Signals and Noise: Chapter 15 (Synaesthesia)

The drift from daylight into twilight held an anxiety for Zach. There was a liquescent feeling to the air that was a result of the luminous ocean, the cars, and the windows of the coastal homes. The morning was much bolder in its transition—less lackadaisical—because the coastal range blocked the light into a striated glow until finally rolling over town in full heat, bearing down on the fogbank that stretched out to the south like twirling cotton candy. He woke up scared in a way that he rarely ever did. There had been days when he awoke in a full flush, bounding out to the living room to peer out through the blinds, marveling that the FBI had not yet arrived, but there had always been a mischievous edge to his fears. If he had been arrested, taken in, interrogated, it was all part of the stripes associated with his own actions. This time was different for Zach. He was scared that there was something else going on that he did not understand, and he was not at all used to not understanding or, at least, thinking he understood.

The online universe had not changed and PoorGore was not back in The Spinner’s miniverse. He checked in on the Idaho papers, narrowing to the southwest corner of the state, watching for anomalies. Pollution, grazing rights, indigenous casinos and their impacts, car dealerships going under, property taxes—it was all normal for the time being except that PoorGore had vanished and nothing significant had happened. Zach’s mental math suggested he could be anywhere in the United States given the elapsed time since PoorGore’s last post. He peered at FC’s house from space again, but the satellite imagery had not changed. The red truck remained the bright spot among the grays of the season. Zach contacted an online acquaintance from Eastern Europe and tried to get access to the cell phone system. He wanted to track FC, to disprove that he was actively plotting some nefarious act. In broken l33t speak, CY411 offered passage into one of three major cell carriers in the United States, but wanted two hundred bucks for the info. Zach knew he was good for it and the information would be accurate, but he was not about to pay for the privilege of getting in a back door to check something so simple. He offered a trade with some hints concerning a banking network in the United Kingdom and eventually CY411 offered to get him the information he wanted. It would take a day or so, he said, because he was just heading to sleep. Zach had to wait.

The text alert didn’t come until after school, leaving him the day to think about whether PoorGore had said anything about the place The Spinner had chosen for his incomprehensible last stand against the oppressive anti-freedom powers. He surfed through this question at lunch, brushing off Shakey and the pugnacious and plump Wilmer to focus on his phone between slices of tasteless pizza. There had been some rumblings and theories about why the school had been chosen shortly after the event. imPalin44 had offered the first speculation, claiming that The Spinner had gone to school there and knew how the system was brainwashing the kids into accepting the dysfunctional liberalism of California as normal and healthy. The teachers were following a script concocted by an army of dilettantes bent on Marxist subjugation. They were collateral damage in imPalin44’s worldview (Zach recoiled at the notion that there was such a thing as a worldview but it was a temporary placeholder for him, as useful as the shorthand of cultural anthropologists trying to stay objective while witchdoctors exorcise demons from cancer patients). But PoorGore had stepped in at that point, derailing the suggestion because he could not believe that The Spinner would have succumbed to something so limited. He had a bigger plan, PoorGore asserted, and dozens more agreed with the assessment. Zach was impressed that there were even a few moments of disagreement among The Spinner’s cognoscenti, but saw how PoorGore had stepped into the role of central Alpha through a series of quick corrections and focusing of the group’s attentions. He had waited just enough for the initial, malformed and malleable suggestion, then responded with a forceful objection and choreographed series of alternate hypotheses that were followed by a promise for more soon. He had implied that he knew the answer or at least an answer, and had heightened the tension by suggesting a scaffold of supporting evidence. There had been no note with the body or in the home, implying that The Spinner had been trying to avoid intervention in his plan by vigilant enemies or spies, and that he had not planned on killing himself. He had driven his silver Ford truck directly into the staff and visitor parking lot and had parked rather than stopped in the fire lane, implying that he had planned to return to his vehicle rather than having gone on a suicide mission. To PoorGore and his audience these facts seemed to support a narrative where The Spinner had been after something specific and had perhaps not been planning to kill at all. His suicide on the beach wasn’t a suicide at all, but had been staged to simply resemble one.

Zach was impressed by the reasoning that emerged herky-jerky from the collective posts of PoorGore and others. They were rational when confronted with a problem that challenged them, and set aside the magic and fear enough to make progress on the dilemma at hand. Zach looked through the police reports and press stories for confirmation of each of the factual claims and found them to be true. He also dug up a sketched map from a detailed next-day news report outlining how The Spinner had traversed the school. He had walked right past the main office and headed for the science wing, it appeared. His shooting began there, but not immediately inside the doors. He had walked past three classrooms to open the door of a fourth, shot twice, killing a girl and the teacher, then moved on. He was not a pachinko ball deflected among random interactions until firing without thought. He had had a goal.

Zach wandered to the science wing, modestly active due to lunch schedules. He saw the classroom shown in the drawing. It was closed and locked with a sign behind the crossed wires of the vertical window indicating that classes had been moved down the hall. He peered over it and saw a few desks at slight angles but little more. If there had been blood it had been cleaned up. The science teacher had had an accent, Zach recalled. He was Southeast Asian and a first generation immigrant. Zach had been transfixed by the news and had watched the man’s life story unfold like a flower in the morning sun. He was Cambodian and had fled the Khmer Rouge with his family, making their way to the United States. He had studied chemistry at UC Northridge, but then took his Masters in education. He had been married but was divorced for a year or two after eight years of teaching. There had been photos of happy times on TV. There had been photos of Mr. Buna as a kid, smiling with an ice cream at Disneyland in the late 70s.

Zach remembered something else, though. He had thought he had seen an Asian man walking outside during the shootings. It had to have been The Spinner but never quite fit for Zach. If the man had been The Spinner, why was he in the quad at that time? He was starting to doubt the standard narrative but didn’t know whether there was any sense to the new narrative that was trying to crowd out the standard one. There were inconsistencies that were beginning to become amplified, and it made Zach nervous. He wanted to warn someone but was acutely aware of the level of paranoia that he would be projecting if he made the series of unsubstantiated and insubstantial claims that he was contemplating.

The bell rang and Zach was shivering a bit. He had sudden fight or flight and started to jog towards the rear exit from the wing. He could see faint tufts of palms rocking and whipping in the winds. Stay away from crowds. Stay away from school. The impulses subsided lightly as he threw open the door with a clang of the cross bar and hit the blacktop below. A few students pushed their way passed him, absorbed in their discussions, and reset Zach against the nagging of the quiet in the empty hall, and back to the chirping of the birds of youth.

Back to class, Zach saw, heard, and felt tension. There was a buzz in his ears and the air was again liquescent, thick and suddenly humid. He tried to focus on the lecture about cross-sections of curves, miniscule slices of an envisioned model of how physical systems interacted. There was something almost tactile about the model, just briefly, as the thin segments scratched in chalks narrowed down towards infinitesimal. Zach didn’t believe that there was any possibility that the image came first, before the mathematical complexities that were imperfectly projected on the cave wall. It couldn’t, he surmised, because there was no way to connect the squeezing of the infinitesimals to the symbolic transformations that were swirling beside it. The equations came first during play, he suspected. First was the realization that the differentiation could be mechanically rendered using a few almost algebraic flips of the pen, writing long down the columns of old parchment by candlelight. Then came the interpretation, the visual phantoms erupting days and weeks later in trials at forming an explanation of what it all could possibly mean. Then, suspiciously, the visual compression of the slices into something thinner than air itself took on a physicality that felt like touching sharp claymation intent on animating the imagery of possible explanations.

Zach felt the same about The Spinner and his web. He could again taste the metallic fear that had dried his tongue as he crouched beside his desk. He could feel the weight of panic and intrigue, the silenced breaths, hanging around him as the shots had echoed behind the dividing door. Reconciling that deathly fear with the facts was opening a new canyon beneath him. He had been standing for an hour at the docks watching a yacht. He was trying to score the cell phone records of some nut from Idaho. He could stop briefly, hold in place, but he could not completely deactivate the swirling mental processes that began with ponds of paranoia drawing thin filaments between events and people, then poured away most of the thicket like hot metal from the mouth of a mold. There were patterns and hidden variables and he was attuned to touch and feel them. He watched and felt the lecture reach a crescendo as the final answers were revealed: pi over 3 square meters. Zach’s sensorium registered relief as the result emerged from the tangle and it made perfect sense to him that there were complex variables rigidly resolvable in the fluidity of the argument about change and slopes. That slope’s the dope, he thought, and didn’t bother to do the homework problems.

The user and password did not arrive on time and Zach was tracking his source while waiting on the train after school. He cajoled and exhorted but CY411 was cold, nonresponsive. Then, with a l33t yawn of indifference, he was back in the chat rooms that morphed from continent to continent, server to server, and had the keys to the kingdom of the boring world of call detail records. Zach took them away and secreted them on a server in the gray universe of open Ukrainian servers. He imagined young men in black leather blowing into their hands to warm them as they set up email servers for Russian mobsters, for botnets, and kiddie pornmeisters hiding behind the complexities of international law. He had a small corner there where he stuck sensitive materials, with redundancy in the backwaters of an Indonesian military contractor. He felt around a bit for strange signals and rootkits, then encrypted the data into a random field of peaks and valleys before trying his first access to the cell phone system.

He was in immediately and started familiarizing himself with the landscape. There was a central database with many tables for customers. There was a second database for corporate employees. He did not have credentials for that one. And then, with a shallow breath and gulp of energy drink in the late afternoon of his cavern, Zach found Finley Carlton of Idaho. It was a clean find, too, because Finley Carlton was unambiguous. If he had been searching for Jim Smith he would have had problems. The billing address was a match, as well. Zach stared at the screen and it almost pulsed at him for a moment. The clarity was just so perfect. He spilled the call record and sorted by date and time, isolating the last few days.

And there it was: a call from San Chardin to Idaho dated yesterday, lasting two minutes and thirty three seconds. Mid-afternoon, while Zach walked the quad, heading for the parking lot. Zach’s breath was shallow again and he heard his heartbeat in his ears. He was here, he thought. He was here and no one knew it but Zach. He grabbed the phone receiver and stared at the amber keyboard. What would he tell them, though? What made sense when no crime had been committed? Maybe PoorGore/Finley Carlton just wanted to see the scene of The Spinner’s alleged crime spree (the introduction of “alleged” served both as a prospective acknowledgement of the kind of neutrality that the local news haphazardly engaged in and as a recognition of the vague unease that Zach now felt about the facts of the shooting incident). Maybe he wanted to try to unravel the tangled motivations that he attributed to his former friend and acquaintance. In either case, Zach was panicky enough that he double-checked the door lock and spent twenty minutes peering between the front blinds. He did not just glance, either, but stilled his breathing and encompassed the visual scene, watching for abnormal stillness in the grasses across the road. He slid across the window to see the blue Honda parallel parked: no occupant. There was anticipatory dread, though Zach knew that PoorGore had no idea who he was. It had little impact on the fear that had enveloped him. He stayed by the window until his mom returned home at eight, Thai take-away in her arms. He was so glad to see her he hugged her as she came in the door. She sensed a crisis moment and started to run through lists of responses that she had found online. The list was long, though, and she didn’t have any bearings to navigate the reasons for this sudden assault of affection, and finally untensed and leaned into her son and they were still for a few moments as his breathing slowed to normal against her neck.

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