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an excerpt from
Safe House
by Andrew Vachss
pages 217-219


Safe House, a Burke novel by Andrew Vachss"I was looking for somebody else," the plump girl with the granny glasses and frizzy hair said softly, her back to me. Her eyes were locked onto a computer screen. A large one, vibrating with the brilliant colors of the ads they made you wade through before the Web browser she was using would start to work.

"On one of the Survivor boards?" Lorraine asked.

"No," the plump girl said, still not turning around, Crystal Beth, Lorraine and me all standing in a fan behind her. "I was trying to reach a ... warrior."

"You wanted something done?" I asked her, playing her for a battered wife, looking for a hit man on one of those wannabe mercenary boards.

"No! I wanted to ... talk. About what ... happened to me. I thought he'd ... understand. I thought he'd talk to me."

"And he turned out to be ...?" I prompted her gently.

"It wasn't him," she said. "It was ... I don't know who it was. But it wasn't him."

I spread my hands in a "What the hell is she talking about?" gesture to the women standing on either side of me.

"He pretended to be someone else?" Crystal Beth asked.

"Not the one I was looking ... I mean, I don't ... He read my posting. And he e-mailed me that he was a fighter. Against ... them."

"People like your ...?"

"Father. Yes! Okay? My father. He had his own website. All kinds of stories about him from different magazines and stuff. How he rescued ... girls. Little girls. He was a hero."

I got it then. The real danger of the Internet isn't just kiddie porn, or Lonely Hearts killers or race-hate filth or wacko conspiracy theories. Ever since the Polaroid camera and the videocam, once criminals saw the commercial possibilities, kiddie porn has flourished. People were lured into fatal meetings with correspondence lovers a hundred years ago. The race-haters would always have their shortwave networks and fax chains. And loonies never needed electronic assistance.

No, the seduction is of a whole generation of young people who affect that oh-so-blasť cynicism about anything that's in the newspapers or on TV, but lose all skepticism once it comes up on the Sacred Net. They never heard of fact-checking; they don't even understand the concept of sourcing. Any freak can create a "magazine," become a "journalist," and write an article about himself. Then he can post the article on some topic-related Web page, provide a link to his site and, bingo—he's whatever he wants to be. Instant credibility with the latest class of volunteer victim ... cyber-chumps.

"Leave us alone," Lorraine said to me, pushing hard against my chest. I stepped back, toward the door to the plump girl's bedroom. When I had almost reached the threshold, Lorraine made a "stay there!" gesture. Then she moved close to the plump girl, dropping one hand onto her shoulder. "Did you ever meet him?" Lorraine asked.

"No. First I had to ..."

"Tell him ...?" Lorraine left it open.

"Yes. Tell him. Everything. So he could help me."

"And then?"

"Exercises."

"Like a kata?" Crystal Beth asked.

"Huh?" the plump girl replied, clearly confused. Lorraine made a traffic cop's motion with her hand, telling Crystal Beth to shut up. "A re-enactment?" she asked, voice so low I could barely hear her.

"Yes. He said it was to ... give him information. So he could understand. He said he was going to ..."

Nobody said anything. The plump girl stared at the screen, her hand playing with the mouse, moving it around on the desktop, clicking it on and off randomly as the screen jumped in response. We stayed silent, watching her search. I didn't know what she was looking for, but I knew she'd never find it.

"I did it," she finally said. "But nothing happened. To my ... father. I did everything he said. Everything. I did it all again. Even the ... pictures. But nothing happened."

I kept waiting for her to crack. To break down, cry, smash her fist against the desk. Anything.

All she did was click the mouse and stare at the screen.

"Anyone can make up stuff on the Net," Lorraine said. "You have to—"

"I checked him out!" the plump girl said sharply. "I e-mailed other girls ... that he helped. And I saw this story they did on him and everything."

"Anyone can have a few different e-mail addresses," Lorraine told her gently. "Anyone can—"

"I know," the plump girl interrupted. "Don't you think I know that. But I know there's heroes out there. Just waiting for me."

"You open that modem, you're spreading your legs," Lorraine said harshly. "It's too easy to go in disguise. Cyberspace is full of identity thieves. They can pretend to be anyone they want—you'll never know the truth. And 'e-mail'"—Lorraine's voice now venom-coated—"what the fuck is that? You think it's so 'intimate,' don't you? But it's not private. Every keystroke is recorded, don't you understand? It goes from you to a central bank to the other person. And there's people with keys to that central bank. And people who can intercept even while you're online."

"I—" the plump girl started to protest.

"There's people who can help you," Lorraine said. "We can help you. Just stay off the Net, okay?"

"I can't," the plump girl said, eyes never leaving the screen.

© 1998 Andrew Vachss. All rights reserved.



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