Make me, p.31
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       Make Me, p.31
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         Part #20 of Jack Reacher series by Lee Child

  Chapter 45

  The guy from Palo Alto had a thing on his phone that summoned cars to the curb within minutes. Riding four to a car was deemed unseemly, so he pressed twice and got two. He rode with Westwood, to catch up on old times, and Reacher and Chang followed, in a Town Car all their own. The guy’s house was a 1950s box remodeled in the 1970s to look like the 1930s. Reacher figured it had a triple layer of ironic authenticity all its own, and was therefore worth more than all the money he had made in his life.

  Inside it was clean and all silver and black. Reacher had been expecting a tangled riot of computer gear, like they had seen in McCann’s apartment in Chicago, but in the den there was nothing but a small glass table and a lone no-brand desktop. There was a tower unit, and a screen, and a keyboard, and a trackball, none of which matched. There were only five wires, all cut to the right length, none tangled, all neatly placed.

  The guy said, “I built it myself. There are various technical hurdles and some serious data incompatibilities to overcome. It’s like visiting a foreign country. You have to learn their language. And their customs, more importantly. I wrote some browser software. Based on Tor, which is what they all use. Which was written by the United States Naval Research Laboratory, ironically. To provide a safe haven for political dissidents and whistleblowers, all around the world. Which is the law of unintended consequences, right there, biting the world in the ass. Tor stands for The Onion Router. Because that’s what we’re dealing with here. Layers upon layers upon layers, like the layers of an onion, in the Deep Web itself, and inside all of its separate sites.”

  He sat down and fired up his machine. There was no fancy stuff on the screen. No pictures of outer space, no icons. Just short lines of green writing on a black field. All business, like an airline check-in desk, or a car rental counter.

  The guy said, “What’s the missing individual’s name?”

  Chang said, “Michael McCann.”

  “Social Security Number?”

  “Don’t know.”

  “Home address?”

  “Don’t know.”

  “Not good,” the guy said. “There are preliminary steps to be taken. I need what I call his internet fingerprint. It’s an algorithm I wrote. Some of this, some of that. The precise minimum required to be definitive. Elegant, really. We can start with something as simple as his cable bill. But there are other ways. Do we know his next of kin?”

  “That would be his father, Peter McCann. His mother is long dead.”

  “Do we have an address for Peter McCann?”

  Chang told him. The undistinguished brownstone, on the undistinguished street. Lincoln Park, Chicago. Apartment 32. The guy typed a command and what looked like a portal appeared, into the Social Security Administration’s mainframe. The real government deal. Reacher glanced at Chang, and she nodded, as if to say it’s OK, I have one too. The guy entered Peter McCann’s data and found his Social Security Number instantly, which instantly led to Michael’s, because they were nominated for each other’s survivor benefits. Next of kin. Michael’s Social Security Number led to his address, which was also in Lincoln Park, Chicago.

  Then the guy came out of Social Security, and went into some other complex database. He entered Michael McCann’s Social Security Number, and his address, and the screen re-drew into a long list of alphanumeric codes. The internet fingerprint. Michael McCann, and no one else.

  The guy typed a new command, and the screen came up with a title page, crudely formatted out of plain green writing on a black background, but with tabs and spaces and centering, so that it looked vaguely like a commercial product. Or a prototype. Which it was, Reacher supposed. In a way. Potentially. It looked inviting enough. Like bright emeralds on velvet. The most prominent word on the page was Bathyscaphe.

  “Get it?” the guy said.

  “A submarine,” Chang said. “Capable of going all the way to the ocean bed.”

  “Originally I called it Nemo. After the guy in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea. He commands a submarine named Nautilus. I liked him because nemo is Latin for nobody. Which seemed appropriate. But then they made a movie about a fish. Which ruined it.”

  He typed another command, and a search box came up.

  He said, “OK, start your engines. Thirty-two seconds is the wager.”

  He pasted a whole lot of stuff into the search box. Not Michael McCann’s name, but some of the long alphanumeric codes from the previous database. The fingerprint. Better than a name, presumably.

  The guy clicked the go tab, and a clock started running in Reacher’s head.

  Five seconds.

  The guy said, “One day it will be much faster. The raw search is good, but the page search is piped out to the find-and-replace function from an old word processor.”

  Twelve seconds.

  The guy said, “But please don’t get the wrong impression. In absolute terms it’s fast enough. But the Deep Web is very big. That’s the issue. And I don’t have Google’s advantages. No one is clamoring for my attention. They want the opposite. But I’m down there. Right now. I’m among them. They can’t see me, but I can see them.”

  Twenty-five seconds.

  The guy said nothing.

  Then the search stopped.

  The screen changed to a list of links.

  “We found him,” the guy said. “Twenty-six seconds. Well below the promised thirty-two.”

  “Pretty good,” Reacher said.

  “I gambled. I narrowed the field. I knew where I might find him.”

  “Which was where?”

  “I hope Mr. Westwood explained about me. The rabbit holes we go down are sometimes chosen for us. Not necessarily on merit.”

  Reacher said, “The solving, not the problem.”

  “Searching the Deep Web is technically elegant, but being in it can be unpleasant. It has a bit of everything, but ultimately it’s a three-legged stool. A third of it is a vast criminal marketplace, where everything is for sale, from your credit card number to murder. There are auction sites where hit men compete for jobs. Lowest bid wins. There are sites where you can specify how your wife should die, and there are contractors who will give you a custom quote.”

  Chang asked, “Where did you find Michael McCann?”

  The guy said, “The second leg of the Deep Web stool is pornography of the nastiest sort. Stomach-turning, even for me, and I’m not exactly a mainstream person.”

  “Is that what he was into?”

  “No, I found him in the third leg.”

  “Which is what?”

  “It was an easy guess. Because of the anhedonia. Because of the happiness meter stuck on zero. The third leg of the Deep Web is suicide.”

  The guy from Palo Alto said, “I browse those boards from time to time. As an anthropologist, I hope, not a voyeur. Not a spectator at the zoo. I imagine Michael McCann was on the low end of typical. Born depressed, and if his mother is long dead, she died when he was young. Not a good combination. I’m sure he wanted it all to end. Every day. We can’t imagine how sure and certain these people are. These are not temporary ups and downs. These people hate their lives, deeply and sincerely, and they want them to stop. They want to catch the bus. That’s the phrase they use. They want to catch the bus out of town. But it’s a big step. Some of the boards are about support. Which is why I asked about the sudden new friend. They call them suicide partners. They do it together. They hold hands and jump, so to speak. The boards hook them up. There’s a lot of discussion about compatibility. Is Michael’s partner missing too?”

  Chang said, “We don’t know. We don’t even know if it was a man or a woman. Near Tulsa, Oklahoma, we think.”

  Westwood said, “What do they talk about on the other boards?”

  “They talk about how. Endlessly. That’s their big question. There’s plenty of data out there. They discuss it like scripture. Best of all is a shotgun to the head. Instantaneous, as far as we know, and ninety-nine percent effect
ive. A handgun in the mouth is ninety-seven percent. Shotgun to the chest, ninety-six, and a handgun to the chest about eighty-nine. Which is about the same as hanging yourself. Setting yourself on fire scores about seventy-six. Setting fire to your house is about seventy-three. No one really wants to go lower than that. Meanwhile jumping in front of a train is back up there at ninety-six, and jumping off the roof is at ninety-three, and driving into a bridge support is about seventy-eight. But make sure you wear your seatbelt. You can get thrown clear. Unrestrained drivers score about seventy straight. You have to be there, when the engine comes in through the dashboard. And last but not least, ever popular, right back at the top, second only to the shotgun, is cyanide. Better than ninety-seven percent effective, in about two minutes. But it’s two minutes of hideous agony. And that’s the problem right there. All the best ways are violent. Some folks can’t handle that. Men as well as women. And some don’t have the circumstances. If you live in the city, you don’t have your uncle’s old varmint gun in the back of the barn. If you can’t drag yourself to the bathroom, how can you drag yourself to the railroad track?”

  “So what do they do?”

  “They talk, endlessly. About the holy grail. Swift and painless. Like falling asleep and never waking up. That’s what they’re looking for. They had it once. Or their parents did. A bottle of sleeping pills, and a glass of scotch. Or a hosepipe through the window of the family Buick. You fall asleep and you never wake up. Guaranteed. But not anymore. Now the family Buick has a catalytic converter. No more carbon monoxide. Not enough, anyway. You get a headache and a rash. Your scotch is the same as ever, but your sleeping pills aren’t. They’re safe now. Take them all at once, and you’ll sleep a day and a half, but you won’t wake up dead. Life has gotten very protected in America. Which gives these folks a problem. It’s what drove them to the Deep Web in the first place. The stigma, of course, but mostly because the solutions to their problems started to look like gray areas. In the surface world there would have been liability issues, and social responsibility, and all the rest of that lawyer stuff. As in, now your Buick is no good anymore, the new preferred source of carbon monoxide is the little hibachi grills you buy at the supermarket. A foil pan with charcoal, and a metal grill, all shrink-wrapped and ready to go. You get six or eight in your bedroom, and you put them high on shelves, and you light them all up, and the monoxide pours out, like liquid, heavier than air, and it pools on your bedroom floor, and the level rises up to the bed, and it snuffs you out. Swift and painless. Like falling asleep and never waking up. The holy grail. Except also one of the grills probably sets the wall on fire and the building burns down and whoever suggested the method gets hit by five hundred lawsuits.”

  Chang said, “What other laws are they breaking?”

  “It comes back to what they can handle. Even the hosepipe through the window was too rough for some. It’s cold in the garage, and it’s uncomfortable in the car, and the whole thing looks weird. Although carbon monoxide leaves a good-looking corpse. Cherry red. Looks healthy. Makes the mortician’s job very easy. But some folks want to die at home. Inside the house. The holy grail is in bed. So the next new thing was gas of a different kind. Plus an interesting medical fact. May I ask you a question? If you have to hold your breath too long, what is it that makes you desperate to breathe again?”

  “I’m running out of oxygen, I guess.”

  “That’s the interesting fact. It isn’t the absence of oxygen. It’s the presence of carbon dioxide. Kind of the same thing, but not exactly. The point is, you could suck up any kind of gas, and as long as it wasn’t carbon dioxide, your brain would be happy. You could have a chest full of nitrogen, no oxygen at all, about to kill you stone dead, and your lungs would say, hey man, we’re cool, no carbon dioxide here, no need for us to start pumping again until we see some. Which they never will, because you’ll never breathe again. Because you’ll never need to. Because you have no carbon dioxide. And so on. So those folks started sniffing nitrogen, but you have to go to the welding shop and the cylinders are too heavy to lift, so then they tried helium from the balloon store, but you needed masks and tubes, and the whole thing still looks weird, so in the end most folks won’t be satisfied with anything less than the old-fashioned bottle of pills and the glass of scotch. Exactly like it used to be. Except it can’t be anymore. Those pills were most likely either Nembutal or Secanol, and both of those substances are tightly controlled now. There’s no way to get them. Except illegally, of course, way down where no one can see you. There are sources. The holy grail. Most of the offers are scams, naturally. Powdered Nembutal from China, and so on. Dissolve in water or fruit juice. Maybe eight or nine hundred bucks for a lethal dose. Some poor desperate soul takes the cash to MoneyGram and sends it off, and then waits at home, anxious and tormented, and never sees any powdered Nembutal from China, because there never was any. The powder in the on-line photograph was talc, and the prescription bottle was for something else entirely. Which I felt was a new low, in the end. They’re preying on the last hopes of suicidal people.”

  Reacher said, “But you imply there are honest offers too. You said most, not all.”

  “Secanol has gone completely. Nembutal is the last chance. Now the holy grail all by itself. The only legal use for Nembutal in the United States is large-animal euthanasia. Some gets stolen, and some veterinarians are bent. Why not? A lethal dose for a human would be two small bottles. Easy to ship. FedEx would take care of it. Nine hundred bucks, for what gets splashed on the floor when you’re killing a mule. You’ll take that deal.”

  He saw houses still lived in, and houses converted to offices, for seed merchants and fertilizer dealers and a large-animal veterinarian.

  Reacher said, “Show us exactly where Michael McCann was posting. We want to read what he said.”

  Chapter 46

  They pulled chairs close to the glass table and crowded around the screen to read. Michael McCann was signed up for two suicide boards. In both cases he posted under the name of Mike. He wrote flatly, laboriously, as if numbed, as if exhausted by his burdens. His spelling was good, and his grammar was formal. Not naturally, Reacher thought, but as if he had been told there was a special way to do it, out in the public domain. Like public speaking. You put on a shirt and tie.

  The first board was the hook-up board. Michael was looking for a sympathetic companion. Not that he needed help. Not all of the time. More that he felt he could give it. At least some of the time. In many months he had brief conversations with two candidates, and then seemed to settle on a third, who went by the name of Exit. They began messaging often.

  Meanwhile the second board was the how board, which sometimes strayed into other discussions. Michael contributed now and then, with measured words, and never with anger or haste. He defended his right to catch the bus. He showed up in a thread about how to take Nembutal. He was anxious for guidance. In its commercial form its taste was said to be bitter. Best to mask it with juice, or chase it with scotch, which enhanced its efficiency anyway. It was always wise to take an anti-emetic beforehand, like a sea-sickness pill. No one wanted to throw up and be left with a less-than-fatal dose on board. No one wanted to wake up twenty hours later, with it all to do again.

  Michael also commented in a thread about the reliability of Nembutal suppliers. He had been ripped off more than once. The market was a jungle. All a con man needed was a good web site. No one could know exactly who he was. A guy in Thailand was supposed to be kosher. And then someone posted that MR had delivered, exactly as promised, genuine stuff that tested right. Another poster backed him up. MR were good people, he said. The real deal. Michael queried: MR? The first guy came back to the board and said: Mother’s Rest.

  Then over on the hook-up board, a day later, Michael told Exit he had checked the Mother’s Rest web site, and he thought Exit should look at it too, because there was much to discuss, especially on level five.

  No further details.

er said, “What’s level five?”

  The guy from Palo Alto said, “Think of the onion. Many layers. Deeper and deeper. The Web itself, and every site on it. The sign-in page is usually level two. Level four is usually the first page of merchandise. Therefore level five is likely to be special merchandise.”

  On the board, Exit had replied, and said level five was interesting. But that was late in the sequence, and the discussion went no further. It was overtaken by Michael’s physical move to Oklahoma. To Exit’s place, near Tulsa. His suicide partner. To get ready. Reacher assumed the discussion was continued in person.

  He said, “Can we take a look at the Mother’s Rest web site?”

  The guy said, “We’d have to find it first.”

  “You did OK before. You were six seconds under.”

  “I knew where to look. This next one will be measured in minutes. If we’re lucky.”

  “How many minutes? What’s the wager?”

  “Twenty,” the guy said.

  He typed commands and loaded up with search terms and keywords. He hit the go tab, and the clock in Reacher’s head started running. Everyone pushed back from the glass table, and stretched, and got comfortable, and got ready to wait.

  Westwood said, “The two hundred deaths could be two hundred Nembutal customers. I’m not sure what to think about it. From a news perspective, I mean. Is it a scandal? It’s legal in Washington and Oregon.”

  “Not the same thing,” the guy from Palo Alto said. “You need two doctors to sign off. You need to be about a hundred years old with a terminal disease. These guys wouldn’t qualify. And mostly they’re pissed about it.”

  “Then it becomes an ethical debate. Do we respect a person’s choices, plain and simple, or do we feel obliged to judge his reasons?”

  “Not his reasons,” Chang said. “That’s too intrusive. But I think we should judge his commitment. There’s a big difference between a short-term panic and a long-term need. Maybe commitment proves reasons. If you hang in there through all the hoops, it must really mean something to you.”

  “Then perhaps this current system is a good thing. In its way. Inadvertently. There are plenty of hoops. They’re certainly earning it.”

  Reacher said, “But what is Mother’s Rest earning? Two hundred Nembutal shipments at nine hundred bucks a pop is less than two hundred grand. Over the whole life of the project, presumably. Less the wholesale cost and the shipping. That’s a hobby. And you can’t pay guys like Merchenko out of hobby money. Something else is going on there. Has to be. Because … ”

  He stopped talking.

  Chang said, “Because what?”

  “We think the guy was killed there.”

  “What guy?”

  “At the beginning. With the backhoe.”


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