The Money Masquerade

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Chapter 23


ANNA

Sausalito, California

Kidnapped?” Caryssa asked in an incredulous tone. “He can’t even hide out at a luxury bunker and be safe!”

I tapped the FaceTime button on my iPhone, and there was Caryssa’s smiling yet worried expression staring back at me.

“We’re uncertain Sean’s kidnapped. But when Stoddard called the FBI and explained how he disappeared and someone ransacked his room, they suspected foul play,” I answered.

“Sounds reasonable if not an obvious conclusion, since three tech-billionaire gunmen were using him as a human target and he’s running for his life,” Carrysa said. A flicker of concern in her eyes suggested how worried she was for her old Silicon Valley colleague.

“The feds are likely right. Julie mentioned they equated this to former computer software executives kidnapped at gunpoint—”

“Holy crap! I remember when someone kidnapped the President of Adobe for ransom back in the early 90s from his Mountain View office. It was said to be a Middle Eastern organization involved. Hopefully, if this is the case, the FBI rescue Sean like the Adobe executive was—”

“Except that if it’s the three guys that shot him at his home in Los Altos Hills—which we must believe since they just chased him through tunnels—they are President Crown’s henchmen to drive our nation’s AI dominance,” I reminded Caryssa.

Shit. We’re talking powerful technocrats getting impunity,” Caryssa said. “This reminds me of something I heard on a business trip years ago in China, or maybe it was Israel. A C-level guy had said, ‘working in high-tech is a risky business. It’s geopolitical.’ I didn’t understand what he meant then.”

Throughout art school in Paris, at École des Beaux-Art was a cut-throat competition I thought never matched. But nobody tried to kill each other over what technologists call state-of-the-art design. Or did they? A flashback of my art gallery security guard bludgeoned to death with one of my sculptures came to mind.

“This stuff is still going on, last year a wealthy tech-executive was kidnapped from his Santa Cruz home and killed,” I said, casting my eyes down at the screen flashing data usage statistics I’d never find time to monitor.

“Oh, right, and the disgruntled YouTube employee who entered the office in San Bruno and killed three of her co-workers, before killing herself,” Caryssa mentioned.

“And don’t forget the computer antivirus bad boy whose company became so successful after the ‘Michelangelo’ virus hit PC’s in 92—”

McAfee! Right. What a sad story. His alcoholic dad commit suicide when he was a teen, which forever scarred him. He got mixed up with drugs and alcohol. He went from multimillionaire tech mogul to a suspected murderer,” Caryssa cut in, “from a software pioneer to an eccentric fugitive living in Belize.”

Another tech-millionaire on the run, I thought. But Sean’s not a nutcase. “He even ran for US President, making up his own crazy party name—”

“The ‘Cyber Party.’ I remember that, and he introduced his campaign over a YouTube video. Heck, when we really think about it, what we have now is no less flamboyantly cyber-crazed than if McAfee was President— what with the dangerous race for artificial intelligence supremacy and a brilliant computer geek being trusted to save us from Cloud Virus!”

I laughed and considered the overall nature of tech giants running our country. But something wasn’t adding up. “Back to Sean. They wouldn’t be looking for ransom money. They wanted to invest in his technology—”

“Technology is money, Anna. Sean’s software is worth more than any ransom. It seems technology became valued more than life itself with the rush to autonomous systems that outperform humans. All high-tech hype and hysteria.”

“Big money. Big politics,” I said.

The political power amassed by big tech is concerning, with certain companies having revenues that exceed the GDP’s of more than half the world’s countries.

Caryssa’s voice broke my musings. “I swear… it seems we live in a virtual world, and this is just one big infectious computer virus hanging over humanity. A software glitch or bug—like we need to fix the system. And the ubiquitous idea we can rely on more eerie militaristic technology to ‘combat’ it.”

“Are we going to talk about robotic insects again?” I asked.

“Kind of… have you heard of the ‘pandemic drones’ recently tested in Connecticut?” Carrysa asked.

“Oh, Dieu! Don’t tell me, giant bees swarming the skies?”

“Not far off, they base this technology on dragonflies known as voracious aerial predators,” Caryssa explained while spreading her arms for emphasis.

Okay… we have dragonflies fighting Cloud Virus. This ought to be interesting.”

“A company called Draganfly, a leader in military drones, had test pilots hovering over Manhattan to track anyone caught sneezing or coughing—”

What the… it sounds like 1918 Chicago during the Spanish flu when people were arrested for sneezing or coughing without covering their face!” I interrupted. “This is developing into an invasion of privacy.”

Caryssa nodded, “Seriously, these pandemic drones were to enforce social distancing rules—using surveillance technology to profit off a disease with no proven origin. Luckily, the program was canned. How could such unconstitutional tracking software help contain a virus?”

“Sounds like the company trying to get Sean’s software to help with such ‘mission,’ I said. “UAV’s to track invisible enemies.”

“Where were these science-fiction-like drones in the sky during all our mass shootings, scoping out needless military-style guns on the shelves of our nation's stores?”

We narrowly escaped a mass shooting at a coffee shop last Fall, I thought. “At least we don’t hear of any mass shootings since the fog of Cloud Virus descended upon society, what with no large gatherings—”

“Actually, I read there’s been like 109 mass shootings in the US since January 2020. We just don’t hear of them; they’re no longer considered big news—just a part of everyday life in America.”

Merde,” I shouted. Then I tried to make light of the biggest fear we both shared. Her son and my grandson’s future. “Hey, at least we need not go to the movies to watch the masked theatre we now live in, like Medieval times laced with mystery!”

“Masked bandits, at that! Going into stores and robbing them at gunpoint to survive,” Caryssa added. “People are starving on the streets with the lockdown.”

There was a moment of lull in our conversation in which all I heard was an annoying crackling sound from my iPhone. I heard it’s an Apple software glitch but I’m not about to buy a new phone.

“What are you doing for the rest of the day?” Caryssa asked.

“Getting creative with my plan to reopen my art gallery.” I glanced out at the sailboats in the harbor. “I’m focused on the sheer beauty around me, including the new art I picked up at curbside in the city yesterday—”

“You bought more art?”

Oui, a few Indonesian art sculptures. This was the week I was to be in Paris to replenish my inventory. So, I’m making the best of it. San Francisco was like a ghost town yesterday—which seemed to coincide with the theme so many art galleries are going with these days.”

“What theme?”

“With a spotlight on things like ’Humankind in Crisis.’ Check out the unique pieces I got yesterday.” I positioned the mask sculptures in front of my screen.

“Wow, those are… as creepy as my dragonfly story.” Caryssa said with trepidation in her voice. “They look like masks of death.”

“This one here—” I grabbed the blood-red Noh Mask — “typically goes for over a thousand dollars, but I got it for a couple hundred. It’s 20th-century wood paint for Japanese theatre but with characteristics of an Indonesian mask. Kind of cool, hey?”

“Hmmm… relevant to today,” Caryssa said with scrunched eyebrows.

“Contemporary art is emotional. It’s what sells.”

There was a weird echo and I realized it’s my phone pinging me with a text. “I need to turn my notifications off during these calls,” I said. Until I saw Julie’s name flashing across the top of my screen. I swiped to read her message, then shouted; “Bonne Nouvelles! Good news, Sean wasn’t kidnapped!”

“Excellent. Where did he disappear to?”

“He’s at a Stanford University Computer Science Lab.”

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