The Bazaar: Chapter 6

“Black Screen of Death”

Their hotel room should have been wired.

But when Faisal switched from the lobby surveillance system to the channel that should have had the feed from the room he found nothing, just a black screen and a curt message informing him of no channel output, to please check his hardware configuration. A Black Screen of Death.

He dialed in on his lens to be sure.

The same message materialized across his vision in shimmering blue letters: No output, please check hardware config.

Faisal slammed a fist off the table. “Where the fuck is my feed?”

It was a difficult thing, to turn around and face your critics. Particularly when they were AK-wielding narco militants with a festering case of small-dick syndrome. They stood huddled behind him, chattering furiously in pidgen Spanish.

Faisal knew they were important as soon as they stepped into his shack. There was a clear hierarchy out here in the jungle. You could tell a person’s class by his clothes.

Natives were lowest of the low. They wore whatever rags they could scrounge. They weren’t members of the Liberation Front or the cartels, just cheap labor (cheap labor = slave labor). They worked the refineries spread throughout the jungle, where they turned large volumes of coca leaves into refined cocaine bound for Europe and America. They were kitchen staff, pack animals and occasionally human mine detectors. The narcos/rebels recruited and managed them at gunpoint.

Next up the chain came foot soldiers and site managers. These guys got actual clothes, but their outfits were a bizarre mix of donated items from less-impoverished nations. One guard standing in the shack wore shirt with block red, white and blue lettering across the front boldly trumpeting the New England Patriots Superbowl XLII win and undefeated season.

Faisal had seen those shirts before: Palestine, Libya, Egypt, Zimbabwe, the Congos. All over the world the downtrodden and destitute were wearing sports history’s great might-have-beens, each a tiny window on a parallel universe where it went the other way.

Eat that, many-worlds theory.

The bulk of the men milling behind Faisal, however, were the highest-ranking narcos: military and political leadership. You could tell them a long way off because they had actual military uniforms (olive drab ensembles vaguely reminiscent of the Castro brothers). Faisal swore he spotted a few Israeli Defense Force castoffs in the mix. Beside them, set slightly apart, was Don Carlos in his white linen suit, smoking Turkish cigarettes out of a camel-bone holder.

Really Faisal could give a shit about the narco big shots.

Don Carlos was a different story. Don Carlos had friends outside the jungle: Abu Nidal, Army of Islam, Hamas, Hezbollah, Iranian Quds (who Ahmed felt ought to have grown the balls to wash their own dirty sheets by now), the Party of Free Life of Kurdistan, al-Qaida and its various and sundry subsidiaries (AQAP, AQIM, AQASEAN), Ansar Dine, ETA, even some warmed-over bits of Irish Republican Army for good measure.

Also Don Carlos reminded Faisal of his father. He had a firm handshake. He did business in person. Faisal’s father did his best work in the souqs. He tore Faisal away from his terminal for whole afternoons to explain arbitrage, smoking hand-rolled cigarettes forcing his son to sprint from stall to stall with handfuls of cash to prove how fast you had to be to make money this way. Well-intentioned maybe. But he never quite grasped that Faisal already understood arbitrage (definition & practice), and that Faisal really spent those afternoons wondering why the fuck he would ever run back and forth between money changers’ stalls like a madman when every major currency exchange in the world had the good sense to use computers.

Faisal cranked his neck around and shouted over his shoulder. “How the fuck am I supposed to know when the broker shows up if I don’t have a feed? Did I tell I was psychic? I don’t think so. I can’t see through space and time. Do I look like fucking Nostradamus to you?”

Paolo, his translator, looked to Don Carlos for direction.

Don Carlos ashed his cigarette.

Faisal’s face flushed. “Translate that!”

Don Carlos said something in Spanish that was most definitely not Faisal’s rant about not being psychic. The thing Faisal never understood about Don Carlos (by association his own father) was how a well-organized guy with so much ambition could sit back and take this kind of bullshit in stride. It was sloppy. It was unprofessional. It was the reason the Russians and Chinese couldn’t stand to work with Latins and Arabs. All the hacking talent in the world didn’t mean shit if your guys couldn’t plug in a USB cable.

If Faisal were in Don Carlos’ shoes he’d chainsaw the flunkies to pieces and feed them to his pet alligators.

Mistakes like this destroyed reputations, and in this business reputation was more important than money, sex and health. Reputation was life.

Bad enough these primitive assholes had him running the sting off old-fashioned hardware: custom-built PCs, a couple all-in-one flat screens, an old push-button keyboard banged all to hell with an ambiguous stain on the space bar.

A step back in time for the clients’ benefit, Don Carlos had explained. The customer was always right. Apparently even if that involved stepping so far back in time you slowed the ops to a snail’s space so the clients could wrap their tiny minds around it.

Faisal preferred direct data links so Don Carlos didn’t have to bother with a lot of ungainly explanation and narration. It was generally easier to show than tell. But here the clients were so dense that just wasn’t possible. None of them were wired. Not a single augmented brain among them. Explaining ops was like teaching cavemen to use a particle accelerator. For these guys the net existed on screens and inside hardware: mobile handsets, laptops, tablets, televisions. They were living in the past. In the late twentieth century, actually. They belonged in a museum.

“How am I supposed to do my job if they don’t do theirs?” Faisal asked. “It’s in the contract, isn’t it? It’s not our fault if they fuck up.”

Don Carlos held up a hand, which was Don Carlos for shut up kid. “Send the shooters anyway,” he said.

Faisal sighed, turned back to his hardware and punched RETURN on his antique keyboard.

Fuck this, he thought.

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