Robert Lopresti writes the very popular Shanks stories for AHMM, but this one is a little different. He sent it to us with the request that it go on our blog immediately. He explained that it is “based on a scam that recently did major damage to the mother of a friend of mine. . . . I consider the story a kind of public service, since it warns people about this thing.” Here it is. Enjoy, and be warned!
“Please hang on,” said Leopold Longshanks. “I’ll have to start up my computer. It’s down in the basement.”
“Of course,” said Jake. “I’ll wait.”
“You’re too kind,” said Shanks. He was in his home office, checking his e-mail. His publisher had replied, in a cranky mood, concerning Shanks’s complaint about the proposed cover for his new novel. The artist had apparently been unaware that only the bullet is fired out of a gun, not the entire cartridge. You would think the publisher would be grateful Shanks caught it before they all got laughed at, but no.
There was also an email from the organizers of a conference, reminding him that he had agreed to speak. Shanks was happy to do so, good publicity, but was less than thrilled by the topic they had assigned him. He was supposed to find something new to say about that old classic: Why do people read mysteries?
The question we should be asking is why more people don’t. If we could double the readership I could buy a better computer, and a new smartphone—
Phone. He picked it up. “Jake? You still there?”
“Yes, sir.” He had a slight accent. East Asian, perhaps?
Jake had called a minute earlier, identifying himself as being “from the technical support division of Windows. We have reports that your computer is sending out malicious messages. Apparently it is infested with malware.”
“My gosh,” Shanks had said. “That’s terrible.”
“Yes sir. Your computer could crash at any moment. But I can fix it for you.”
“Really? That’s wonderful! How can you do that?”
“I have to take control of your computer for a few minutes. Are you in front of it now?”
And so it began.
• • •
Frustration. That was the thesis for Shanks’s speech. People are drawn to mysteries because they are frustrated by injustice. Crimes unsolved. Felons unpunished.
He had planned to use bankers in the mortgage collapse as a showpiece—nobody in that whole crowd had done anything indictable?—but now he was thinking there might be a better, local example.
Namely Betty Shawcross, right across the street. Nicest neighbor you could ask for, although she was getting up there, close to eighty.
One day, about six months ago, she had come rushing over in tears. Seems she had received a phone call about malware on her computer and let the authority figure on the other end take control of her machine. By the time Shanks and his wife arrived the machine was spitting out its contents to some distant interloper and neither the off button nor CTRL-ALT-Del would stop it. Shanks had had to yank the plug out of the wall.
The computer technician they brought the machine to said flatly that he wasn’t going to mess with the infected thing. “Replace it.”
But Betty didn’t want to.
“How much money did she lose?” Shanks asked later.
“Not much,” said Cora. “That wasn’t as bad as having to get new credit cards, and change bank accounts. But here’s the worst part, Shanks. I told her ‘it could have happened to anyone,’ and you know what she said? ‘It would never have happened to me five years ago. There’s no way I would have fallen for that.’ Now she’s so afraid that she’s falling apart that she doesn’t want to buy another machine.”
“That’s terrible,” said Shanks. “She’s always talking about video-calling her grandkids.”
Cora nodded. “Her son is trying to talk her into buying another computer. Boy, I’d like to hurt those creeps.”
“Me too, my love. But there’s no way to get at them.”
• • •
“Jake? You still there?”
Amazingly, he was. “Yes sir. Are you ready now?”
“Almost, my friend.” Shanks sipped coffee. “Just hang in there.”
And here was an e-mail from his Hollywood agent, still trying to get a rational explanation from the studio about the allegedly disappointing net profits on their film.
Talk about felons unpunished.
Speaking of which, the phone was buzzing, signaling that Jake had hung up. Ah well.
Shanks opened a new file and began to type out some thoughts on his speech. He would have to disguise Betty’s identity, not that anyone at the conference would know her from Dorothy L. Sayers, but you couldn’t be too careful these—
The phone was ringing. Excellent.
“There was a technical problem, sir. We were cut off.” Jake sounded a little grumpy.
“I’m so sorry. All right, my friend. I’m sitting in front of my computer now.”
“Very good. I just need you to—”
“Wait, wait, wait. I have one question for you first.”
“What is it?”
Shanks raised a bushy eyebrow. “Do you have a beard?”
A longish pause. “A what?”
“Why would you want to know that?”
“I want to form some image of you. It’s a simple enough question.”
A sigh. “No, I don’t have a beard. Now, can we—”
“I’m guessing you use an electric shaver.”
“Listen, sir, your computer could break down at any minute. I will not be responsible if—”
“Then don’t waste time. Do you—”
“Yes! I use an electric shaver. Why?”
“I thought so,” said Shanks. “If I robbed people for a living I wouldn’t dare face myself in the mirror every morning with a razor in my hand. Jake? You there?”
Shanks checked his watch as he hit the off button on the phone.
He had kept Jake from ripping anyone off for a full quarter of an hour.
It was one minute off his personal best. Not to worry; sooner or later one of Jake’s friends would call back and give him another chance.
© 2014, by Robert Lopresti