Short Story: “Frachetti’s Challenge”

Get involved. You’ll be surprised at the results. (This sequence of Business short stories started in “Logical Conclusion“)

“Frachetti’s Challenge”
Part 12 of a series
by P. Orin Zack
[04/15/2008]

For most of Wobbly Banyan’s second set, Leo Agrolkin, fifty and graying, had been more than peripherally aware of the woman eying him from a table near the window. The distraction had an interesting side effect: his sax work was freer than usual. Which might explain why the crowd in this FW Diner was more engaged than those at the others the jazz band had played.

When they were finished, the manager thanked the musicians and invited the crowd to place their dinner orders. Leo, bowing to distraction, set his instrument down and slowly approached her. As he did, she laced her fingers on the table and smiled up at him.

“I take it you enjoyed the performance,” he said easily.

A subtle nod. “Yes. And the music was good, too. Care to join me for dinner? I’m buying.”

Leo chuckled. It wasn’t often that an attractive woman came on to him while he was working. But then, tonight he wasn’t wearing a bright yellow jumpsuit like the server who just walked past. “I would. Thanks. Miss…?”

“Sheila Markof. And it really is ‘Miss’, though I’d prefer it if you’d call me Shem.”

He slid into the chair opposite her. “As you wish, Shem. But tell me something. Did you come here for the music, the food, or um…” he glanced at the fake plastic bars on the window behind her “the cartoon prison chow hall atmosphere?”

“That’s easy. It’s the music. After all, there aren’t many places you can hear a jazz riff on old unionist songs from the comfort of a ‘cartoon prison chow hall’, as you put it. Besides, I needed a place to vent.”

“Oh? Delicate family matter? Workplace bully?”

Shem closed her eyes and sighed. “Neither. Government harassment. Have you ever heard of a guy called the Bank Shot Blogger? He was accused of being a terrorist a while back.”

“John Frachetti? Sure. What’s going on? Did the three-letter goons who threatened him at the FW I work at come after him again?”

“Whoa. Back up a minute, Leonard!”

“It’s Leovar, actually. Leo for short. The sign on the door’s wrong.”

“Leo, then. But you know him?”

“Sure. And I gotta say, those two government cretins who followed him in picked the wrong place to make their threat. The whole crowd, staff and customers alike, rose to protect him. And we didn’t even know who he was at the time. So what’s happened now? Last I heard, John was out on the road somewhere.”

The yellow-clad server who had walked past earlier returned to take their orders. When she’d gone, Shem resumed the conversation. “Well, if it’s those two you saw, they’re not very bright. A story was ‘leaked’ to the government’s unofficial propaganda outlets that some un-named experts in our glorious anti-terrorism agencies were trying to shut down the Bank Shot Blogger before he could issue what they called ‘a rallying call to chaos’. The way they talk, you’d think he was the leader of a rogue empire or something.”

“So did he? Publish that rant, or whatever it was?”

“Well, he didn’t respond at all for a few days, but then a flame war broke out. One faction was firmly convinced he was about to launch the mortgage strike he’s been agitating about. They acted like they were ready to pull the plug, as long as he led the charge. Another group said he was all talk and no action, so they might as well just fold their tents and go home.”

“And you,” Leo asked. “What did you think?”

“I thought they were baiting him, hoping he’d do something they could string him up for. I mean, think about it. If he really was about to trigger a revolt, why call attention to him? So I figured they’d set it up as a logic trap. If he does nothing, they claim success in silencing a terrorist. And if he does post something inflammatory, no matter what it is, they can claim it wasn’t the scheme he’d been plotting, and that they have their so-called ‘terrorist’ on the run. They win either way. I just wanted to scream!”

“Hence the need to vent.”

She nodded, and slumped.

A man from a nearby table walked over. “Listen, I heard you two talking about the Bank Shot guy. There’s news. He just franked a post through one of his supporters’ blogs. He said the charge is a sham. He wasn’t contemplating issuing a call to action, or even prepping some expose of the mortgage industry. What he did was to lay out the tactic they’re using against him, and set us a challenge.”

“A challenge?” Shem echoed. “What sort of challenge?”

“Well, the way he put it was this. One voice can be silenced. A crowd can be controlled. But the concerted action of a multitude of individuals can’t be stopped. He suggested that we take a lesson from the Wobblies. If they haul off the speaker, someone else mounts the stage. He wants to multiply the Bank Shot Blogger’s voice, for anyone who agrees with him to start using the alias to pick up the fight. If you need a picture, he said, think of the crowd in Guy Fawkes masks at the end of ‘V for Vendetta’.”

“Hoo,” Leo said beneath raised eyebrows. “That’s a chilling thought.”

“But think about it. How can they counter a voice that won’t be silenced? It’s a shrewd move.”

Shem nodded. “It certainly would be, if enough people had the nerve to put their necks on the line like that.”

“I don’t understand,” Leo said. “What risk are they taking? I mean, if they’re posting anonymously, and under his byline?”

“Anonymity is harder to arrange than it used to be,” she said. After thanking the man for the tip, she took a sip of water and plowed on. “The telecoms have succumbed to pressure from the feds, and started giving up IP associations. Even if your Internet connection has a dynamic IP address, the ISP’s servers still have a record of which ones were assigned to whom and when. So even if you post anonymously, you’re safer using a public computer or access point. I suspect that’s why John Frachetti took to the road in the first place.”

“Okay,” he said after digesting the technical stuff, “but to do that, you’d have to go out in public, which makes you easier to watch, especially if they already had a reason to track you. All you’ve done is trade one kind of risk for another.”

“Exactly my point, Leo. Anyone who takes up Frachetti’s challenge will be offering up her life, or at least her livelihood, on a silver platter. It can’t work if only a few people start making Bank Shot posts. There has to be a continuing stream of them, like Wobbly speakers at a street rally. That image he conjured was potent.”

The server returned with salads. “I’ve been catching bits of what you’re talking about,” she said as she set them down, “and I think we can help.”

“Oh?”

“What if all the FW Diners sprouted free wi-fi? Then a lot of those Fawksian posts you’re contemplating could originate from a free speech sanctuary.”

Leo grinned. “I like it. Spread the word. I’ll tell my manager when I get home. The parole officer in charge of FW’s incarceration appointed him CEO after Ed Reese was found dead in one of his own motels. Our union rep is in charge of this chain, now. We can get wi-fi rolled out in no time.”

“Incarceration?” Shem prompted when the server left.

“Then you didn’t know what all this cartoon stuff is about?”

“Um, no.”

“One of things that’s always amazed me,” Leo said, “is how much novelty a person can accept as normal before being overwhelmed to the point that they’ve got to say no, or at least ask for an explanation. Some people avoid novelty, but others are drawn to it. When Fremont-Wayfarer was sentenced to a three-year incarceration for stealing from the employee self-insurance fund, it was restricted from doing a lot of things. That should have kept the company in stasis. But Reese found a loophole: he could redecorate the chain. His idea was to make hay from the sentence, and the parole officer running the show wanted to get union approval first. As you can imagine, the idea of wearing those horrid yellow jumpsuits, and working in a demented prison theme park didn’t go over too well.”

Shem ate the last of her salad, and set down her fork. “I can imagine,” she said. “Well, I’d rather not think of you in bright yellow, but I can imagine the catcalls the plan must have gotten. So why’d the membership let them do it?”

“We nearly didn’t. But one of the members suggested a way to turn it to our advantage. That’s why there’s such a tight focus on activism here. We resolved to use Reese’s props and costumes as an icebreaker, a way to bring up corporate injustices in other business, including the companies our customers work for. It started with talk, and then a change to the kind of music playing on the ceiling speakers. Wobbly Banyan was the latest innovation.”

While Leo caught up on his neglected salad, Shem spent a few moments scanning the room. Besides the institutional paint job and the serving staff’s yellow jumpsuits, she also lingered on the cashier’s drab uniform and the plastic window bars, before returning for another look at the ludicrously decorated menu.

“So you think that offering the chain as a haven for Bank Shot clones would energize Frachetti’s supporters?”

“Sure. Don’t you?”

“Well, it would make it easier for the government to keep tabs on people who plan to slip the Fawkes mask on for a post. It could backfire.”

“There’s always risk,” Leo said agreeably. “Maybe I’m a bit more accepting of it than most because I’ve already been mistaken for a terrorist.”

“You what?”

Dinner had arrived, so they focused on their food for a while. About halfway through, Leo turned serious. “The no-fly list is notoriously flaky. And even if there isn’t a terror suspect out there with your exact name, the matching filter is so full of holes that it can peg you for having a name that looks or sounds like someone they’re interested in. Now, you’d think that someone with a name like Leovar Agrolkin wouldn’t have to worry much about a false match. So did I, until I tried flying to Canada to visit my family. Apparently, they’ve got someone who drops aliases that come pretty close, though. So I keep getting singled out for, um, ‘special treatment’.”

Shem offered a look of concern, but didn’t say anything.

“Is something wrong?” he asked.

She shook her head. “No. It might be right.”

“What?”

“I was wondering what would happen if you turned it around, like the union did for Reese’s prison scheme.”

“Turned what around?”

“Your false positives. If your name keeps coming up snake eyes on their terror dice, you’ve got a built-in reason for them to ignore you once you point it out. So I was thinking that maybe you’re in a perfect position to take Frachetti’s challenge. I mean, think about it. You travel around to various FW Diners with the Wobbly Banyan, and the chain is about to get wi-fi. I think you ought to pack a Guy Fawkes mask when you play gigs. What do you think?”

He sat back. “Me? You think I should start making Bank Shot posts?”

“Sure. It’s not like you don’t have opinions, and you’re in a much better position than he is to rally support. Why not?”

“I’ll tell you why not. For one thing, I’m not that good of a writer.”

“All the better,” she said calmly. “Remember, the point is to turn Frachetti’s ideas into action. All those people in Guy Fawkes masks may look the same to the government, but underneath, they’re from all walks of life. Unmasking the unified front is also part of the process. That’s how all the people who stepped up to support V found out they were in the company of people they already knew.”

Leo sat back and looked around the room. When the government goons threatened Frachetti at the FW Diner, everyone present had stood together without knowing who he was. Now that they did, what might they be able to do?

“Okay,” he said, grinning. “I’m in.”

THE END
Copyright 2008 by P. Orin Zack

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