C.M. West is the pseudonym for writing partners Carol Elkovich and Mark Butler behind the private eye story “True Match”. C.M. West has several published short mysteries featuring intrepid artist/sleuth Tru James.
Both authors are also visual artists, which informs their stories involving artists and fringe subcultures. Carol is also a professor at California College of the Arts. They live together in the San Francisco Bay Area with their son and two clownish Boston Terriers.
“It turns out we’re incompatible, scientifically speaking. I mean, you’re an amazing guy, Tru, but you know” — Grace continued walking down the street as she pulled her hair into a ponytail— “I trust the science.”
Completely blindsided, I stopped walking. “What science?”
She was about ten feet ahead before she paused. “You know, your DNA says you could develop colon cancer someday.” She walked back toward me. “I just can’t deal with that. I mean, ick.”
“You sent my DNA in for testing,” I felt heat rising in my face, “without my knowledge.”
“You’re welcome.” She examined her fingernails. “You should get tested…in there.” She pointed at her butt.
I palmed my face. What had I seen in her? Sure, we were both artists and I’d found her attractive and funny. But this breach of trust was a dealbreaker. You don’t do that to someone. “Just to be crystal clear, you’re breaking up with me because some test says I could potentially develop a dread disease in about forty years?” I vowed not to date any women in their twenties again. Even from just on the other side of thirty, I felt the generation gap. No one in their twenties cared about privacy. They say it doesn’t exist and shrug it off.
I palmed my face. What had I seen in her? Sure, we were both artists and I’d found her attractive and funny.
She made a face. “It’s not just cancer. For instance, the computer models of our kids. I mean, it should’ve added up, right? You’re totally gorg, obviously. You’re like Thor and combined with this” — she ran her hand down her slim body— “you’d think we’d crank out supermodels.”
“We have computer-generated kids?” I muttered.
She tossed her long red ponytail. “I thought they’d be cute. But our projected children were kind of—eh?” She flipped her palms up. “I could do better.”
“What kind of sample did you take from me?” Trying not to lose my shit, I retracted. “Never mind. I don’t want to know.”
Grace smiled. “I’m sure there are better matches out there for you, too.”
“You really should have asked me.” I took deep a breath. “Just tell me where you sent my, uh, stuff. That’s private information. I want it back.”
“Chillax.” She rolled her eyes. “It’s not a big deal. Everyone does it.”
I loosened my hands which had inadvertently balled into fists. “I want my information removed. What’s the name of the company?”
“It’s called Data Dating.” She crossed her arms. “Come on. They won’t hold our table much longer.” She started walking again.
“I’m not hungry.” I started in the other direction. “Goodbye, Grace.”
The Data Dating ™ website promised scientifically proven matches based on DNA. A colorful, tumbling animation of a double helix roiled in the background behind images of smiling young couples who looked smug in their belief in “the science”. Testimonials scrolled, claiming compatibility that went bone-deep. The banner page was as far as I could get without signing up. The only contact option was a live chatbox. I clicked it.
A pop-up window appeared in the middle of the screen. “Welcome! I can start your profile to find your match.”
I typed, “I want my data removed from your records”.
A long pause with dancing ellipses ensued. Then, “Choose your area.”
I chose Northern California, USA from the menu.
“Type your name.”
I typed, “Tru James.”
Another pause. “Hello Tru. You are already in our system. Pay the member fee to find your match.”
I typed, “No. I want my data removed.”
The bot window suddenly disappeared, and the screen froze.
I tried a reboot. The chat box was no longer there.
I ran search after search trying to find contact information for the company. Nothing turned up. It took a lot of self-control to resist throwing my laptop across the room. I couldn’t afford destroying my computer.
Clearly, it was time to phone a friend.
Velma and Sprockets are not their real names. I’d found them in a shabby storefront near UC Berkeley a while back when I’d needed some help with my computer. Not the usual kind of assistance, something a bit more clandestine, and they’d delivered.
Beyond the sawhorses and plank that served as a front desk, Velma bopped to whatever was playing in her earbuds and stared at a desktop monitor. She still rocked a plaid shift with combat boots and enormous, black-framed glasses. Sprockets had his back to me. Flanked by six giant computer screens that arced around his gamer chair, I could only tell he had let his hair grow out since the last time I’d seen him. I waved to Velma to get her attention.
She removed her earbuds. “Hey Tru, long time.”
She tapped Sprockets’ shoulder. He spun in his chair and smiled. The gold ring in his septum and his dark curly bangs reminded me of a shaggy bull.
I waved to Sprockets and slumped into the sad easy chair next to Velma. “What’s the worst someone could do with your DNA?”
The gold ring in his septum and his dark curly bangs reminded me of a shaggy bull.
Velma signed my question to Sprockets. He was pretty good at reading lips, so I was surprised Velma had finally learned sign language. Sprockets signed something back to her.
“Cloning,” Velma translated. “But more realistically, I’d say identity theft and profiling are your worst risks. I figure your bio info could be sold to healthcare companies, life insurance companies, or advertisers. Did you regret doing 23 and Me or something?” Her hands signed rapidly as she talked.
“Someone uploaded my biological thumbprint to a dating website. Without my permission.” I looked at Sprockets. “Think you can extract my data?”
He nodded. I wrote the name of the company down on the paper pad on Velma’s desk.
She handed it to Sprockets. “This might take a while. Why don’t you get us some pizza?”
I ordered from Fat Slice and looked over the crystal pendants and dream catchers in the street vendor booths on Telegraph Avenue. It seemed ridiculous that anyone thought shiny rocks and bits of woven string could protect them from anything.
When I returned, Sprockets had the dating website up on one screen and a string of code on another. Velma’s computer showed pictures of me. “You have a lot of matches.”
“What the hell?” I recognized photos of me welding sculptures. They’d hacked my art website. A picture of me in a tuxedo was taken at a friend’s wedding last April. Another one of me with my father on a camping trip totally floored me. My DNA profile had projected my personality traits and a health meter. There were ten “matches” waiting for me. “Can you get rid of that?”
Sprockets thumbed the buttons on his phone and then Velma’s phone chimed. She read the text and then their eyes met. “There are some complications. He says a deep back layer to the site looks like an extensive data collection. It’s behind a firewall, but he can see it’s big. He’s trying to find back doors. Short story is, I don’t think he can erase your DNA record. Or not yet.”
I opened the pizza box and took a slice. “Did you find contact information? Someone I can actually call?”
“Tru!” Velma snapped her fingers. “You don’t get it. Clearly, this is not about dating. It’s a scam. You were on the money when you asked me what could be done with your DNA. They could sell that information to anyone.”
I swallowed the pizza. “It really is a conspiracy?”
She nodded and read from her phone. “Probably a bio-tech startup that’s using the dating app as a lure. They give discounts on subscriptions if you provide DNA from somebody else. They’ve collected a lot of samples. Obviously, their claims on using DNA for love matches are total bullshit. It’s a bio-database, to be sold for profit, no doubt.”
“Why?” My mind spun with possibilities.
“Take your pickle.” Velma looked at her phone again. “Sprockets did some quick research, and he says DNA without identity information attached is innocuous. It can be used for general scientific study on the human genome or to study diseases. But it’s different if specifically matched to legal identities.”
“And you’re saying that’s what they have on me.” I closed the pizza box.
She nodded. “Law enforcement used DNA databases to solve crimes, right? When you have names, birthdates, and credit cards matched to someone’s specific DNA markers—well, that has the potential for serious privacy issues.”
My stomach lurched. “What do I do?”
“Let’s find the fuckers. So far, I dug up some early chatroom discussions that could be a lead. There’s a group of computer and bio-engineering grads that came out of Stanford, but I can’t be totally sure it’s them. They mostly just do script kiddle.”
“What?” I shook my head.
“Disrupters. Not usually profiteers. It’s hard to tell at this stage.”
“Can’t you hack them, like mess up their evil plans or scramble their data collection?”
Velma raised an eyebrow. “In fact, I can.” She pulled up some code from her files. “I’ve got a little wrecking ball right here.”
I squinted at the screen. “Means nothing to me. But this girl I dated put my info in there. Her name is Grace Korbel.”
“Like cheap champagne,” Velma giggled.
“Yeah, just like.” I flashed her a photo from my phone. “I guess I’d like to know if she was clueless, or if she was in on it.”
Velma looked up Grace’s dating profile. Images of a girl vamping for the camera in a bikini, wearing a formal gown, and pouting her lips flooded the screen.
“Well, that’s definitely not the girl I dated. This girl is blonde, and you can see my Grace was more of a dark red head. Different eyes, too.”
“Smells like catfish, Tru.” Velma took off her glasses and rubbed the bridge of her nose.
Velma rolled her eyes. “Fake dating sites, fake identities to lure you in. Catfishing.”
“No. She was real. I didn’t give her money or anything. We were…I can’t believe Grace was lying.”
“Yet she stole your DNA.” Velma patted my hand. “Happens. But this could be an interesting project for us.”
Sprockets nodded and signed something to Velma.
Velma supplied the translation. “He said you should change all your passwords.”
It felt like I left biological traces behind me wherever I went. I could almost see the crumbs of everyone’s identity left in the city around me. Cigarette butts on the sidewalk, glass doors greasy with fingerprints, recycling bins on the street — they all felt like insidious traps any evil scientist could troll to collect biological data.
I kept my coffee cup and threw it away at home instead of in the public trash can. At home, I cleaned like my Aunt Claudia was coming to visit. I vacuumed and sprayed, dusted, and bleached. Polishing with a fervor I’d never had before. Then, I did my truck. The violation had been sluggish to register. Like those frogs in water that is brought slowly to a boil—my realization I was in deep trouble had come way too late.
I hadn’t heard back from Velma. I stared at the photos of me and Grace and realized I knew nothing about her. I didn’t know where she lived. We’d always met at some museum or cafe. She’d said she had roommates, so we’d go to my house. She’d asked a lot of questions about my family, thought it was the usual dating stuff. But it was all lies. It had never crossed my mind I was being targeted. It had lasted just a few weeks, but I was heartbroken.
Velma called days later from a blocked number. “We’re decamping. I’ll let you know when we set up shop again, but we’ve been detected. We bypassed the firewall and there’s, like, international espionage, some seriously dark web stuff going on. The IP addresses are global. Hits go from San Francisco to Vancouver…”
I interrupted. “Crime in Canada?”
“What’s the world coming to, right? Seriously, it’s probably Russians. IPs led to Moscow and Bucharest. Effing meddling Russians and cyberattacks right? Seriously Tru, we’re going dark. Sorry, but I think maybe they figured out we were trying to erase your data.”
“I don’t know what that means.” I imagined snowy cities, fedoras, and trench coats.
“Watch your back. Get a lawyer, Tru. And, I don’t know, maybe a gun?”
She hung up.
Velma was a bona fide crazy conspiracy theorist, but was she right this time? I needed to focus. Working on my sculpture always narrowed things to a concentrated task and freed my mind. The blue flame of the torch had turned the metal the right molten orange and I seamed the metal together in a slow, methodical line.
A loudspeaker chirped and startled me. Then a booming voice said, “Drop the torch and raise your hands. Do it now!”
Cutting the gas, I raised the dark face shield and squinted at the men in my driveway. I was surrounded. Their automatic weapons pointed at me. They wore helmets and black flak jackets with FBI printed across their chests.
“Fuck.” I dropped the torch and raised my hands.
My wrists were zip-tied after they loaded me into a van. I was told that I had violated the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.
“Look, I’m the victim here. They got my information without my consent.” I said to no one in particular. “Am I being charged?”
No answer came from the shielded faces.
I sighed. They’d waived a warrant at me, had my phone and computer. They searched my house. I’d probably have to call my father. He was semi-retired, worked for the CIA at times. A hacking charge seemed ridiculous when my privacy had been compromised. I wondered if they’d found Velma and Sprockets? I doubted it.
“Yeah. We know about your father.” The G-man answered. He was straight from central casting, or he’d teleported from the 1950s— clean cut, in his forties, white shirt, black tie, stern expression.
They’d cut off the zip ties at least. I was in some nondescript room deep in the tower of the Federal Building in Oakland. “So, call him. You’ve got my phone. He’s under emergency contacts.”
“You think he’d answer your call? I figured he would tell us to throw away the key.”
“Why would he say that?”
The G-man turned my laptop around for me to see the screen. “I imagine your manifesto didn’t make him proud.”
A picture of me grinning and holding a Guy Fawkes mask was, apparently, the banner to a website I never created. I remembered the mask from someone’s Mr. Robot-themed End of the World New Year’s Party a few years ago.
“What is that?”
“Right. Your IP address is all over it.” G-man smiled. “It’s a free country, thank god, and you can whine publicly about the U.S. government all you want. You can even make websites broadcasting your litany of complaints.” He flicked the screen. “However, hacking into a secure Intelligence database is a federal crime. Using your lineage to your father, a patriot, to do it—well, I’d disown you.”
“I don’t follow.” I ran my hands through my hair. “You’re telling me Data Dating is a secret government surveillance project?”
Now it was his turn to be confused. “What the hell is Data Dating?”
My fingers itched for my phone. “A bogus dating site. They stole my DNA. I really don’t understand that part about my dad, but I assume it must be related to why I’m here.”
His phone rang and he raised his index finger before answering.
G-man listened on the phone for a few minutes. “Yes, Sir.”
He handed me the phone. “Tru, you will be given a Non-Disclosure Agreement. Sign it. No one believes you are a hacker. But you need to explain Data Dating. That’s news to us.”
Obviously, the room was being surveilled and they worked fast.
“How’s Mom?” I replied.
“She’s good. Working on a watercolor. Says, Hi.” Dad cleared his throat. “Tru, what in the world made you use a dating site like that?”
“I didn’t. You know I hate social media. I met a girl. Grace Korbel. We went out for a bit, until she stole my DNA to see if we were a match. Turns out we weren’t.” I didn’t look at G-man, but I saw his smile in my peripheral vision. “I hear it’s snowing out there?”
“A bit early for it, yes. So, this girl?”
A clerk entered the room and handed me a bunch of papers and a pen. I signed whatever they were. Then, he handed me a legal pad.
“Yeah, some, um, friends of mine hacked Data Dating. Grace Korbel is not the person I thought. They said the site collected a ton of biodata they thought would be used for profit. I assume that’s why we’re talking now?”
“I don’t know their real names, but they’re not criminals.”
Dad let out a breath. “A project involving DNA-based encryption is under development. Someone attempted to hack the project. They were running algorithms generating synthetic DNA trying to simulate mine. I’m a test subject for the project. They sourced the data from your DNA. This wasn’t random. You were specifically targeted.”
The G-man asked me, “Do you have a photo of the woman?”
I asked for my phone and looked up the photo album. It was gone. “Um, I had pictures of us on a shared drive, but it looks like she erased it.” I snatched up the paper and pen. “I can draw pretty well.”
I set to work drawing a picture of Grace.
The G-man spoke into the phone. “We can swab his place for ID.”
I shook my head. “Have at it, but I wiped everything down with bleach. My reaction to being violated, I guess.”
The G-man put my dad on speaker. “Tru, she set you up. Write down everything you remember about her. How long did you date?”
“Almost three weeks. She broke it off the other day.”
“Hmm.” I could almost hear the wheels turning in my dad’s head. “She stayed too long. That was a mistake. Think back to everything you did and talked about. I want every detail, her habits, even the most personal things about her. Likes and dislikes, sexual things— all of it gets written down.”
“Whatever you say.” I finished the drawing and handed it to the agent. “This is her.” Better than most police sketches, in my opinion.
He snapped a photo of the drawing and sent it to his computer. A multitude of windows opened within minutes. I imagined a roomful of busy fraud agents tapping keys in the next room. “Yeah, you were duped.” He laughed. “That girl fronts a catfishing scheme targeting lonely men in Eastern Europe.”
His smirk irritated me. “She approached me.”
He gave me a more irritating smile. “The scam nets a fortune. She’s smart. Usually, her story is that she’s stuck in the United States. Sometimes she goes after businessmen here. But she’s not working alone. We know that. This is her?” His screen flashed with images. Grace in bikinis or business suits, ballgowns and boudoir photos, and a cute one that looked more like the girl I dated, in mom jeans and a faded t-shirt. All the text was in Cyrillic letters.
“That’s her.” I thought a minute. “Hacking a secret government project seems to be a whole different playbook than catfish scams.”
“Agreed.” The G-man frowned. “There’s a hacker group called DarkMatter. Russian mercenaries. Usually they specialize in ransomware, but they’ll hack anything for the highest bidder. Russian state sponsored, is our guess. She must’ve been recruited for this. I mean for you. Well, we have an idea of who we’re dealing with now. So, we’re taking you home. Write down everything you remember, and we’ll pick it up tomorrow. Keep it analog, no email or internet. We’ll keep your computer for a while. Remember, you signed the NDA, so mum’s the word.” He handed me my phone and a card with a number on it. Just a number. “Call that if you hear from what’s her name.”
The van dropped me in front of my house. Pushing through the gate, a figure hunched just inside the fence. I slammed into him and threw him into a chokehold before I noticed it was Sprockets and released him.
He shook it off and pointed to the street.
“They’re gone. What’re you doing here?” I straightened my shirt.
Sprockets pulled his fingers into circles around his eyes. Then he pulled on his jacket and pointed to the street.
“Who got Velma?”
He raised both palms and his eyes welled with tears.
“Come on. We’d better get to work.” I moved to my door.
Inside, he put a finger to his lips and looked around my living room. Dropping to his knees near an electrical outlet, he pointed at a bit of sheetrock dust on the wood floor. A gray wire poked from the baseboard. He made a skittering motion with his fingers like a bug on the floor. I nodded.
He handed me a small notebook from his pocket and then took out his own. We sat at my table, and I told him everything, didn’t care about the NDA. I wrote that my dad would find Velma. But they needed something to go on.
Sprockets tore out the pages we’d written in the small books and threw them in the cold fireplace.
I wrote in longhand on the pad the FBI gave me, recounting everything I could, while Sprockets read over my shoulder.
I first met Grace Korbel at my art opening. After that, we mostly went to museums or my place. We ate a lot of Thai and sushi. Maybe this is something? She followed this awful Russian food truck called Mechta.
Sprockets leaned over and jabbed his finger at the last word. Then, he mimed Velma’s glasses again and mimicked eating.
Velma found Mechta? I wrote on the smaller notebook.
He nodded and wrote on his own pad. She asked me if I ever tried blini. Said she would be right back. Now, she doesn’t answer my texts.
Velma was looking for them, I scrawled on the paper.
Sprockets shrugged. Then he plucked at his red t-shirt and mimed wearing a hat.
“What’s a red hat?” I mouthed to him.
He wrote, Like Robin Hood. Good guys. She hacks black hats for sport. Fucks them up. Velma is fearless.
I wrote quickly. It’s a clue. Their blini pancakes sucked. Still, Grace had an app to track them. She always wore this bracelet. Said they gave out charms, which she liked. I’d thought it was just gimmicky.
Sprockets circled his wrist with his fingers and then fished a USB stick from his pocket.
“You think the charms were thumb drives?” I whispered.
He nodded and pointed to his watch with raised his eyebrows.
I wrote again. The truck was last in El Cerrito. They gave her a charm with her blini and strawberry sauce. It was a little blue plastic cloud. She told me “mechta” meant dream, thus the cloud reference. She had a rainbow one from before. Come to think of it, I didn’t see them give anyone else charms.
He mimed breaking a stick in half.
“Yeah, we broke up right after,” I said, forgetting to whisper.
He wrote a long passage in his notebook explaining to me that the food truck could be a mobile server. The charms might be how they communicated, using peripherals instead of risking internet or cell phones. Call Dad, he wrote.
I dialed. “Hey Dad. I wrote everything down and something came up. It might be a long shot, but I think they should look for a food truck called Mechta. I think it could be a message drop point. I’m worried about one of my friends. She’s a bit of a hacker, see, and installed some malware into Data Dating. Now, she may have got herself into some trouble with Russians or whoever. She went to that truck and is nowhere to be found. She looks like Velma from Scooby Doo.”
“Velma. Scooby Doo. I know the look.” He sounded like he was writing things down. “I don’t like this, Tru. Listen, if you get into trouble use that number. Simply dial and we’ll find you.”
I wrote more on the pad and then tapped the page to get Sprocket’s attention. I jotted on the page. We went to Beau’s photo show. He takes pictures of abandoned places. At the opening last week, Grace pointed out and blurted out that she knew that place. She was excited, but then she’d put her hand over her mouth. I’d thought it was a little weird at the time. Now, I understand. She messed up, told me something important.
Sprockets handed me his phone. The browser was configured to stealth mode. We scrolled through the photographer’s website until I found the image. It was a red brick wall with Air Raid Shelter painted next to a giant door. Beau’s caption listed it as an abandoned winery that had been built at the water’s edge in Richmond during the turn of the last century. We checked on Google maps and saw it was in Point Molate near the bridge to San Rafael. Not far from my house. Fences and barbed wire dominated the street views.
“There’s no time to lose,” I said, grabbing my keys and a pair of binoculars.
Sprockets ripped the rest of the pages of conversation from our little notebooks and lit them in my fireplace, while I hauled my double kayak from the garage. Together we put it in the back of my truck.
The beach park was empty. It looked more like a place for drug deals, or a good site to dump a body, than anywhere you’d want to have a picnic. We’d driven past rusting oil tanks and rows of boarded-up vintage military housing on a rough road near the forgotten shoreline. Sprockets wrung his hands on the way. At the edge of the Chevron refinery, we were in no man’s land. We’d cruised by a weedy parking lot with an assortment of boats on trailers, janky RVs, and, most promising, a food truck parked there. Barbed wire topped chain-link fences and padlocked gates made entry look dicey. However, as I’d anticipated, no barriers seemed to be on the waterside.
Sprockets sat facing the bow with the high-powered binoculars resting against his chest. I put muscle into paddling out. The water was flat and shiny, reflecting the light from the violet hour.
We floated nearer to the parking lot and warehouse. No sign of activity on the shore had me thinking we’d got it all wrong. However, a flat-gray metal ocean vessel was anchored about a hundred yards offshore, and we spotted two men on deck. Sprockets lifted the binoculars and watched them. Then, Sprockets typed into his phone.
Mine pinged. They are talking about satellite links and malware. They’re using hacker jargon. Arguing. Got to be it.
Handy, that lip reading skill.
The engine started on the boat. I dialed the number on the card. No one answered, but a short beep emitted from my phone. I hoped that meant something.
A rock skipped in the water near the bow. Looking to the shore, I spotted a small figure who stood up briefly from behind a low wall and then crouched down again. Velma.
I paddled to shore. We squatted down along the wall beside her, and she awkwardly hugged us both.
She signed as she spoke. “I was going to wait until dark to try to leave. How in the world did you find me?”
“Lucky guess.” I peeked over the wall. The men on the boat had gone below. The anchor was still down.
Velma tugged on Sprockets’ hand. “Let’s get out of here. I’m not going to get kidnapped again.”
I wasn’t sure if my call had alerted anyone. Would they get away? “What happened?”
Velma spoke rapidly and her hands flew. “They were going to make me dismantle my worm. Hack my hack, see? Who knows what else they had planned for me—pretty pissed off, they were. But then, your girl, Tru. We were alone for a few minutes in the food truck, and I made sure she knew that she totally broke your heart. Next thing I knew, she was balling. Totally ugly crying. Then, she let me go, told me to run. She got on a speedboat and took off toward San Francisco. Oh” —Velma fished something from her pocket— “she asked me to give you this.”
Velma handed me a digitally rendered image of an adorable toddler. He had dark reddish curls, my blue eyes, and Grace’s dimples. Scrawled on the back of the photo, Grace had written a message.
In the fading light, I watched the city’s skyscrapers spark white on the far shore. The sun dipped into the Golden Gate as I contemplated how we were, truly, oceans apart.
Along the eastern horizon, black helicopters buzzed in our direction and a speeding Coastguard boat, with lights flashing, rounded the point.
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