The Lafayette Deception, Chap. 11: I Guess I’ve Just Got to be Frank with You

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Courtesy WikipediaFrank shook his head in disbelief as he turned his radio off. Who could have predicted that talking heads on the evening news would ever look to Fidel Castro to provide a cogent assessment of an American primary season? Frank might be having a hard time starting a non-fiction book about cybersecurity, but thank goodness he hadn’t set out to write a satire about this bizarre election season. How would you parody a parody? All you could do would be to quote the actual candidates. Anyway, that wasn’t his problem.

What he was wrestling with at the moment was what to do when he got to Iowa. Heading to where the political action was had seemed like a great idea when he first turned east. It wasn’t until he crossed into Colorado that it occurred to him that a caucus state would offer next to no opportunities for a hacker to corrupt the voting results.

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How could there be? Votes would be hand-tallied in school cafeterias and public libraries while the voters were still hanging around. Those tallies would then be telephoned in for manual addition to a master list that would be reprinted in newspapers. Any attempt to tamper with the totals – and the person responsible – would be spotted immediately.
Maybe he should be heading for New Hampshire, where actual voting machines would be involved?  But the New Hampshire primary was still ten days away. That would be a long time to hang around with nothing in particular to do once he got there. Better to chill in Iowa for a couple of days and hope to catch the scent of something in the wind there that he might miss otherwise. Or maybe the hackers had given up for good. In that case it would be a shorter trip back to the southwest. No sense being cold as well as frustrated if he wasn’t getting anywhere.
– 0000 – 0001 – 0010 – 0011 0100 0011 – 0010 – 0001 – 0000
It was a busy Friday night at Max’s Stockyard Steak House in Chicago. The well known local establishment was packed, and as always, Max was standing at one of the several vantage points he would frequent throughout the evening, taking in the carefully orchestrated bustle of the main dining room. He took pride in the excellent service for which his establishment was deservedly known. There was no better way to safeguard that reputation than for each of his employees to feel his critical eyes incessantly surveying the room.
Overhead, orange lights flickered in ranch lanterns attached to wagon wheel chandeliers, and longhorn cattle horns graced the walls. Across, the room, the noise level was already rising behind the shoulder-high, faux horse stall walls that separated the bar from the dining room. Max glanced at his watch with satisfaction: every table was full, and it wasn’t yet 6:30. It would be another good night.
Tonight, he was paying particular attention tonight to the hostess, and to the waitstaff entering and exiting through the door that led to the private dining room. Needless to say, he wanted everything to come off without a hitch for the special party that had reserved it this evening, so he walked swiftly to the door when he noticed two men in dark suits appear in the vestibule. Each carried what looked like an oversize, hard-shelled briefcase.
“Good evening gentlemen. Are you with Mr. Barbash’s party?”
“Yes. We’re here to check the room out before he arrives.”
“Of course, of course. May I take your coats and bags?”
“We’ll hang on to them, thanks.”
Of course, he thought. How stupid of him. “Let me show you the way.”
He escorted them along the side of the dining room, and then held the door as the two men entered the private dining room. He snapped his fingers to attract the attention of the waiters that had just finished setting the table. When they looked his way, he gave a slight jerk of his head towards the door. Obligingly, they disappeared. They were his best employees.
“If you need anything, please don’t hesitate to let me know.”
“We’ll be fine, thanks. Can we lock that door from the inside?”
“Why yes, you can.”
“Fine. We’ll be finished by the time Mr. Barbash arrives.”
As Max closed the door quietly behind him, he could see one man holding something in his hand at shoulder level, walking slowly along the wall of the room. As soon as the door had closed, Max heard the click of the lock sliding into place.
– 0000 – 0001 – 0010 – 0011 0100 0011 – 0010 – 0001 – 0000
Frank wheeled his camper into the parking lot of the first motel he found after leaving the highway, a Holiday Inn. It was late, he was tired, and the appeal of standing under a shower with unlimited amounts of hot water had been growing since he had left Arizona. The parking lot was crammed with vehicles, some of which were vans with telescoping video uplink dishes towering improbably high overhead. Finally, he parked under the portico and walked up to the desk.
“Hi. Have you got a room for one?”
“As a matter of fact, I do. But if you’d walked in any other time today, the answer would have been ‘no.’ I just got a cancellation not two minutes ago.” 
“Then I guess it’s my lucky day. Is it this bad all over Iowa?”
“Depends on where the candidates are. Tomorrow there’s a debate at our community college, so every place in town is sold out for the weekend.”
Frank felt less lucky when he heard the artificially elevated room rate. But it was late, the next town was another thirty miles down the road, and who knew whether he’d have any better luck there? Anyway, he’d come here to be in the thick of things, so what could he expect?
Soon, he was luxuriating in the steam of a shower putting out a vigorous and environmentally unfriendly flood of hot water. Ten minutes later, he was feeling reborn, and also ravenous. He almost jogged back to the lobby, and then through the door of the motel’s restaurant. But it was jammed.
“An hour wait at least,” the hostess informed him. “Do you want to give me your name, or check out the lounge first? You might find something there.”
“Thanks, I’ll give that a try.”
The lounge was packed as well, but just then someone vacated a seat at the bar, and Frank beat the competition to the prize.  He squeezed himself in between two other patrons, wondering how long it would take the overtaxed kitchen to produce a cheeseburger. 
He was studying the bar menu when he heard a voice on his right. “So who are you with?”
“I’m sorry?”
“Which team do you play for? Candidate? Paper? Cable?”
“Oh – Okay. Well, actually, I guess just “voter,” and not a Republican one, at that.”
“Well, then what the hell are you doing in this God forsaken hole?”
Clearly his interlocutor had been defending his position at the bar for some time. Frank decided that offering a neutral answer was his best bet.
“Pretty much just passing through, but I hear there’s a debate here tomorrow night. I’ve got some spare time, so I might stick around for that.”
His seatmate snorted. “Well, it’ll be a circus, I grant you that. If you haven’t seen one before, in person and with your own eyes, it might be hard to believe it isn’t all cooked up by the media. See as many as I have, though, and you’ll take covering a natural disaster every time, even if the power goes out.
“So you’re in the media, then?”
“Not as you’re probably thinking about it. I’m just a lighting roadie for Pox news. That’s why I’m sitting here at the bar instead of ordering room service, like the guys who wear the microphones.”
Frank tried to get his mind to focus. Here was someone who had been following the campaign first hand – just the type of person he should be talking to.  But what sorts of questions should he be asking? Maybe he could work his way in from the outside and figure that out as he went along.
“So what do you think about all those swings in the polls leading up to the primaries?”
“Well, there’s only two possible explanations, right? Either the American people are crazy, or those polls were rigged.”
Frank immediately perked up. “So which one do you think is right?”
His companion looked like he thought Frank was crazy. “You serious?”
Frank felt excited. He’d only been here an hour, and already he was making progress.
“Well, sure. And who do you think would be behind it?”
The man laughed out loud and looked at him in disbelief.
“Brother, if you’d spent as long as I have around these loonies, you’d know only one answer makes sense. Each one of these candidates is crazier than the next, sure, but the good citizens that are likely to come out and vote for them this year are crazier than the whole bunch put together!”
The bartender put Frank’s cheeseburger down in front of him, and the two ate in silence for awhile. Then the other man suddenly spoke up again.
“But I will tell you this. Something is going on. I just can’t tell exactly what.”
Frank’s hopes rose again. “What do you mean, ‘going on?’ What is it you’re noticing?”
“I don’t really know. I mean I do, but it’s hard to figure out what to make of it.  Something just isn’t right with the latest front runner. This is the third presidential campaign I’ve covered, and nothing about this guy Wellhead makes sense.”
“How do you mean?”
“Well, here’s an example.  You see those guys over there in the corner?”
Frank looked over his shoulder and saw a half dozen men and women sitting and standing around a table, laughing and joking.
“And that other group at the end of the bar?”
Frank saw a similar group, obviously enjoying themselves. 
“Okay. And the point would be?”
“The point is this. Look over there in the dining room. You see the folks around that round table over there, the one next to the wall?”
Frank looked. Seven serious looking men, all wearing suits, were talking intently, each leaning in slightly to hear each other over the noise welling up from the tables crowding in around them.
“Looks like a fun bunch. Who are they? And who are the other ones?”
“The first group is Julian Johnson’s handlers, and the second is Roxy Rollins.’ Now which candidate do you suppose that third bunch pledges allegiance to?”
“I guess it would have to be Davenport, right? They all look like pretty straitlaced Ivy League types.”
“You’d think so, wouldn’t you?  Well, how ‘bout if I told you they were Br’er Wellhead’s boys?”
Frank turned and looked again with surprise.
Those guys?” Have they ever listened to him? I never thought about it before, but if I had, I would have expected his troops to be wearing cowboy hats sooner than ties.”
“Funny, isn’t it? And you know what, everybody else he travels with looks the same way. Never seen so many politicos wearing dark glasses in my life.”
– 0000 – 0001 – 0010 – 0011 0100 0011 – 0010 – 0001 – 0000
After a month in the single berth of his camper, Frank yearned for the soft sheets of the king bed in his motel room. But he also wanted to see what more he could find out about Randall Wellhead’s staff before he went to sleep. But the Wifi connection in the motel was crawling, with so many media people trying to log in to their home networks, so Frank was perched once again at the cramped desk of his camper.
He had trouble finding anything useful, though, given the thousands of news items and blog entries on each candidate. And what search request should he use, anyway? “’Randall Wellhead’ AND ‘men in black?’”
Eventually, he did find some chatter along the lines of what the man in the bar had shared. But it was all from early on in the campaign. Those first impressions had all been remarked upon long ago, so whatever eyebrows the Wellhead team had raised had long since relaxed. 
After a half hour of fruitless searching Frank was ready to call it a night. He shut down his computer and returned to his room. But halfway through brushing his teeth, he suddenly had a thought. Damn. He hadn’t remembered to check his email, and he also hadn’t heard from his daughter in days. That wasn’t like her.
With a sigh he turned around and went back to the camper. He turned on the overhead light, and with a pop the light bulb burned out. Damn again. He found a flashlight, turned on his laptop, and waited for his email to download.
Two minutes later, he was still waiting. What was going on?
He opened a browser, and that took forever to connect, too.
That was strange; he hoped none of his equipment was failing. He checked the transmission speed of his connection, and was surprised to see that it was just fine. Was his carrier having problems?
He checked the company’s webmaster support page, but there were no issue alerts to be seen. Maybe the broader Internet was having problems. But there was nothing to be found on the appropriate Internet boards, either. So unless the issue had arisen in just the last few minutes, the problem must be at his end. He opened a diagnostic package and saw to his surprise that his connection was transmitting data at a prodigious rate.
But how could that be? He didn’t have any software that should be automatically updating or backing up at that hour of the day. So what could his system be up to? Sure enough, nothing was on his laptop or his server was connecting to the Internet at all.

That left only one possible explanation, and that one didn’t make any sense at all. Or at least he hoped it didn’t. But there it was nonetheless: someone within fifty yards of his camper must have hacked into his very own, personally configured, super secure system.

 – 0000 – 0001 – 0010 – 0011 0100 0011 – 0010 – 0001 – 0000 –

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Comments (3)

  1. Thank you for finding the time to write this latest installment. Your efforts are appreciated.

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