Your mind plays tricks on you.
It goes back to your childhood. Everything seems to go back to your childhood. You made some unconscious assumptions during those formative years, when your brain was still learning how to turn a relentless assault of information into tangible memories.
You were standing tall on what your school called a jungle gym (but was actually a bunch of busted trailer-truck tires all fastened together). You were maybe eight years old. Your stupid unconscious self, in that moment, decided to associate summer heat with the deafening drone of cicadas.
Now you’re a grown-up person standing sixty stories over the city of Houston, Texas, and you hear cicadas.
You’re a scientist, dammit. Pull your shit together! The sixtieth floor of this particular office building is not home to any cicadas.
Well. Maybe a few cicadas, just because that’s how probability works. Quantum cicadas tunneling from sea level to the sixtieth floor of this particular office building. One cicada, along with a iridescent Egyptian scarab love interest, living out the third act to some Pixar story about wayward bugs.
You’re a scientist, dammit. Zero percent chance isn’t in your vernacular. That said, the symphony of bug sex noises is definitely in your head and not in this executive office space.
Why now, you’re wondering. Why do you hear the cicadas now?
It was certainly hot outside thirty minutes ago, when you made your way from the top of that parking garage down to the tunnel leading to this particular skyscraper. That would have been a great time for your subconscious mind to play cicadas.
But that was thirty minutes ago. You’ve already downed two bottles of cold Fiji water, and you’re pretty sure the receptionist would gladly fetch you another if you asked. You’re comfortable enough, heat-wise.
Does it look hot on the other side of the pane glass? Not particularly. Everything looks small and flat.
“Miss?” a voice that only recently became familiar beckons from outside your head.
You turn from the window and offer the receptionist the first smile that comes to mind. It’s an inappropriately excited smile. She opens a courteous, toothy beacon of a smile in response.
“Mr. Green will see you now” slips through a wall of white teeth.
You were hoping that such a sudden interruption would mute the cicadas, like the abrupt cuts from internal monologue used for effect in television and film. You were assuming that mental illness follows some sort of considerate pattern the way television and film all stick to the same tired tropes.
But mental illness has no lesson to offer, they told you. It’s not trying to artfully juxtapose the chaos of your personal experience with the tranquility and professionalism of the outside world. It’s just cicadas, in your head.
You’re a pattern person, dammit. A scientist-turned-auditor. You notice the patterns in television and film. You notice the local maxima and minima in data sets that span across all time and space.
So, then, why do you think you’re ready to go back to work?
— — —
There’s a three-dimensional histogram in your mind. Two poisson-like mountains stand side-by-side in the center, blending into one another to form a shape that looks like a lima bean when viewed from the top-down.
This graph represents the even distribution of cushion supporting the weight of your behind.
That is how your mind manifests the notion that most people would vocalize as “Oh my god, this is the most comfortable chair I have ever sat in.” There are no localized extremes. The peaks of your ass are supported evenly.
“Doctor? Doctor? What are you thinking about, Doctor?”
You tell him the chair is very comfortable.
The concern washes from the younger man’s face and you see him lean back in his own chair, which appears to be a larger model of the same chair you’re sitting in. He smiles at you, proudly. You wonder what it is with this place and smiles.
“Oh, I’m glad you like it.”
You break eye contact and you find yourself staring down at his fingers, which are drumming one by one against the edge of his armrest.
“These were special-order from an office furniture supply shop that only accepts payment in gold bullion. Something about Swedish exchange rates, I think. But if you ask me, they were worth every ounce.”
You ask this younger-than-you executive if you can have a chair like this at your desk.
“Um,” he begins, and you identify that same concerned look again. “Don’t you at least want to know a little more about what we need from you?”
What they need from you.
You’re a liability, dammit. He’s pretending that he needs your help, but you know that’s a statistically impossible position to maintain.
You’re crazy. You hear cicadas in executive offices. You spent two years jumping from facility to facility being inspected pro-bono by people who specialize in crazy, just for the opportunity to see someone as crazy as you.
There are other people who can do what you do. You’re just the crazy one. He doesn’t need anything from you.
You’re crazy, and he must be crazy, too.
So, you nod a few times.
He places his hand on a piece of paper and flips it around from his side of the desk to face you.
You look down and ask for a pen.
“You should really read it first,” he advises in a tone that you’ve heard a lot over the past two years.
You tell him you have already read it. You tell him that you agree to the terms of non-disclosure. You tell him the compensation plan seems fair. You tell him there’s a typographical error on line fifteen, but that you’ll correct it and initial the line to verify your consent.
He smiles and hands you the pen.
“Like, I know it was silly of me to throw that in there, but I wanted to see for myself before we went any further.”
After you’ve signed the document and initialed the mistake-line, you slide the contract back across the desk. The young executive whose embossed placard reads GREEN stands up and your eyes follow him across the room.
“Okay, so here’s the deal,” he says to refocus your attention, and now he’s marking words on a large notepad set upon an easel.
You read your name, “Dr. Felicia Tuff,” and he punctuates it with a single underline. You read the name of his company, “Shanks Energy,” next to yours and also punctuated with a single underline.
A table. Your mind turns over memories of tables trillions of rows long and trillions of columns wide. This table has two columns and no rows. Or maybe, you postulate, this is two one-column tables. But then how—
“We have a few things in common,” he’s speaking into the board as he writes SCANDAL on top of the invisible line separating your data from his company’s.
Your face tightens into a visible cringe. Why couldn’t he have written the word SCANDAL once under each column? Or drawn a third table with a key-value pair?
This is bad data management, you think. No wonder they need your help.
“You have endured scandal for some time, Dr. Tuff. Between the mental breakdown and the testimony of all those doctors. All highly public. All highly damaging, as we both know.”
You know. It’s fair to assume that he knows, too.
“But you’re not alone. Shanks, too, is in the midst of a scandal. We’re using all of the resources at our disposal to put it to rest, but we can only do so much, you know?”
Oh, you know.
You know about those tearful phone calls. You know about being curled up on the cold tile floor of your kitchen, begging reporters and producers and television executives not to trade your professional credibility for a juicy-sounding, easy-to-spin story.
You know all too well about how much you can do in the face of certain scandal.
“You need a job. You need to begin rebuilding the trust of CIOs like me. And as much as we would rather go with someone younger and with a cleaner, uh, track record, Shanks needs you.”
He draws a big circle around Shanks and you.
You have a lot of questions, but the one question that escapes the frenzied system of anxiety and sadness in your head is the shortest one. You look up at him from your incredibly comfortable chair and you ask why.
The young executive begins to tell you the story of Lester Holmes. It’s a familiar story.
You already understand that IT administrators wield a completely disproportionate amount of power in mid-sized oil and gas companies. You worked in the industry long enough to know they’re generally clustered dots on the top-right edge of a scatter plot charting qualities of sleaze and ego.
So you tune out the beginning of the story to instead calculate, in your head, the respective probabilities of different reasons why Lester Holmes was a problem for Shanks Energy. Embezzlement: 12%. Storing child pornography on company servers: 15%. Blackmail: 21%.
The words “about seventeen million dollars” jolt you back into the moment.
“Lester Holmes not only used Shanks’ IT resources but also the home computers of its employees and the vast computing resources of Shanks’ trusted business partners to mine about seventeen million dollars worth of Bitcoins into a personal wallet.”
How is that a scandal, you ask.
“That’s not the whole story,” the young executive flatly admits to you, pacing from the easel to his desk with his focus aimed down at the floor.
“I mean it’s bad, yeah, but it’s not what we’d call a scandal. We were ready to throw him under the bus bigtime in order to maintain some level of trust with our clients and staff. The scandal started when Lester freaked out about going to jail and gave himself a heart attack.”
You figure it out. At that precise moment, you figure out what you have to offer Shanks Energy, and why they picked you of all people.
You say it out loud.
You tell the young executive that you know Shanks wants you to find the digital key to that seventeen million dollars, which an egoist like Lester Holmes would have stored somewhere on his company workstation. You know they want you, Dr. Felicia Tuff, to do it because they can trust you not to steal the wallet. They know that everything comes second to rebuilding your reputation, even seventeen million dollars.
You say it and you wonder if their own assumption about you is correct.
“Our lawyers and the Feds came to an agreement,” he continues with a tacit confirmation of your stated assumptions. “So if we can get the wallet in escrow by the end of the day, they’ll get out of our hair and this whole thing will blow over.”
Now you’re thinking about the cost of failure. You’re thinking about risk and reward.
You’ve done this before, with all manners of law enforcement watching over your back. The pressure was never your problem. Everything comes naturally to you.
“So, will you find that private key for us?”
— — —
You really don’t like this chair.
This chair, positioned in front of a hive of dead monitors, provides you with no support. And how can you blame it? It is implied that this particular chair supported, until recently, the legendary weight of Lester Holmes.
You feel bad for the chair.
There are people watching you from over your shoulder. The young CIO is back there. You can hear him flirting with a reporter who introduced herself as Abbi but made a point not to provide you her last name or the name of her employer.
“I’m Abbi, reporter, with an ‘i,’” she said.
There are other people milling about behind you, too. An FBI agent with a plastic-looking black pompadour. An older gentleman from the Bitcoin clearinghouse. Lawyers who look and sound like lawyers.
Someone asks, “How’s she do it with the monitors off like that?” and someone else replies “We’re waiting for her to give us the signal, dumbass,” which is news to you.
You turn around and they’re all looking back at you with the same familiar face.
“Don’t mind them, sweetie,” your mother’s disembodied voice says, floating gently atop the neverending drone of cicadas in your head. “Just show them what you can do.”
It’s another one of those things from your childhood.
Another spot on local television. Or national television. Another game show pitting you against a half-dozen kids deemed “geniuses” by the non-academics who judge that sort of thing.
It was a routine. A pattern.
While Felicia.ageOf() < 18, perform miraculous feats of mathematical aptitude. Put on the dress your mother set out for you. Sit silently in the car next to your mother as she taxis you to the next television studio or school gymnasium or small stage set up in the atrium of a shopping mall.
“Don’t mind them, sweetie,” she would finally say to you after an audience was present to hear her. “Just show them what you can do.”
You never needed those words, though. They were just another part of the routine.
So now that you’ve heard your mom’s voice in your head, your mouth opens and you tell the small crowd that you’d like to begin.
“Mark time, 4:17 PM, July 14, 2016,” you hear the lawman say into his phone. “Auditor is Doctor Felicia Tuff, independent contractor. We’re turning on the workstation now.”
The intensity of all nine illuminated monitors draws you forward, inch by inch. This is the part of the routine you enjoy. This is why you kept doing this job.
You do this job despite the cicadas.
You do this job despite your mother’s disembodied voice.
You note the gesture bar centered under the monitors. You note the operating system running on the machine. You note that not much has changed in two years.
Staring into the void desktop, you ask the room how many simultaneous hand gestures are supported by this gesture bar.
“Ten digits plus six degrees of hand motion. New Dvorak gesture syntax, of course,” the CIO replies back.
That was the last thing you needed to know. You lean back again, allowing all nine monitors to fall inside the perimeter of your gaze. Your hands are now hovering over the gesture bar.
Tap, nudge, slide. Tap tap slide, spin nudge tap tap tap.
Twenty different shell prompts, all displayed before you across those nine monitors.
“Wow,” you hear someone say. “That’s...”
You’re working now. You’re unleashing a myriad of different commands into those command prompts. You’re taking in the stream of text returned by each window.
Dump text. Dump hex. Dump binary.
Pipe. Save. Save.
Dates, times, files, folders.
Tap, nudge, slide.
The young executive is now explaining, quite loudly, how you do your job while everyone watches you do your job.
“I mean, this is why you call in an auditor,” you hear him boast on your behalf. “It’s the combination of dexterity and sheer mental bandwidth.”
You don’t want to hear his voice anymore.
“The world’s full of people who can master hand gestures, sure. Hell, I’m pretty good with my hands.”
The reporter giggles.
“Mark time, 4:18 PM.”
You’ve learned a lot in one minute. Knowledge bubbles up into your conscious mind like the guttural burps of an office water cooler.
Embezzling. You see the pattern behind these seemingly unrelated accounting errors.
Insider trading. You see the pattern behind these seemingly unrelated messages.
Sexual harassment. Intellectual property theft. Tax evasion.
Misappropriation of funds assault suicide soliciting prostitutes gambling drugs extramarital affairs pornography animal cruelty shit on a desk.
“Mark time, 4:19 PM.”
Tears are streaming down your cheeks. You feel your heartbeat synchronizing with the rapidly shifting chirps of the cicadas. Your hand gestures have degraded from tuxedo-laden orchestral conduction to the twitchy jerks of some stringy-haired ghost from a Japanese horror film you never actually watched.
Someone says, “Don’t forget to breathe, doctor.”
You wouldn’t forget to breathe. You’ve done this before. You’re really good with numbers and patterns.
Patterns of abuse. Numerous unreported crimes.
You slam your hands down on the desk and grip the edge tightly. You let out a single defeated yelp and take in a gasp of air.
You found it. You found the Bitcoin wallet’s private key.
The old man from the clearinghouse doesn’t wait for you to relax. He steps forward and places a tablet computer in front of you. Your hot, wet eyes are drawn to the large antenna sticking out the left side of the device.
“Please type in the private key.”
So you do.
And moments later, you’re swept up in the earnest congratulations and heartfelt laughter of people who disgust you.
— — —
You emerge from the elevator onto the top story of the parking garage.
It’s still hot outside and the cicadas in your head are louder than ever.
It goes back to your childhood. Everything seems to go back to your childhood.
It was the beginning of summer, you remember, and it was hot outside. You were maybe eight years old, standing on top of that old, familiar jungle gym, and you looked out over the heaps of sand and rubber that your elementary school called a playground.
“Hey,” someone shouted at you from three jungle-gym stories below.
It was an older boy who you didn’t recognize. You remember thinking that was odd, because you were really good with faces and names. Faces and names were just keys and values to you.
“Hey,” he shouted at you again, “ain’t you that genius girl?”
You’ve never been good with words. That hasn’t really changed for you. But you’d heard the words “genius girl” often enough that, in that moment, you didn’t have to search hard for a response. You just nodded, instinctively.
“Frienda mine said you’d be here. Said that you like’ta watch everyone from up there.”
You told him you liked it up there because you could see everyone. You could count everyone from up there. You could watch the people move in and out of groups. You liked to watch the other kids make patterns.
“Patterns?” the boy asked.
Patterns and numbers make you happy. You told him that.
“Whatever. If you been watchin’ e’erbody, then where’s Russ hiding?”
You knew where Russ was hiding because you knew where everyone was at that particular moment.
Well, to be fair, you knew where he was, but it didn’t dawn on you that he was hiding. That boy was the one who used the word “hiding.” You just knew where he’d wandered off to.
“I’ll give ya somethin’ if ya tell me,” the boy continued, drawing a crumpled-up dollar bill from his jeans and offering it up to you in his dirty, upturned palm.
You didn’t even think. You just told the stranger that Russ had crawled under one of the trailers, pointing toward the row of double-wide classrooms set on cinderblocks in the distance.
The boy tossed the wad of money at you and ran off toward the row of trailers before you could say anything else. You climbed down and retrieved your payment.
You remember feeling proud, standing at the base of that black rubber castle, holding your dollar bill and realizing for the first time that your natural talents might be useful to people. Someone had thought they were useful enough to pay you.
You felt important. You felt more important than all those local television reporters who called you the “genius girl,” or all those old folks at church who called you the “smartest little angel” every Sunday morning.
With the dollar bill pushed deep into your own pocket, you reclaimed your perch atop Fort Skidmark once again and looked out toward the porta-classrooms.
Your first customer was pulling Russ out from under one of the trailers by his pant-leg.
Your focus narrowed. You were unaware of the goings-on around you. In that moment, all of your infinite attention to detail was sighted-in on the unfolding violence.
You remember the kicks and the jabs and the way Russ floundered and recoiled with each blow. You remember the intensity and fervor and purpose behind the older boy’s motion. You remember thinking that Russ was a nice kid.
Russ was a nice kid, like you. He was.
You remember hearing cicadas.
That was the first time you really noticed them.