It was Tuesday night and the Philadelphia Memorial public library would close in fifteen minutes. The array of five iMac computers arranged on a large wooden table sat idle. At precisely 9:45, a man with a knapsack in his right hand entered the old, brick library. He passed by the checkout desk, careful to avoid eye contact with the librarian, and then made his way to the computer station at the rear of the facility.
He took his usual spot behind the blueberry colored iMac which faced away from public scrutiny. He placed his bag on the floor at his feet. He cracked his knuckles and then logged onto the Internet, pleased that the head librarian refused to install filtering software. The glow of the computer screen cast a pale, bluish white light on his unshaven face as he worked.
Seconds later, he opened his knapsack, retrieved a zip disk and jammed it into the mouth of the computer, which--just his luck--had been specially modified by the library to accommodate zip disks. Within a minute the compressed contents of its 100 megabyte capacity were uploaded to his web-based web site.
As he worked, a voice from the overhead intercom softly informed all patrons to make their final selections and proceed to the checkout. The library would close in seven minutes. He checked his watch. No problem. He needed just five minutes more.
He continued his routine in silence, his fingers dancing across the keyboard with purpose. The transfer of data from the disk to the web now complete, he initiated a reverse transfer of financial information to the zip. A smile eased across his face as he reviewed the last number in a long string of numbers.
One million dollars.
His eyes narrowed as he stared at the number. With his damp left hand he stroked his chin for a long minute before logging off. He removed the zip disk and placed it into his bag. He took a towel and a small spray bottle out of the bag. He sprayed a gentle mist of the special solution onto the towel and then wiped off the keyboard and the body of the computer where he had inserted the zip drive. Satisfied, he replaced the items in the knapsack.
As he stood to leave, he caught a glimpse of the clock on the wall: 9:58. He flung the knapsack over one shoulder and then took his time as he walked passed the stacks of reference material, careful not to touch anything as he departed. When the librarian offered a good night, he managed a grunt--and no eye contact.
Outside of the library, the cool evening air filled his lungs. He inhaled deeply as he lingered at the top of the concrete steps that led down to the parking lot. He began to descend the dozen steps, but stopped when his cell phone played a distinct melody. He had specifically assigned this tune to help him identify the caller before he answered it.
Although he half expected the call, his heart still jumped. His nerves always seemed to be on heightened sensitivity during his trips to the library. He glanced around to ensure his conversation wouldn't't be heard before answering it. "Yo."
"What's the good word?"
He gripped the phone and spoke just above a whisper. "We just hit the magic number: 50,000 subscribers. Hold on . . ." He looked over his shoulder as two teens left the building. He waited for them to pass. "At twenty bucks a pop that's, what, a million bucks. Gotta love it, right?" He could hear a whistle on the other end of the line.
"You the man," the voice said. "Come see me as soon as you can. Maybe tomorrow, okay?"
"I'll try. Hang in there, bro." That said, he folded up his phone with a snap, stuffed it into his front jean pocket and then headed to his vehicle.
Wednesday, 5:33 p.m.
"What about you, Heather," Kat asked as she baptized her hamburger with catsup. "What's with this mystery date I've been hearing about? Who is he?" Kat's earrings clinked as she tilled her head.
Heather took another bite. When she finished chewing, she said, "Well, he's a senior at Villanova High--"
"Ooh, a rich kid," Kat said with a friendly smile.
"Maybe. Okay--probably," Heather said. "But that isn't important. What matters is that he's about the most sensitive, understanding guy I know."
Jodi threw a skeptical look at her.
"He is," Heather said. "Like, whenever my parents are on my case--or I have a really bad day--he just seems to know how to lift my spirits. Remember that day I was home sick? You know, last week?"
Jodi and Kat nodded.
"Well, he said if it were up to him, he'd make me a bowl of chicken noodle soup." A faraway look, like a vapor, floated across Heather's eyes. "Wasn't that so sweet? He always says stuff like that, especially when I've been down. Guess you could say he makes me feel special, you know?"
Jodi dabbed at the corners of her mouth with her napkin. She felt like gagging, but restrained herself. "So what's his name, or do we need to beat it out of you?"
"John Knox." Heather smiled softly as she spoke his name.
Jodi and Kat were quick to pounce with their questions.
"Where'd you meet him?"
"What's he look like?"
"Is he a jock?"
"When do we meet him?"
"Hey, what is this?" Heather said. "The Grand Inquisition?"
Jodi leaned toward Kat's ear and said, "She's got it bad, you know what I mean?" They shared a laugh.
"Ooh! And she's all top secret about him, too," Kat said, while giving Heather a friendly elbow.
"Cut it out." Heather put her sandwich down and folded her slender arms. "Actually, we met in a Christian chat room, if you must know. He's eighteen and he's--"
"In a chat room?" Jodi said. Her right eyebrow shot up. "Like, when was this?"
"I don't know. Maybe two or three months. Why? What's the big deal?" Heather said, shifting in her seat. "We've been talking online almost every night. Oh, and I've got his picture right here in my purse--"
"Wait a second," Jodi said, putting her fork down as a new thought crossed her mind. "Have you ever actually met this guy? I mean, like, in person?"
Heather looked down at her plate and poked at a fry. Jodi could almost hear the silence pass between them.
"Oh my gosh," Kat said, bringing a hand to her mouth. "You must be kidding. You've never met John--and you're going to go to the prom with him? That's nuts!"
"I knew you guys wouldn't understand," Heather said, indignant.
Kat cut her off. "What's to understand? I mean, I've done some crazy stuff--no, tons of crazy stuff--but this is seriously whacked."
Jodi squeezed Kat's arm, and then said, "Hold on a second." She softened her voice a bit. "Listen, Heather. We're not trying to gang up on you here."
"Sure feels like it," Heather said, avoiding eye contact. "Your problem is you're stuck in, like, the Ice Age. Ever hear of a blind date?" She turned to Kat. "Well, it's a new century if you hadn't noticed and people meet on the Internet all the time. Plus, there's gonna be hundreds of people around that night, right? So I don't see what could possibly go wrong?"
Wednesday, 7:33 p.m.
The air smelled like a cross between a dirty hamper and Lysol. His glasses, tinted red, and worn primarily to obscure his features, fogged up from the change in humidity. Rather than remove the frames to wipe the lenses on his shirt, he swiped at them with the back of his gloved hand. Awkward, yes. But to remove the phony lenses would give the guards a clear shot of his face in the security camera.
That done, he presented his knapsack and his New Jersey driver's license at the security desk knowing full well the license was a forgery. It gave his name as "Elvis Smith", which was a complete fabrication. He was unsure what the penalty would be if he were caught with the bogus credentials. Then again, he wasn't worried. He'd been visiting this penitentiary for several years. So far, no problem.
After all, he was a regular, affording him some frequent visitor status of sorts. At least that's what he imagined. Half the time the guard didn't bother to compare his face to the doctored photo on the license. He watched as his knapsack was scanned. They wouldn't find any contraband. He wasn't going to take any chances, not now at least.
An armed guard handed him his bag and then said, "Right this way, Elvis."
He avoided direct eye-to-eye contact as he accepted the knapsack from the guard.
Elvis was escorted to the visiting area, a room about 20x20 feet. No pictures. No carpet. No windows. Just a bare concrete floor and plaster walls painted industrial gray probably a hundred years ago, he guessed. He observed three guards talking in low tones off to one side. He was shown to a seat, a rickety metal folding chair which matched the dull gray walls. He sat facing a two-inch thick Plexiglas window. He was the only visitor, probably because visiting hours were due to end in about twenty minutes.
Moments later, a man with an unshaven face in an orange jumpsuit appeared at his window.
Elvis picked up the black phone to the left of the partition and pressed the receiver to his ear.
The prisoner did the same, and then spoke first.
"You made me wait--all day. What gives?"
"I'm here, ain't I?" Elvis said, adding, "Cut me some slack."
"Whatcha bring me?"
Elvis placed the handset down on the stainless steel ledge beneath the window, reached into his knapsack, and then withdrew a 9" x 12" unsealed manila envelope. He signaled to the guard who retrieved it. Elvis watched as the guard reviewed the contents and then delivered it on the other side of the wall.
Elvis picked up the phone and said, "A little cash, something to read, and your cigs, Jake."
Elvis watched as Jake placed a cigarette in his mouth. The guard provided a light. He inhaled deeply. "One of life's simple pleasures," he said. A cloud of smoke gushed out of his nose like a dragon blowing flames.
Jake crossed his legs. "So, tell me. You still using the library?"
"Sure thing," E...