I’M NOT SURE THE EXACT moment I became a criminal. It didn’t happen
overnight. There wasn’t one event or act that defined the point when I crossed over the
invisible line separating good guys from bad guys. It was a gradual transition. Like
watching your daughter grow up. One day she’s playing with her Disney princess dolls
on the carpet and the next day she’s packing up her car and heading to college. No, I
didn’t know the exact moment, but I had a good idea when it started.
I WAITED FOR THE NAVY-BLUE Ford Expedition from my window seat at Winans
Coffee on the corner of Eighth and Walnut in downtown Cincinnati. The coffee shop was
quiet except for the occasional steamer blast or whirring coffee grinder behind the
counter. Two coffee jocks snatched muffins from the bakery case and poured drinks for
the steady stream of caffeine addicts coming through the door.
My watch said I still had ten minutes. I sipped my coffee and yanked my bookmark,
an old receipt, from inside of Joe Lansdale’s Vanilla Ride. The story was good and I
hoped to finish it today, but reading Lansdale’s books, as good as they were, didn’t pay
the bills. According to the phone call I received yesterday, the man arriving in the
I had just returned to my seat with my first refill, when the SUV slowed to a stop
across the street. From where I sat I could see directly through the front passenger
window. The driver opened his door and rocked back and forth, struggling with the
seatbelt and the tight confines of the driver’s seat. Once he was out, the SUV’s leaf
springs, now free from his weight, released their tension, snapping the vehicle upwards
like a slingshot. He reached back into the SUV and pulled out one of those red-and-white
refillable gas-station soda containers with a handle as long as my forearm and set it on the
The driver plunked some coins into the meter and walked around the SUV. For the
first time, I took him all in. He was the largest man I’d ever seen. Had to be over four
fifty. He wore a black-and-white suit, a custom job, and looked like a cross between an
undertaker and a limousine driver. The only thing missing was the black cap. He
lumbered down the side of the SUV toward the rear door. He shuffled more than walked,
and I couldn’t tell if his feet actually left the ground. He gripped the rear passenger door
handle and opened it with what I imagined was enough force to rip the door from its
metal hinges. He yanked the door open wide and a man about my size, thin and average,
stepped out. He checked the oncoming traffic and walked across the street toward the
coffee shop. The fat man took a few steps before turning back for the container he’d left
on the SUV’s roof and then double-timed it across the street behind the thin man. He
moved faster that I thought he could.
Both men came through the door, but only the big guy had to turn to his side when
he stepped over the threshold. From the earlier phone call, I had the impression these
guys might lean to the inconspicuous side, but the fat man crushed any chance of keeping
a low profile. He turned heads.
I tipped my hand in the air to identify myself, and both men approached the table.
The thin man leaned forward. “You Mr. Finn?” he said.
“I’m Bishop,” he nodded to the fat man. “This is Sam.”
Bishop surveyed the room. Winans wasn’t a big place, but most customers preferred
the dozen or so tables in the front of the coffee shop to enjoy the view of Eighth Street.
The room tapered toward the back, where at the moment only one chair had an ass in it.
“Let’s move to the rear,” said Bishop.
Fat Sam led the way. The elderly man sitting at the table looked up as the big man’s
shadow engulfed the entire section. Fat Sam picked up the guy’s coffee cup, snatched the
Cincinnati Enquirer from his hand and placed them on a table at the front of the coffee
shop. The elderly man didn’t speak. He just looked at Fat Sam, who returned the stare,
waiting for him to retreat. Then, he looked at me and Bishop, stood up and relocated to
his new seat near the front window.
Fat Sam moved two tables together and the three of us sat down. I set my coffee cup
on the table in front of me.
“Want something to drink?” I said.
“No. I don’t drink coffee,” said Bishop.
Fat Sam held up the forty-five-ounce coma-inducer in his hand. “I’m good,” he said.
Bishop put his skinny hands on the table. “Thanks for meeting us,” he said, his voice
low. “As I mentioned on the phone, I need to locate someone. I got your name from a
contact in Boston. Who knew you were right here in my own backyard? He says you’re
good at that type of thing — finding people. And you’re sensitive to the needs and
position of people like me. That right?”
I leaned back in my chair. “I’d like to think so,” I said.
I’d never heard of Bishop and had no idea what he did, but if he needed me, he was
bad news. People like me are the last hope for people like him. I locate people who don’t
want to be found. And I understand that once I find them, they won’t be found again. I’m
sort of like Death’s GPS.
Bishop leaned in so that we were almost face to face. “I’m a straightforward person,
Mr. Finn, so I’m going to get right to the point. Someone is blackmailing me, and I want
to know who. I don’t need law enforcement involved, which is why we’re having this
I took a sip of my coffee, which was now lukewarm. “Do you have any idea who it
might be?” I said.
“No, he’s a ghost. All I have is a handle. Silvio1053. In my business, I work with
some unsavory individuals. Data thieves and hackers mostly, so he’s likely someone I’ve
worked with in the past or at least someone who knows my business.”
My ears perked up. “What business is that, exactly?”
Bishop paused for a moment and then looked at Fat Sam. He hesitated.
“Look, Bishop. You contacted me,” I said. “I only ask the questions I need answers
to, and that information doesn’t leave this table. But if you don’t want to tell me what I
need to know, I can’t help you, and we can save ourselves a fuckload of time and just part
Bishop nodded and then leaned in closer.
“I sell information, Mr. Finn. Illegal information that people pay a lot of money for. I
run an underground website, the Dark Brokerage. It’s a black market for sensitive and
personal information. Stolen information.”
“How exactly do you get this information?”
“Various ways. I have a network of providers who can deliver pretty much anything.
Hackers to crack sophisticated systems, lower-level cons with access to various
information sources. Even got high-schoolers eager to dumpster dive for a few extra
bucks. If there’s a market for it, I can usually get it.”
Bishop was an information reseller. Need to purchase a block of one hundred credit
card numbers? Bishop had them. A Social Security number for someone born in Illinois
in 1975? He could get it for the right price. All that compromised financial data from
those department store data breaches? It finds its way to people like Bishop, who
packages them up with a big pink bow and resells them. The concept was ingenious and
unsettling at the same time, and it made me question every type of information available
if you knew where to look.
“So where does the blackmail come in?” I said. “With all that information, shouldn’t
you be the one doing the blackmailing?”
“It’s not the information, but the way I sell it. Once someone logs onto my site, they
can browse the information available for sale or they can make a request for something
not yet available. But they have to log into the site before they do anything. It requires a
username and password, just like you have for logging onto your bank online. But my
user list is a who’s who of bad people. It’s a list that the authorities might be interested in.
And if that list ever made it out to the public, I’d be fucked.”
“That’s what Silvio1053 is holding over your head? Your user list?”
“Right.” Bishop explained in tech-nerd speak I didn’t understand that Silvio1053
somehow hacked the records from the Dark Brokerage site and threatened to go to the
Feds and reveal Bishop’s customers’ names, addresses and order histories unless he
ponied up fifty grand a month. He’d already paid one month’s sum, but it wasn’t a
business expense he wanted to continue to write off. And that’s where I came in.
“What can you tell me about this Silvio? What do you have to get me started?” I
“Not much. You’ve got to understand that I deal with a lot of shady people, so
secrecy is a way of life.”
“Kind of ironic that someone who deals in secret information can’t identify the
person blackmailing him.”
Bishop smirked. “I get the irony, thanks,” he said.
“How does he contact you?”
“Through e-mail,” said Bishop. “He’s using an encrypted account. Everyone I work
Fat Sam looked up and I followed his eyes. Two hipsters in vintage T-shirts, tight
jeans, boots and thrift-store cardigans made a beeline for the table next to us. Fat Sam
stared them down with a look that said, “Turn around, or those sweaters go up your ass.”
They must have received the message because they stopped in their tracks and looked
around for a safer place to sit.
“This Silvio1053, you sure he really has something on you?” I said.
“He e-mailed me samples and they’re solid. He’s legit.”
“What about the first cash drop?” I asked. “Where did you meet him?”
“I didn’t meet him. It was all handled online.”
“So you’ve got a bank account number, a routing number or something? Maybe we
can trace him that way.”
“Not exactly. Ever hear of bitcoins?”
I knew about bitcoins, a type of digital currency. They’d been in the news lately. The
word was still out on whether they were completely untraceable.
“Heard of them, but never use them,” I said.
“It’s an anonymous currency. You convert your cash into bitcoins, purchase your
product and then the seller takes your bitcoins and uses an exchange to convert it all back
to cash. Completely digital and anonymous.”
Fat Sam swirled the tumbler in front of him. “Ain’t you gonna write any of this
down?” he said.
I glanced at him. “No paper trail,” I said and turned back to Bishop. “This keeps
getting more complicated.”
“Look, my entire business is based on invisibility. I’ve got names and details on
customers buying and selling illegal information. These people don’t want that info to get
out. Without anonymity for the seller or buyer, it all falls apart.”
“But they found out your identity? To blackmail you.”
“My guess is Silvio1053 cracked my administrator login and got into my customer
data. That’s why I think he’s someone who either sold information to me or purchased it
from me. He has some familiarity with the site and knows how it works. I’m not exactly
sure how he did it, but I can promise you that once you find him and I put a gun down his
throat, I’ll find out how and make damn sure it never happens again.”
Fat Sam slurped his diet whatever through his straw. “But you didn’t hear that gun
part,” he said.
“Right,” I said. “So there’s not a lot to go on. I’ll have to get creative.”
“This is why I need someone who specializes in this type of work,” said Bishop. “It’s
not your average case. And my Boston contact says you’re not the average guy.”
“Got that right,” I said.
Bishop nodded to Fat Sam, who dropped an orange file folder on the table. I hadn’t
noticed it concealed under the bulk of his black jacket.
“This is all the info I have,” said Bishop. “It’s got Silvio’s e-mails. There’s not a lot
there, but it might help. My number is in there, too, if you need to contact me. You’ve got
thirty days to locate him. I’ll pay you twenty grand for his identity and location. Half now
and half when you give me the info. You can’t find him in thirty days, then Sam here puts
you on the shit list.” He paused. “And you don’t want to be on the shit list.”
I was silent for a moment. “I don’t get an opportunity to turn down the case?” I said.
“Not after hearing everything I just told you,” Bishop answered. “Now you’re in it.”
Bishop nodded to Fat Sam again, who pulled an envelope from his cavernous jacket
and slipped it onto my lap under the table.
“This oughta get you started,” said Bishop.
“Okay,” I said, and we shook on it.
“Find this fucktard and maybe we can do business again.” Bishop stood up from the
table and Fat Sam followed. “If you’re as good as I hear you are, then I could use you on
a longer-term basis.”
“So what are we supposed to call you?” said Fat Sam. “You got a real name?”
“You’re not the only one who deals in anonymity,” I said. “Mr. Finn is good for
“Fair enough,” said Bishop. “Thirty days. Call me with updates.” Bishop and Fat
Sam left the coffee shop, crossed the street and disappeared into the navy-blue SUV.
I waited a few seconds and then ripped open the envelope that Fat Sam tossed in my
lap. Crisp hundred-dollar bills. A ten-grand down payment. I slipped the envelope inside
my leather messenger bag on the floor next to my feet. Morality doesn’t exist in my
business. There isn’t good and bad — just shades of both. The idea of Bishop or Fat Sam
pushing a gun down a blackmailer’s throat didn’t unnerve me. Criminals can kill each
other all day as far as I’m concerned. They’re just thinning out the herd. But Silvio1053
might be a hard man to find, if he were even a man at all.
I walked to the counter for a third cup of coffee. I needed the caffeine boost to get
my brain firing on all cylinders.
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