Graphic design is a dirty business. It’s filled with people who excuse theft with tags like “inspiration,” backstabbin’ under the guise of “competition” and design by committee likenin’ it to the need for “betterin’ the product.”
Of course, that’s the good part of the industry. Me, well, I was the worst. A private investigator, a hired geek, handlin’ the small cases. A copyright infringement, stolen Wacom pens, missin’ fonts and other nonsense that doesn’t affect life or even surface to the normal freaks who walk the streets, unaware of design and those who practice it every day.
To me it was just a job. $50 a day plus expenses and $25 every time I have to use my gun. That extra $25 was a rare occurrence in this line of business. Design rarely has psychopaths that use anythin’ besides passive-aggressive snipes at each other. All I could afford was a small ad on the AIGA site, a crappy office in a rundown part of town, and a secretary who didn’t seem to mind that she hadn’t been paid in seven years.
When I was lucky, a job would give me enough to score a big bottle of rot gut bourbon and a carton of cheap smokes. Lately business wasn’t good enough to even buy a bottle of cough syrup for a quick buzz.
That’s when she walked in.
“You have a client here to see you, Mr. Atone,” came the announcement over the intercom from my secretary, Ruby.
“Send them in, Ms. Lith,” I said, usin’ my best business voice. I straightened my tie, and feelin’ the stubble on my neck, I wished I had shaved this month.
“Mr. Atone?” asked this tall, shapely woman who looked more like a librarian than any designer I had ever seen.
“Call me Zip, doll,” I shot back, hopin’ my charm would mask the slight urine stench of my office, which was only cut by the vomit coverin’ it. “And who might you be?”
“Dotcom,” she said in a cold tone. “Lynda Dotcom,” she said as if I was supposed to be honored she was in my presence. I knew all about her. She whored out every program in the world to anyone who had $29 and an internet connection. “I have a case for you. I’ve been told you’re the best.”
My first thought was who had told her that lie about me. My second thought was how to keep her believin’ that lie. “What’s the case?”
“Have you heard of the Adobe family?” she asked. Who hadn’t heard of the Adobe family. They were the biggest drug pushers in the design industry. Their products kept every designer hooked and comin’ back for more. The Adobe factory made a meth lab look like a candy kitchen. “It hasn’t hit the papers yet but a member of the family has just been murdered.”
“Murdered?” I shot back. Finally! This was a case that would give me some credibility. Thank you, stiff guy!
“They say it was a suicide but I knew Flash better than anyone. He would never commit suicide,” she said as she started to sob. I handed her a handkerchief, not tellin’ her I had found it in the back alley, coverin’ a dead cat.
I knew she was the expert on Flash, as he was known in the industry. Born to the Macromedia family, he had been adopted by the Adobe family years ago and he was more than willin’ to join the fast lane lifestyle they offered him. He was the Paris Hilton of Rich Internet Applications minus the up-skirt shots when he got out of a limo. He was livin’ the high life, so murder was a good possibility, although sometimes when you have it all, there’s nothin’ left to own and that’s when you decide life is over.
“There’s just one other thing,” she said, still sobbing. “Here’s something I found in his apartment when I found his body.”
She handed me a piece of paper. It had some sort of code on it. “590 – something smudged – d^d+5. Where did you find this?”
“It was by his computer,” she replied.
“A password?” I asked.
“Any idea what site?”
“Any idea what the smudged character might be?”
“Well,” I said, scratching my head with the end of my snub-nosed 38, “That narrows it down to only a trillion possibilities! I’ll see what I can find out.”
I took the case. What else was I goin’ to do? Ms. Dotcom dropped an envelope on my desk, just missin’ my pastrami sandwich. “My contact information is inside the envelope,” she said. “Contact me when you know something.”
“I know somethin’ now,” I told her, flippin’ through the stack of fifties in the envelope “but you probably don’t want to figure it out for yourself.”
“Good evening, Mr. Atone!” She turned and walked quickly out the office door. Her shapely rear, lookin’ like two little kids wrestling under a blanket. Still, she was a client and a dame at that. It was thumbin’ through the stack of fresh fifties that had made the front of my trousers tighter.
Ruby ran into my office and sat on my desk. “So, we got the case?”
“Yeah, and it looks like there’s more than meets the eye. Somethin’ stinks more than this half a pastrami sandwich I stole last week when the old man eatin’ it hobbled off to the can.”
“I don’t suppose I can get paid now?”
“Baby, if this works out, there’ll be plenty of money later on,” I said, usin’ a quote from an old case where a client was makin’ ridiculous promises to freelancers.
Chapter 2: More suspects join the party
I could never find the site that fit this password and the smudged character could be dozens of different things. I figured it would be easier to grill some of the usual suspects in a case like this. Flash was a popular guy. He was still on the A-list for 99% of the parties and kept his code well hidden. He didn’t soak anybody like his family did for numerous upgrades and he had no competition for his position in the industry – well, almost none, and that’s where I had to start. I knew just the slob to start questionin’.
Herbert Talbot Mergatroyd Lipshitz the Fifth was startin’ to get noticed in the same circle Flash traveled in. Probably for his name alone. I wondered what cruel parent would name their kid Herbert Talbot Mergatroyd Lipshitz, much less several sets of parents repeatin’ the mistake. Even he wasn’t comfortable with the moniker so he dressed like a rapper poser and called himself HTML5.
I knocked on the door to his uptown brownstone. As Ricky used to say to Lucy, he “had some splainin’ to do.”
Unlike Flash, this guy let it hang out all over the place. His source code was out there for everyone to see and he had no protection, which made me nauseous, just thinkin’ about it. Still, he had a followin’ and it was growin’ – even to the point he was startin’ to be invited to the parties Flash was not attendin’. In my book, which I was still colorin’, that made him my number one suspect.
“Mr. Lipshitz?” I asked when he answered the door.
“My friends call me HTML5,” he said with a broad smile.
“I ain’t your friend,” I shot back, steppin’ into the hallway. “And, I have some unfriendly questions for you.”
He motioned to his livin’ room and I sat down.
“Can I get you anything?” he asked
“A small gallon of bourbon will do nicely,” I replied.
He walked over to a small wall bar and poured a shot of bourbon, placed it inside the bar, and brought me the rest of the bottle. I took a long swig and replaced the cap, then shoved the bottle into the pocket of my trench coat.
“Have you heard the news?”
“You mean about Flash committing suicide?” He sounded a bit too calm in his response.
“That wasn’t on the news. How did you know?”
“Internet!” Check and mate! He used the one out available.
“When was the last time you saw him?”
“It was at the last Google party,” he said. I thought I might have him if he said he saw Flash lyin’ on the floor in a pool of his own blood. He was shrewd, indeed.
“Did you speak with him there?”
“We weren’t on speaking terms since…”
“Well,” Lipshitz paused a moment. “Google started using me for their logo doodles. And Flash was furious about it. They still used him for running audio elements but it wasn’t enough for him. He was getting old. He had been around for a long time and this industry moves fast. He just wasn’t fast enough anymore.”
I pulled out the slip of paper with the code Lynda Dotcom had found and showed it to him. “Does this mean anythin’ to you?”
“Not a thing,” he said, scrunchin’ his face a bit while lookin’ at it. “Maybe it’s a password to Lynda Dotcom’s site?”
“Why do you think that?”
“They were very close and had a longtime love affair. She saw he was on the outs in the industry, so…”
“And you were her new boy-toy?” I asked.
He blushed and smiled. “Well,” he smirked, “that’s how this business goes. I’m the new golden boy!”
“There is one other thing you should know, Mr. Atone.” He looked very serious, so I listened like he was a classy hooker givin’ me a price list run-down. “Flash was omitted from the Google Chrome mobile browser. It hit him really hard.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” I told him and I got up to leave.
“One for the road?” Lipshitz asked, knowin’ I was skippin’ out with an almost full bottle of his best hooch.
“No thanks,” I said. “You may be one but I ain’t, if you catch my drift.”
I was convinced that Lipshitz had nothin’ to do with the murder. He was the new favorite and was on the fast track to fame and fortune. There was nothin’ Flash could do to stop it. If anythin’, Flash would want HTML5 dead. Hell, I wanted him dead and I didn’t give a diddly-squat about the internet.
I headed back to my office to finish my pastrami sandwich and wash it down with the class-A bourbon present I received from my last suspect. I needed to see if Ruby had found out anythin’ about that password found on the body.
When I got to the office, Ruby was asleep at her computer. “Wake up, sweet cheeks,” I said softly so she wouldn’t crap herself from the surprise. I assumed we all suffered from that problem. I know I did.
“Ummm…hi, Zip!” She stretched a bit and yawned. “I couldn’t find anything on the web that uses this password but I did find out something shocking…”
“I don’t know how those pictures got on my hard drive,” I yelled. “They’re suspects. Underage Philipino suspects…for this case I had before you started workin’ for me.”
“No photos, baby. Who said anythin’ about photos? What did you find?”
“Flash was really on the outs. Look at all these articles trashing him, hoping he would just die off. People really hated having to update some player just to make him work. He wasn’t working much these days.”
“Interestin’,” I said, rubbin’ my neck to get the blood flowin’ to my brain. “Keep checkin’ out Flash’s background and see what else you can find, and stay out of the folder marked ‘laundry receipts’.”
Chapter 3: Breaking the code
I stretched out on the couch and tipped my hat over my eyes. I was just too tired to fall asleep. I moved my hat back on my head. There was just somethin’ that didn’t click right — or right click, for that matter. Flash was loved by so many, for so long. He was everywhere and made the web what it was. If you asked anyone who advanced the digital age, Flash would be one of the first names mentioned, along with Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and Steve Jobs. I took out the slip of paper Lynda Dotcom had given me and looked at it. I flipped it around to see the code and flipped it around again. That’s when it hit me.
“RUBY! I’m headin’ out, doll. Forget checkin’ web sites,” I yelled as I pulled on my trench coat.
“Should I keep looking for photos, Zip?”
“I told you – stay the hell out of those folders and for God’s sake, leave the folder marked ‘The Wiggles Greatest Hits’ alone!”
I hightailed it over to Dotcom’s place with my hard drive under my arm for safekeepin’. It was all so simple. I couldn’t believe that I hadn’t seen it earlier. I had cracked the case wide open.
I got to her place a little after midnight. She answered the door, wearin’ some silk pajamas that hugged her body the same way I hugged a bottle of bourbon.
“Mr. Atone!” She seemed surprised but she was also purrin’ like a kitty cat that just saw a mountain of catnip. “How about a drinky-doo?”
She was three sheets to the wind and obviously the kitty was feeling a little frisky. Well, that was one pussy cat I wasn’t gonna pet.
“Gallon of bourbon, no ice…or glass,” I said as I walked past her. “I’ve cracked the case and you got some singin’ to do.” She suddenly wasn’t purrin’.
“Surely you’re not accusing ME of Flash’s death?” Her hand was shakin’ and her martini was splashin’ over the edges of the glass.
“Oh, you didn’t kill him. You had too much to lose by his death. Still, you didn’t help him, either.” She started sobbin’.
“Every year you’d make a fortune on Flash from your little web site but then HTML5 came along and you, as well as every other geek in the industry, got busy with the new pretty face. There was nothin’ wrong with Flash. It’s just some people didn’t want him around anymore. It wasn’t functionality – it was popularity and the real king decidin’ who lived and who died.”
“So, he WAS murdered!” Lynda took a stiff belt from her drink, tears rollin’ down her face.
“Yes,” I replied. “But it will always be classified as a suicide. With so many geeks writin’ on their blogs about wantin’ him to die, his old friends abandonin’ him and the fall from popularity, was it any wonder he took his own life?”
She was in full cryin’ mode. I felt no sympathy for her or any of the other web geeks. Flash was gone, HTML5 was here, and next week it would be someone else as the favorite. That’s just life.
“It was also murder,” I said and she straight up in her chair. “The perfect crime because the murderer can never be brought to justice.”
I stuck my finger into my crumpled pack of Lucky Strikes and pulled out the last cigarette. “I had to laugh because the answer was so easy to anyone with a pair of eyes. But in the usual fashion, everyone had to look for the tech angle. It was when I pulled out the note you gave me. It was upside-down and that’s when I realized what it was.”
Dotcom looked confused. I held out the note to her. “Like every kid these days, a pencil is an obsolete tool so nobody could recognize the child-like scrawl he made, not bein’ able to write a simple letterform.”
She looked down at the note again. I turned it around for her. “Steve obs?” she asked.
“Jobs,” I replied. The ‘J’ was smeared by Flash’s tears and it wasn’t a very good ‘J’ anyway. “He wrote like a three year-old serial killer.”
“I don’t understand,” she sobbed.
“Jobs cut Flash out of all his new products. He liked his power and his ability to make or break people. Flash was just a little too high up on the ladder for Jobs, so he decided to knock him down. It was just a personal thing.”
Dotcom was cryin’ up a storm. I offered her a tissue and she wiped her eyes. I put a few from the wad I had pulled out of my pocket back with the rest of the stash I had picked up off the men’s room floor at the gas station.
“The only thing Jobs didn’t plan on was dyin’. He didn’t live to see Flash suffer.”
“So,” she asked, lookin’ up at me through those black frame librarian specs. “What happens next?”
“Next? We go on with our lives and wait for some kid to replace HTML5 and every other program on every computer in this crazy world. That’s just the way it is, doll! We put the DVDs with the CD-ROMS alongside the floppy disc installers in a box or on a shelf one day, to just dump them on some charity to mark with a price of 50¢. Life will still go on.”
She looked shocked and vulnerable, so I held her cheek in my palm and looked into her eyes. She closed her eyes and leaned forward, puckering her lips.
“I’ll be takin’ the rest of my fee now,” I said before the mushy part started. She got up and took an envelope out of a side table drawer and threw it at me.
“Thanks for the dough!” I said and turned to walk out the front door. I thumbed through the stack of fifties in the envelope, my pants gettin’ tight again. I figured I’d pick up a good bottle of hooch on the way back to the office. I might even give Ruby a bit of her back pay. After all, she was always goin’ to be my main program.
Samuel Dashiell Hammett – May 27, 1894 – January 10, 1961, was an American author of hard-boiled detective novels and short stories, screenplay writer, and political activist. Among the enduring characters he created are Sam Spade (The Maltese Falcon), Nick and Nora Charles (The Thin Man), and the Continental Op (Red Harvest and The Dain Curse). In addition to the significant influence his novels and stories had on film, Hammett “is now widely regarded as one of the finest mystery writers of all time.”