New York Times bestseller Cory Doctorow’s Red Team Blues is a grabby next-Tuesday thriller about cryptocurrency shenanigans that will awaken you to how the world really works.
Martin Hench is 67 years old, single, and successful in a career stretching back to the beginnings of Silicon Valley. He lives and roams California in a very comfortable fully-furnished touring bus, The Unsalted Hash, that he bought years ago from a fading rock star. He knows his way around good food and fine drink. He likes intelligent women, and they like him back often enough.
Martin is a—contain your excitement—self-employed forensic accountant, a veteran of the long guerilla war between people who want to hide money, and people who want to find it. He knows computer hardware and software alike, including the ins and outs of high-end databases and the kinds of spreadsheets that are designed to conceal rather than reveal. He’s as comfortable with social media as people a quarter his age, and he’s a world-level expert on the kind of international money-laundering and shell-company chicanery used by Fortune 500 companies, mid-divorce billionaires, and international drug gangs alike. He also knows the Valley like the back of his hand, all the secret histories of charismatic company founders and Sand Hill Road VCs. Because he was there at all the beginnings. He’s not famous, except to the people who matter. He’s made some pretty powerful people happy in his time, and he’s been paid pretty well. It’s been a good life.
Now he’s been roped into a job that’s more dangerous than anything he’s ever agreed to before—and it will take every ounce of his skill to get out alive.
Please enjoy this free excerpt of Red Team Blues by Cory Doctorow, on sale 4/25/23.
Sit in the same Walmart parking lot long enough and eventually every RV bum you’ve ever known will show up. The Sectoral Balance, Raza’s tour bus, was one spot away from the Unsalted Hash, freshly detailed and proudly emblazoned with its name and a stylized Kasey the Kangaroo logo.
Raza had cranked out her pop-outs and unfolded her back deck, thus neatly skirting Walmart’s prohibition on setting up lounge furniture and a grill. She was slow-cooking something meaty and fragrant, augmented by applewood chips that were puffing away like a roomful of teenage vapers.
I parked my Leaf and plugged it into the charger, then walked back to the RV parking. She saw me coming and poured me a bourbon. She liked the artificial stuff, which was all right by me. The number of organic chemists that were replicating wood extracts and blending them with pure grain alcohol had shot up over the past couple of years, and competition was fierce to produce the most surprising and smooth varietals.
“Look who it is,” I said. “Thought you were still in the Midwest.”
“I was, I’m not. Come on up and I’ll tell you about it.”
She did something to her grill and then unlocked the RV doors. I climbed up the stairs and threaded my way through her living room and back onto her deck.
I’d known Wilma Razafimandimby for thirty years. She’d been the sole voice of sanity at the first conference on virtual currencies (“e-gold,” God help us all) and forensic accounting, speaking in her soft Malagasy accent with infinite patience and even more firmness, telling the audience of goldbug cranks that money came from taxes, not gold.
“Gentlemen,” she’d told her nearly all-male audience at the closing panel on the first day, “if the government taxes your money first and spends it second, where does your money come from?”
The derision was palpable and also pretty close to openly racist (is it really a dog whistle if a human can hear it?), and her co-panelists had refused to engage with her. If it weren’t for the angry dudes in the audience who’d called her out during the Q and A, she wouldn’t have had the chance to say another word. As it was, she’d dominated the last thirty minutes of the panel and stepped off the stage with her head held high.
She got her own miniature table and four people’s worth of hors d’oeuvres to herself. I went to the hotel bar—eschewing the crowded open bar in the back of the conference room—and got two glasses of passable French Burgundy and brought them to her little Coventry. I handed her one and told her how much I’d appreciated her interventions, making it as clear as I knew how that I wasn’t trying to get her up to my room. A beautiful friendship was born.
“They say Missouri is part of the South,” she said as she set out a dish of pistachios and a saucer for the shells. “But that’s only from May to September. The rest of the year, it is definitely part of the Midwest. I told my UMKC colleagues that all my future residencies would have to be timed with the Southern months. I’m an old lady now, and it gets into my bones.”
If you got up early enough and the weather was nice, you could see Raza doing yoga out on her deck. I’d seen her do things to her body that I was pretty sure I’d never been supple or strong enough to match. But if she wanted to chalk the end of her patience with midwestern winters up to senescence, I wouldn’t argue with her.
“I was heading to San Diego, but I thought I’d look up some old friends in the Bay Area. When I saw the Hash here, I knew it had to be serendipity. You socializing or working?”
“That,” I said, “is a long story.”
“I brought Kansas City ribs and rub,” she said. “They’ve been slow-cooking for, oh, ten hours now. Why don’t you and I discuss it over dinner?”
She set the tone for the evening with a huge tub of wet wipes, followed swiftly by platters of meat that literally fell off the bone on the way to my mouth, staining the jeans and holey dot-com T-shirt I’d changed into in anticipation of such an event. Soon, we were in the midst of a glorious murder scene, our hands and wrists and mouths smeared with red, drifts of tomato-stained wipes on the pop-out deck, and everywhere bones, bones, bones.
“I think you’ll find him,” Raza said.
“Well, I’m glad one of us thinks so,” I said. “I’ve missed your optimism.”
“Oh,” she said, tipping two more fingers of bourbon in a glass, “I’m not optimistic. Your boy won’t have the keys.”
“All right, Watson, explain.”
“Watson?” She sipped her bourbon and gave me a cool look. The sun was down, and the Walmart parking lot lamps made everything look like a bleached-out Polaroid. It turned her greenish and me mustard-colored.
“Okay, Sherlock, if you must. I never claimed to be smart, just diligent.”
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how an accountant brags.” She poured me more bourbon. “Follow me here. Your boy, Alex?”
“Ales,” I said. “It’s Czech.”
Ales. He’s a kid. That’s the most important clue of all. He’s not a criminal mastermind. He’s a kid who likes making goofy synthesizers and who got a high-security job because everyone who’s actually qualified to do those jobs already has a job. Someone offered him money to get those keys, enough that a life underground for him and his girl sounded like a fair trade. Now these two are Silicon Valley techies, so they don’t impress easily. I’m guessing it’s in the tens of millions, at least.”
“I got that far, too.”
“Right, so your Ales, he cooks up a plan to get away clean. I’m sure he’s erased all his old social media posts by now.”
“Of course he has. But what he can’t do is erase all his friends’ social media posts. What you want to do is find those friends and comb back through them for any kind of remote place where he might go to ground for a while, while things cool off. There’s no way his clients made payment in full, not yet. They’re going to want to validate the keys, then make sure that they can get away with whatever they were planning.”
“Why wouldn’t he wait somewhere far from U.S. law enforcement? Venezuela? Cuba? Hell, Tonga?”
She smiled. “Because he doesn’t know anything or anyone in those places. The kinds of people who contracted with him for this gig, they’re powerful and ruthless. If things go wrong, he’s going to want to be close enough to whatever kind of power bloc he can summon: college friends whose parents are lawyers. His girl’s at Stanford, right? That puts her three handshakes from a congressional majority and two from the senator whip, tops.”
“Okay, so he’s close by. Call it somewhere on the continental U.S.”
“California,” she said. “The farther he drives, the more of a trail he leaves. The boy is good at information security. So he’s close by.”
“That’s where social media comes in. College kids go places. Beach houses. Lake houses. Campsites. Deserts. Burning Man. He’s been to some places with a big group of friends for epic weekends, and he saw how empty and isolated they are when the kids go home. Of course they’re isolated; no one wants to be next door to a party lake-house full of synthesizer hackers partying for four straight days.
“If I were you, I’d get into that boy’s friends’ social media archives and look for places where they tagged him in during long weekends. Those parameters should make it quick: tagged photos from long weekends with two or more of his friends present. Piff, paff, pouf.”
I thought about it. “You are a very smart person,” I said. “I don’t know that I could have come up with that on my own. Maybe I’m getting too old for this job.”
She waved her hand at me. “Foolishness. Keeping up with children is easy. You just need to guest-teach some undergrads for a semester every year. You’ve never bothered because children don’t usually steal enough to make it worth your while.”
“Now you’re in my territory. Raza, young people in their twenties steal like crazy. They know the deck is stacked against them, and they’re bright, and they have no executive function. Cryptocurrency lights up those tender pleasure centers like cocaine.”
“All right, Marty, I concede the point. Can we say that children don’t steal enough and get away with it to be worth your while?”
“That’s an excellent friendly amendment.” I scooped up my drift of red wipes and stuffed them into the trash bag she’d tied to the porch railing. “I guess I’ve got some social media scraping to do.”
Of course, I don’t scrape social media. I’ve got subcontractors for that, in several time zones. I got some bright folks in Amsterdam on the line and gave them Raza’s parameters, telling them to build a social graph for Ales by pulling the intersection of digital laptop reggae, synthesizer manufacturing, SFU, and Jia’s computer science class at Stanford. The Dutch kids spoke better English than I do, and they grasped the project’s scope quickly. I could hear keys clattering before I hung up.
Then it was just me, washing up in the Unsalted Hash’s little bathroom, checking the tanks and noting that I’d need to sludge it soon. I brushed my teeth and turned back the sheets and did all the usual things before you go to bed, and then I just . . . lay there.
Sleep used to come easily. In the heady early days, when there was always a good reason to work a seventy-hour week, sleep was something you filled the corners with—rolling up a jacket as a pillow and commandeering an empty office at a client site, reclining the passenger seat in your car and parking in a dark corner of the lot, checking into an airport hotel for two hours’ rest before catching a flight.
Now, sleep eludes me. It’s not just the 2:00 a.m. piss-call (or the 3:00 a.m. one, or the 4:00 a.m. curtain call). It’s not just the rib I got busted for me once when I happened upon a client’s CFO in a supposedly empty office, taking a high-speed drill to a stack of hard drives. I was lucky: I kicked the drill cord out of the wall before he saw me and then kicked the drill out of his hands when he whirled around.
Sleep eludes me because I am fraught. The compartments I once housed my work in while I slumbered have long rotted away. Everything mixes now, a greatest-hits reel of my worries, my fears, my regrets. Those most of all.
I practice good sleep hygiene and set the do-not-disturbs on all my devices when I turn in, but you don’t need an audible alert when you get up from bed and check your device every twenty minutes.
The Dutch kids took two hours to build up a dossier of eight places where Ales had gone to weekend-long parties since his junior year in high school. As soon as I caught sight of the list, my brain entered a recursive problem-solving mode, trying to find an optimal traveling-salesman route between all eight spots. Then I got to the seventh spot and realized I didn’t need the route plan. There was only one place I was likely to find him.
After that, I slept just fine.
Copyright © 2023 from Cory Doctorow
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