by Eric M. Cherry
Todd typed, I dare you. It was how he ended all of his rants on these websites, forums, and chat rooms. It hadn’t worked in the two months since he’d conceived his solution to a lack of parking in the neighborhood, but maybe arson took longer to plan and execute than he’d thought. So he continued this time with, What’s it take, some gasoline and a burning rag?
He grinned at his laptop screen, pleased with his own wit. That little dig ought to get under their skin.
Doyle flicked a glance at Todd, but didn’t say anything.
Todd imagined calling the old codger down to this end of the bar, turning the new computer around to show off what he’d written, and sharing a chuckle over it. He couldn’t do it, of course; anonymity was vital to this plan. He would need to hide his light, as it were, under a bushel.
The thought gave him an idea: Muslim extremists weren’t the only lunatics around. His grin widened as he set about finding another population to incite. Google led him to statistics that linked violent acts with sundry militant groups. Wikipedia gave him links to sundry websites for these people. Everybody had a forum these days.
Todd checked the wireless networks in the area. Two more unsecured networks had cropped up since last time, and he switched to one called ‘absinth.’ He grinned: that was the upscale bistro down the block, the place that didn’t open until six and shut down by midnight, and that used valet parking to gobble up the few reliable parking spots in the surrounding area.
The next online forum belonged to Parents Opposed to Planned Parenthood.
Todd logged into POPP as Margarite Stewart, the owner of Absinth.
You people are nazis, he began.
Absinth is going to raffle off free abortions as a fundraiser, he included somewhere in the middle of his screed. He chortled over that one; Doyle didn’t even look up from his beer.
If you don’t like it, you should burn Absinth to the ground, he typed at the end, I dare you. He posted the comment, logged out, remembered his lesson so far, and logged back in. What’s it take, some gasoline and a burning rag?
He frowned, thought of another way the line could be read as a double entendre, then grinned. He logged out again. He went back to Google and Wikipedia, looking for someone else to harrangue.
Doyle said, “Those boys over front there keep wanting to order drinks, laddie.”
Todd glanced their direction, noticing that the front tables were now occupied by some frat boys and their girlfriends. They’d been in long enough to get bored, then to fold his latest menus into paper triangles, and to engage in an obscure game that involved flicking the thick triangles at each other’s heads.
Todd grimaced and took four of his recently-printed menus up front.
“Welcome to Todd’s,” he said. He distributed the white sheets to the young women, not the frat boys, and grinned at the prettiest one. “The special today is the Hot Todd. Would you like to try one?”
One of the beefy guys said, “Just bring us two pitchers of beer and some glasses. And put the game on.”
“Okay, two pitchers.” He winked at the pretty one. “And for you?”
“Um, just the beer, thanks.”
Another beefy guy said, “And put the game on.”
Todd frowned. “No game in here today. I was just about to put on a movie, though.”
“That’s crap. Put on the game.”
“No game. Sorry.” He gave up on the prettiest girl and focused his attention on the brunette opposite her. “The movie I was going to put on is Oleanna. You’ll probably like it.”
She shared a look with her girlfriends, and one of the guys said, “Look, just put the game on, okay?”
Another one said, “Or just forget the pitchers. We can go somewhere else.”
Todd gave them each his hardest glare. “Fine. But that’ll be a dollar for the menus you destroyed.”
The overgrown boys cussed him out about that, one of them dropped a handful of change onto the floor, and the entire group bustled out. They were laughing at him as they went, talking about which bar to hit instead, and that was all he caught.
He picked up the coins, which came to almost three dollars.
He returned to his computer, found the next site, and logged in as Douglas Picard, the Scoreboard’s owner. That was where the rude frat boys were hauling their uppity dates. He went on for half an hour on a Latin Kings website.
I dare you. What’s it take, some gasoline and a burning rag?
As an alum of the State University’s online degree program, Todd followed the college basketball and football seasons closely. It had taken him some time to learn the rules of the games, but no time at all to spot that the coaches were bunglers. He said as much in the Yahoo! College Sports chat room. There, he went by the nickname hottodd.
Maybe if the coaches lost a finger for every loss, they’d wake up and do something about defense, he wrote. He even threw in a custom smiley that featured a yellow character chopping at something with a small ax.
Hottodd is an idiot, someone called ‘trollbane’ said.
Nice, stoop to namecalling. Maybe you should stop blowing the coaches.
Trollbane said a number. It was Todd’s IP address at the bar.
His screen filled with dozens of popup alerts, each warning him of an intrusion attempt. He clicked the ok buttons on these, but they opened faster than he could click them down. Then the system hung there, one alert flickering while his mouse pointer froze over the button, for an eternity.
Then Todd’s computer died.
Doyle was Todd’s only regular customer, and Doyle’s grandson was a computer whiz who cleaned up Todd’s machine for two hundred dollars cash. The kid, an undergrad at the university, said, “You shouldn’t start flamewars in chat. It’s an unstable environment, full of security gaps.”
“Yeah. All I’m saying is, keep it to the forums.”
“I’ve got the right to free speech, same as anybody.”
“Yeah. Just, you know, realize that sometimes you get burned in a flamewar. Keep it polite in chat. It’s safer.”
Todd grunted and handed over the bills. The kid counted it, folded it into a back pocket, and said, “You’re all set. Let Grandpa know next time you need me.”
Todd waited while his computer rebooted. He served Doyle another beer. “I’ve got the right to speak my mind, haven’t I?”
“Well, haven’t I?”
“Sure, and you’ve gotta expect a guy’s gonna knock you down if you behave like an ass.”
Todd grimaced. He took the beer out of Doyle’s hand. “Right. I think you’d better go. Bar’s closed.”
Doyle blinked at him, raised his bushy eyebrows, seemed to consider knocking him down a bit (senior citizen or not), and ended up pushing away from the bar. “You’re better off selling this place, lad. The only customers you’ll get in here are bill collectors, come winter.”
Todd poured out the old man’s beer, cracked open one for himself, and returned to his computer screen.
The fire gutted the entire building, injured nobody, failed to spread to its neighbors, and resulted in an arson investigation. Gasoline and a burning rag had been the cause. Suspicion fell on a local fraternity, then on a small group of alumni. No arrests were made, but the case remained open.
“I can’t afford to rebuild,” Todd Kula, the bar’s owner said to a reporter, “but I’m not going anywhere. I’ll use the insurance money to turn the space into a parking lot, something this neighborhood desperately needs.”
The same reporter turned up dozens of samples of hatespeech from over the previous five months, most ending with a conspicuous rhetorical question. With the aid of an anonymous hacker, he traced the posts and messages back to the wireless servers of several businesses along the street. And from these to one computer.
His report hit the local paper in the morning, and police seized a laptop computer from Todd Kula that afternoon.
Todd sat in his cell, wondering where it had all gone wrong.