be a happy ending rubdown. I wanted to talk, and I wasn’t afraid of being mistaken for the kind of man who paid for sex in a country on the other side of the world. I went to the room the peroxide blonde at the front desk told me to, pointing my way with fake red fingernails pressed into fleshy, nicotine-stained fingertips. I sat in the chair waiting. Smoking.
Oz entered a few minutes later, acne visible through too much foundation. Her hair was black and tightly androgynous, and tats had begun crowding her arms, revealing a haphazard use of limited space. But her eyes were big and blue, and when she spoke there was a brisk coarseness cut by an almost imperceptible lisp.
“You’re supposed to be on the table, hon,” she said.
“I’m here to talk to you about Gladstone.”
“The dark-haired, five-foot-seven American you called a customer back in the Internet days. The same crazy man, reeking of Scotch, who came to see you a few weeks ago.”
I could tell my hunch was right. I felt bad that a woman in her line of work had lost the distance of the Internet to keep her safe when she had no poker face. But I also had a job to do, even if I was no longer getting paid for it. Even if my efforts were only for my own self-preservation. It was time to finish this off.
“The man wanted for the murder of his ex-wife.”
“He’s wanted for murder?” she asked, and I felt almost guilty about how easy this was.
“He surely is,” I said, disguising that no part of me wanted to slander Gladstone for that. I’d seen killers. Sat across from them. As a young agent, I was part of a team that hauled a child murderer out of the suburbs and into the back of a car. I’ve heard men order hits over the phone. I’ve tracked the emails of men in suits, ending lives as easily as purchasing stock and for the same goal of making money.
But I also watched Gladstone for over a month. I watched him eat. I watched him break down. I watched him hold on to tiny shreds of his dignity, cobbling pieces of himself together over and over until they resembled the shape of a man. And he did it all knowing they’d be blown down again. I could call Gladstone many unpleasant things: delusional, arrogant, irritating, ineffectual but I couldn’t call him a murderer. Even without those bullshit ballistics and cremation reports. Even without the neighbors I interviewed who said they’d heard a helicopter the day Romaya was shot. I had sat with Gladstone and I knew my suspects. But the big murder display got Oz talking. What she knew anyway.
“Yeah, he came to see me, but I know fuck-all about murder. He just kept calling me Oz and babbling about the Internet, and some name. Rome? Something weird.”
“Romaya?” I offered.
“Yeah, that’s it. Fuck kind of name is that?”
“His ex-wife’s. Now deceased.”
“Yeah, well that’s it. Wanted me to go off with him. Run away.”
“Why didn’t you?”
“Because he was babbling nonsense. He scared me. And he was broke.”
“Did you remember him from the Internet?” I asked.
“Did you tell him that?”
“Good,” I said. “He’s suffered enough.” I stood up and put a hundred dollars in her hand before leaving. “Anything else you can tell me?” I asked, and she grabbed her purse to hide the money as quickly as possible.
“Um, would this be helpful?” she asked, pulling out a business card. “Another American came looking for Gladstone a few days after he saw me.”
The business card read PRAGUE ROCK PRODUCTIONS, MARGO ZMENA, OWNER/CEO.
* * *
The bartender returned with my Johnnie Walker and took my twenty. I tried to stare at Margo in a way that would get her attention, but failed. “I just got back from Australia,” I said. “Ever been?”
“I have,” she said, realizing there’d be no point in lying about something I already knew. Instead, she changed the subject. “Didn’t anyone ever tell you it’s bad manners to wear your hat indoors?”
“Oh, this?” I said, removing the fedora and placing it on the bar to the left of my drink. “It’s not mine.”
“Whose is it?”
“I think you know that, Ms. Zmena.”
The bartender dropped eleven bucks’ change on the bar. A five and six ones. He was no dummy. I pushed two forward, and Margo spoke up. “Another vodka soda please, Harry,” she said. “This one’s on him.”
“Ms. Zmena, you don’t have to talk to me. You’re smart enough to know that. So why don’t I just tell you what I think I’ve already figured out. And maybe if you’re impressed enough with my detective work, and you like me enough as a person, and the liquor’s good enough, you’ll reward me with some honesty.”
“Sure,” she said. “And don’t worry. If I’m not impressed, I’ll just blame the alcohol to spare your feelings.”
“The hat belongs to Wayne Gladstone, and according to his journal, his grandfather before him. But as I said, you know that. You know that because you’ve read his journal. As an L.A. resident, you were probably one of the first to read his Notes from the Internet Apocalypse when it took off. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if you even attended one of his Messiah Meetings at the Hash Tag, where he first assembled the Net Reclamation Movement in an effort, somehow, to find a group of people to return the Internet.”
She recrossed her legs and I did my best not to notice, because I’m sure she felt hungry eyes all the time. “How’m I doing?” I asked.
“One second,” she said, and took a sip of her new vodka and soda. “Well, so far the alcohol’s fine.”
“Fair enough, Ms. Zmena,” I said. “So anyway, here you are. Thirty-five years old, starting your own production company—I’m a little iffy on that part—and here comes a story about an Internet Apocalypse and a would-be Internet Messiah. I’m guessing you went to Australia to option the rights to Gladstone’s story. I’m not sure where your money’s coming from, but I think you sunk it in Gladstone for a score.”
Just then the twentysomething in the window seat started complaining. He wasn’t pleased with the Kung Pao Chicken.
“What’s this?” he asked the waiter, pointing to a very specific part of his plate.
“Bean sprouts,” the waiter replied.
He grabbed the menu. “Show me,” he said. “See? Chicken, onions, red pepper, peanuts. Where does it say bean sprouts?”
“They’re on top? Would you like me just to remove them?”
“I’m sorry, sir,” the waiter said.
“I just should have been warned,” he said, and segregated the sprouts from the rest of his experience as the waiter returned to the kitchen.
Margo used the interruption as an opportunity to shift focus. “Is that really Gladstone’s hat?” she asked.
“I found it at the LAX lost and found, and the blood I had cleaned from it matched his late ex-wife’s, so odds are good.”
“Why didn’t the police have it as evidence?”
“Yeah, why didn’t the police have it as evidence? And why don’t I work for the FBI anymore?”
She ran her long fingers around the end of the brim, pretending there was something to discover by touch. “You think Gladstone was set up?” she asked.
She still didn’t trust me enough to speak. But she had a tell. Her trust revealed itself with a slight tilt of the head. Like the curve of her tiny smile even if her lips seemed to stay straight and silent. I could see her comparing me to the predatory animal Gladstone had unfairly portrayed me as in his journal.
“And what about these bombs going off? Think he has anything to do with that?”
Things had started exploding after Gladstone’s journal went paper viral. First figuratively, with photocopies being passed around from person to person, and the sketch drawing of a Wi-Fi symbol wearing an M-shaped fedora on the book’s cover page popping up as graffiti—especially with FREE THE MESSIAH written under it while he was in captivity under the NET Recovery Act. But things started blowing up literally after we let him out. People had died. Senseless acts of terrorism, and usually accompanied by the Messiah symbol. The dead ex-wife was only one part of what sent him running.
“I’ve not seen one thing about Gladstone, in terms of evil intent or even organizational skills, that would lead me to believe he has either the desire or the ability to cause that kind of destruction.”
It was the perfect thing to say to Margo, and it had the added benefit of being true. She titled her head. “Anyway,” I continued, “I got your card from a lovely Australian named Melody Andrews. Y’know … Oz?”
“Yes, I met Melody,” she said, fully aware she still hadn’t told me anything I didn’t already know.
“May I ask how you found her?”
She laughed. “Really? After all that, that’s the part that’s stumped you?”
I downed my drink and flagged Harry for another, swapping my card for the bills on the counter.
“You’re blushing,” she said.
“Must be the booze. I get red sometimes.”
“Y’know,” she said with an actual smile, “I think Gladstone was way too hard on you in his journal.”
“I know, right?” I laughed. That’s how she conceded all my hunches were correct. In the form of an almost compliment.
“So, Former Agent Rowsdower,” she said, “buy me one more drink and I’ll let you call me Margo. I’ve always hated the way ‘Ms. Zmena’ sounds like ‘misdemeanor,’ and coming off your lips, it’s especially bad.”
“OK, Margo.” I waved at Harry, pointing to Margo’s empty glass. “I’m Aaron.”
“How do you think I found Oz?” she asked. “She’s a prostitute. I offered money. Just posted a bunch of ‘have you seen this man’ postings around the shadier parts of Perth and she found me.”
“And how did you know to go to Australia?”
“Same as you, I suppose. I’d read his book. Where else would he go?”
“And you bought the rights to his story?”
“Enough for him to get away. Start a life. He had nothing. It would have been very easy to take advantage of him, but I didn’t.”
“And you won’t tell me where to find him?”
“I don’t know. He has my card if he needs to contact me, but I don’t know where he’s gone or what he’ll do.”
“One more question,” I said, and she waited. “The weather said thunderstorms all day. Why didn’t you bring an umbrella?”
“Why didn’t you?”
“I had a hat.”
“Well, I never use them,” she said, but then downed her drink and added, “people who use umbrellas are always the last to know when it’s stopped raining.”
I would have tipped my hat, but it wasn’t mine, and it was already resting on the bar. I would have done a lot of things, but that’s when an explosion went off. It was so big it shook us from our stools, blowing out all the windows. Car alarms pierced even the ringing in my ears. From my knees, I saw the twentysomething on the floor. He wasn’t moving, and Margo was trying to stand, pressing her fingers just below her collarbone, blood spreading through her blouse like a marker held against paper.
Copyright © 2016 by Wayne Gladstone