Saturday, June 23, 2018

The Anti-Social Network

Tom Jurgen investigates a social media platform that brainwashes users to commit murder—and becomes its next target.

The Anti-Social Network, Part One

Morgan Montez had killed a man, then gone home and confessed on social media: I JUST MURDERED ERIC GRACE. I HAD NO CHOICE.
Then he shot himself in the head in front of his computer.
            Now his widow sat in front of me at the dining room table. “It’s that website! They brainwashed him! He didn’t even know that guy!”
            “Okay.” I opened my laptop. “What website?”
            “Capper.” Gena Montez pounded a fist, rattling our coffee mugs. In her early thirties, she had thick black hair and wide brown eyes streaked with red. “They’re trying to be the next Facebook. Morgan was obsessed with it. And it got him dead.”
            We were meeting in the apartment I share with my girlfriend Rachel. We’d moved in together a few months ago. So far things were going well, although it still felt a little like we were playing house.
Right now Rachel was in the office we shared, working on a landing page for someone’s conference.
            I spoke carefully. “When you say ‘obsessed,’ and ‘brainwashed’? What do you mean?” I’ve had my share of crazy clients—all private detectives do. People wanting their cats followed, or folks wanting evidence that the Illuminati are watching them. I tend to attract cases involving weird stuff anyway, but that doesn’t mean I believe everything I hear.
Me? Tom Jurgen, P.I. I used to be a reporter, until I insisted on reporting about things my bosses and the city didn’t want spread around. Since then I’ve been a private detective—but strange cases keep finding me.
“He joined a couple of months ago.” She glared at my open laptop as if it was the source of all her sorrows. “It was the hot new thing. He was always big on Facebook, Instagram, and all the rest. I didn’t care at first, but after a few weeks he was on it all the time—at home, at work, on his phone at dinner, even when we were at my mother’s. I told him he was getting addicted. He didn’t say anything.”
I found Capper. It looked like a Facebook wannabe, or maybe a MySpace mutation. Profiles, videos, ads—JOIN HERE! at the upper corner of the page.
I clicked on some profiles. Everything looked normal. The JOIN HERE! page had a lengthy privacy policy that I didn’t look at, plus a long list of security safeguards.
Morgan Montez’s profile was sparse. Just a photo, a shot of Lake Michigan, and a few pictures of Wrigley Field and some cats. “There’s not much here.”
Gena waved a hand. “They pulled down almost everything after the murder. Just his first few items.”
There might be a way around that. “Do you know his password?”
“SM2000. But that doesn’t work anymore.”
I closed the laptop. I’d already looked up the Eric Grace killing when she’d called me to make an appointment.
            I try to stay away from open murder cases. But this one seemed to be shut. Tight. “I’ll be honest, Ms. Montez. I can look into this, but I doubt I can ever prove brainwashing through the internet. At least not the point where we could prove anything in court, or file a lawsuit.”
            She hung her head down, her long black hair trailing over the table. After a moment she sat up again and blinked her wide brown eyes. She looked as if she hadn’t slept in weeks.
            “All right.” She gulped the heavily-creamed coffee I’d poured. “Fine. I just—I can’t go on like this. Everyone—my family, Morgan’s mother—I just have to know.”
            She wrote me a check, stood up and said, “Thank you” before she slung her thick purse over her shoulder and left.
            Ten minutes later Rachel came out of the office, stretching her arms. “So what’s the case?”
            Rachel has short red hair and hazelnut eyes. She’s also kind of psychic. She was wearing a loose black tank top and red shorts. I tried not to stare. “The Eric Grace murder. I’m working for the killer’s widow.”
            “Wow.” She refilled her mug from the coffeemaker on the hutch next to the kitchen. “But he did it, right? I mean, the bullets matched and everything. Yuck.”
            Yeah. Montez had used the same handgun to shoot himself in the head that he fired into Eric Grace’s chest. Even aside from his online confession, there was no doubt that he was the murderer. The question was why. There was no obvious connection between him and his victim.
            “Gena Montez thinks he was brainwashed by a website.” I switched tabs. “Ever heard of Capper?”
            “One of those new social media sites?” Rachel yawned. “Come on, no one’s going to dethrone Zuckerberg.”
            “And yet in the 1990s, every startup was going to be the next Microsoft.” I tapped some keys.
            “And every CEO these days thinks he’s the second coming of Steve Jobs.” Rachel kissed my head. “All right. Got to get back to work. Good hunting.”
            “The game’s afoot.” I watched her head back into the office. Then I tried to refocus on work.

Capper had been founded three years ago by James Keeton, formerly of Apple, a graduate of Stanford. He was from Illinois, and after leaving Apple he’d come back to start his own company, KeetonTech, ten years ago.
KeetonTech had actually started out as a software developer, designing intranets for mid-sized companies. He’d started Capper almost on a whim, at least according to the company website, and while it was nowhere near overtaking Facebook, he claimed more than 60,000 members sharing pictures, news, puppy and cat photos, and the occasional seminude image of a Hollywood actress.
            Morgan Montez’s profile was down, as Gena had told me. But I found traces of him on the internet—links to his Capper profile from friends. The links didn’t work, but I was able to build a list of his friends on the network.
            Then I took a break for lunch.
            Rachel was still working. After I finished my sandwich I munched an apple and took a deeper look into KeetonTech and Capper.
            Then I found something. “Huh.”
            “What?” Rachel came out of the office, sipping from her water bottle. “Did you crack the case, Sherlock?”
            “Not yet, but this is interesting.” I pointed at my screen. “Eric Grace, the murder victim? He used to work for Keeton.”
            Grace’s LinkedIn profile was still active. He identified himself as president of ERG Consulting, but his previous job had been comptroller at KeetonTech USA.
            “Comptroller?” Rachel leaned down. “That’s something to do with money, isn’t it?”
            I snorted. “Don’t play dumb. You know more about corporate finance than I do.”
            She slugged my arm. “Yeah, but I’m only looking to get paid, not figure who’s embezzling from the Christmas fund.”
            “I wonder if the cops know about this.” I lifted my phone.
            “They’re pretty smart. At least that’s what you always say.”
            Yeah. But they had a confession from a dead suspect. Case closed. People were getting shot every day all around Chicago. Would they put a lot of work into following some conspiracy theory about a brainwashing website?
            I had at least one contact in the Chicago Police Department—Anita Sharpe. I worked with her on vampire cases. I pulled up her number—
            And then set my phone down. “Not yet.” The connection was tenuous at best, and I couldn’t try to convince the cops to look at Capper and KeetonTech if I wasn’t convinced myself that something odd was going on there. So far all I had was Gena Montez’s belief in brainwashing. I needed more.
            “I’m having lunch.” Rachel kissed my forehead and headed for the kitchen as I tried to figure out my next move.
            I didn’t really believe that Capper could really possess people. Yet. But I’ve seen enough strange things on my job that I couldn’t rule it out, either.
            So my best option was to start at the top.

The Anti-Social Network, Part Two

James Keeton had steely gray hair and thin eyeglasses. In his late 30s, he looked like the stereotypical tech startup CEO, including the black turtleneck, jeans, and sneakers of Steve Jobs. “What can I do for you, Mr. Jurgen?”
            He’d agreed to the meeting knowing I was a private detective, but without knowing what I wanted. So he was either curious or confident. I set my card on his desk.
            “I’ve been hired to look into the circumstances of Morgan Montez’s murder of Eric Grace.”
            This was 10:30 a.m., two days after my meeting with Gena Montez. “My client is interested in the influence your website, Capper, had over Montez.”
            Keeton laughed. “Is it that idiot wife of his? She came in here ranting that I’d brainwashed her husband. At least she left before my assistant had to call the police.”
            “What about Eric Grace? He worked for you, didn’t he?”
            Keeton lowered his face. “Eric was—he stole thousands of dollars from me. I could have sued him for every last cent. I could have had him arrested. I trusted him.” He shook his head. “I’m sorry he’s dead. But it had nothing to do with me or Capper.”
            “Did he help you develop it?”
            “He was an accountant, for god’s sake!” Keeton leaned forward. “Not a programmer. I did all the work! Me and my IT people. Eric was supposed to keep the money flowing. He did, but he kept most of it flowing to him. I almost lost the company!”
            “I’m sorry.” I held up a hand. “I’m just asking questions. It’s my job.”
            “Eric’s dead. It’s all over.” Keeton took a long, slow breath to calm himself. “Sorry. It’s just that, when you run a business and people betray you . . . you get mad.” He shrugged. “Can you understand that?”
            “Sure.” I nodded. “So what’s different or unique about Capper? You’re going up against Facebook and Pinterest and all the rest of them—”
“People love our content.” He was calm again, getting to talk about the topic he wanted to discuss. “Ads, yeah, but they’re more carefully targeted than the scattershot stuff on all the other sites. We’re small, and I want to keep it that way. I’d rather have a few thousand loyal followers than millions who don’t care what we’re all about. Does that make sense?”
“Sure.” I nodded. “Like I’m an independent instead of working for some big business intelligence firm.” Which was true enough, although none of the major BI companies would have hired me in a hundred years—even if I wanted to work for them.
“Right!” Keeton beamed as if we’d finally made a connection. “You should join Capper. Here—” he scribbled on a Post-It note. “Find out for yourself. Use this access code—it’ll get you to premium content. For 30 days.”
I folded up the note and stuck it into my pocket. “Thanks for your time, Mr. Keeton.”
“Anytime.” He waved. “Have a cup of coffee on your way out.”

Back at the apartment I went into research mode again, looking for former employees of KeetonTech who might talk to me. LinkedIn helped, as well as some other networking sites.
            By midafternoon I’d assembled a list of a half dozen possible sources. I sent out cautiously worded emails. Then I called my client to report.
            “Keeton denies everything,” I told her.
            “Of course.” She snorted.
            “I didn’t ask him point-blank whether Capper could actually brainwash someone, though.” I hesitated. “He mentioned that you’d visited him face to face.”
            “Yeah.” Gena Montez signed. “I was upset. And a little drunk. I shouldn’t have said brainwashing.”
“There is a connection between Eric Grace and Keeton.” I told her what Keeton had said.
“But Morgan didn’t know him at all! That’s what so crazy about this.” She sounded near tears again. Her moods were shifting like wind chimes in a stiff breeze, but I couldn’t blame her.
“Here’s the thing.” I took a deep breath. “I’m not sure I can really believe your husband was literally brainwashed by a website—”
“I know.” She blew her nose. “It sounds crazy.”
“But I’ve heard crazier. Did he use a laptop, a tablet, or something I could examine?” Actually, I’d have to get Rachel to do it, but—
“His laptop, yeah. That’s what he mostly used. I use the computer. I almost bashed it with a hammer, but—you could look at it, if you want.”
I wasn’t sure if it could tell me anything, but it was worth a shot. “I’ll be right over.”

Rachel had spent all day onsite with a client. I was working at the dining table when she walked in the door. “Hi, honey! I’m home! What’s for dinner?”
            “Hi, sweetheart!” I looked up from Montez’s laptop. “How was your day?”
            “It’s a jungle out there.” She kicked off her work shoes. She was wearing black slacks and a blue blouse. Every inch a professional woman of the 21st century. She put her hands on her hips. “Hey, I thought you said you were cooking dinner.”
            “I said I’d be in charge of dinner.” I stood up. “I thought we’d try out that new Ethiopian place down the street. I called and they said they have lots of vegetarian dishes.”
            “Sounds good.” She started unbuttoning her blouse. “Let me change.”
            “Afterward . . .” I tried not to stare as Rachel’s blouse came off. “Do you think you could check out Morgan Montez’s laptop for me?”
            “So this is a bribe, right?” She punched my shoulder. “Jerk. I’m going to order something expensive.”
            I grinned. “Deal.”

Dinner was different, but good. Rachel found something she liked, and didn’t even kick me under the table when I ordered something I couldn’t pronounce that had beef. We walked home holding hands.
            The evening was warm. Early summer. The street was quiet, leaves rustling in a light breeze. KInda romantic. Maybe we could put off looking at Montez’s laptop until the morning . . .
            Then a man approached us on the sidewalk. Caucasian, in his late 20s, blond hair, wearing a light gray windbreaker. Which was unusual, because the weather was low 80s. Also because he had one hand in a pocket.
            He stopped in front of us. “Are you . . . Tom Jurgen?”
            I let go of Rachel’s hand. “Uh, yeah?”
            His hand came out of his pocket. A switchblade snicked open.
Uh-oh. I stepped back, pushing Rachel away as the guy lunged at me.
            I twisted. He waved his knife wildly. The blade slit my shirt, drawing a trickle of blood. I punched at his arm and jumped away, crashing into a big plastic garbage can.
            He plunged forward again—but he’d forgotten about Rachel. She’d taken a few krav maga classes.
She kicked his leg out from under him. He fell, and Rachel kicked him again. I moved to do some damage myself, but he rolled over, dropping the knife, and scrambled to his feet, panting.
            “I’m sorry,” he groaned. “I’m sorry . . .”
            He turned and ran.
            Rachel yanked a red handkerchief from the back pocket of her jeans and pressed it against my wound. “Are you all right?”
            “I think so.” I leaned against the garbage can. “Thanks.”
            “Who the hell have you pissed off now?” She watched the would-be switchblade artist run down the street and turn the corner, then pulled out of her phone.
            “I didn’t get his name.” But he sure had mine.

The Anti-Social Network, Part Three

Bystanders who’d seen the attack waited with us until cops and paramedics showed up. Patrol officers questioned them and me, and the paramedics told me I didn’t need stitches, just bandages.
            “No idea,” I told an African American female officer. “He just walked up, asked if I was Tom Jurgen, and pulled out his knife.”
            The switchblade was already in a sealed evidence bag.
            “What do you do for a living?” She peered into my eyes.
            “I’m a private detective.”
            She raised an eyebrow. “You working on anything that might have pissed someone off?”
            I thought about my meeting with James Keeton this morning. But I wasn’t ready to go there yet. “Not that I know of.” Which was more or less truthful.
Rachel slammed the door. “Let me at that laptop.”
            So much for romance. “It has to be Keeton.” I set a beer next to her hand. I wanted one, but my anti-anxiety meds don’t mix well with alcohol. I’d have to talk to my doctor about that. “But it’s a stupid, obvious move.”
            “Just because he’s a smart with technology doesn’t make him Professor Moriarty.” Rachel tapped keys with furious fingers. “Especially if he can brainwash an army.”
            “Did you get that from that guy?” In addition to being gorgeous, Rachel’s kind of psychic. Did I mention that before?
            “He was scared, and he really didn’t want to be there.” She brought up Capper. “And not in a ‘How did I end up here?’ way. More like a ‘I’m being forced to do this’ way.”
            Montez had written I HAD NO CHOICE before killing himself. “Be careful.”
            She found Montez’s profile page. It was minimal. His password didn’t work, as Gena Montez had said.
            Rachel tried several tactics, including requesting a new password. I’d gotten Montez’s email data, so she could log onto his account. Nothing worked. “I’ll have to bring in a hacker. Could be expensive.”
            “Set up a profile for me,” I told her. “With a fake name.”
            She used one of the alternate email addresses I have, and a random Facebook photo of a cat for my profile image. We had some fun creating “Likes”—my favorite shows were all reality TV, which I detest in real life, my favorite movies were all the “Fast and Furious” flicks and a few old spaghetti westerns, and my two favorite books were Portnoy’s Complaint and Fifty Shades of Grey. Then I sent friend requests to a few random people—including Morgan Montez.
            Probably nothing would happen. But you never know when a shot in the dark will hit something. And it helped us calm down from the murder attempt. Which led to a little romance.

I got no responses to the emails I’d sent to the former Keeton employees, so I worked on some other cases through the morning while Rachel was out again with her client.
            I was still rattled by the switchblade attack. I’ve fought off vampires and assorted monsters, but something about a normal human being wielding a sharp knife felt more—personal. And deadly.
            After lunch I checked my Capper profile. Two people had accepted my friend request, despite not knowing anything about me other than what was in my profile. I thanked them in my persona as a bartender and part-time Uber driver, and asked if they knew Morgan Montez.
            Then I went back to checking out KeetonTech. A private company, it didn’t have to file financial disclosures, but there was a lot of news about it online.
            I found out something interesting: Eric Grace wasn’t the first person connected to the company to be murdered.
            Two years ago, a programmer named Emma Willings, who was suing KeetonTech and Keeton personally, had been found dead in her apartment, victim of an apparent robbery. No sexual assault, and only a few items stolen—a small DVD player, a laptop, a purse, and a jewelry box. No arrests. Her family dropped the lawsuit.
            A year later, one of Keeton’s partners was gunned down from a passing car on the street. Again, no arrests. Digging in, I found that he and Keeton were locked in a complicated lawsuit, each of them accusing the other of lies, deception, and fraud. The case dragged on for months after the partner’s death, before going to arbitration.
            Neither killing featured a murderer confessing online, so I couldn’t be sure they were connected to Montez. But the string of deaths seemed . . . suggestive.
So I thought through my options. I could pick up my phone and call Keeton. But he could deny everything—and if he was trying to kill me, a phone call might only send more brainwashed assassins after me.
            I needed more information. And the only way to get it was to talk to people.

“What do you want?” Teresa Willings sounded annoyed. “My sister is dead. Why are you bothering me now?”
            “I’m looking into the company where she worked, KeetonTech?”
            “Oh, that dump.” She groaned. “She worked there for two years on some sort of website. When it went live and started making money, she asked for a share. But her boss said he’d only agreed to pay her a freelance fee. And that was bullshit. She had contracts.”
            “What kind of contracts?”
            “She spent more than a year working on this thing called Cap. It was a social media platform Keeton was trying to build, to be the next Facebook, right?” She snorted. “When it launched, he called it Capper, and when it started making money, Em asked for a share of the revenues. But he told her that was just part of her job. So she quit, and she sued him—and then she got killed.” She started sobbing.
I’d always hated this part of the job. “May I ask you just one more question?”
            “Go ahead.” She blew her nose.
            “Do you think Keeton had anything to do with, uh . . . what happened to her?”
            “How should I know?” Her voice was hoarse. “We didn’t want to keep the lawsuit going after . . .  after it happened.”
            That made sense. “Thank you. I’m sorry for bothering you. And for your loss.” It always sounded lame.
            “Screw you.” She hung up.
            Great. I gulped some lukewarm coffee. Then I tried to contact the family of the partner who’d been killed in the drive-by. The lawyer who’d been involved in the case refused to talk. The victim’s brother hung up on me.
            I was frustrated. Getting nowhere. I checked my fake Capper profile again. Nothing.
            So I started creating a real profile, using the access code Keeton had given me.
            THOMAS HALE JURGEN. My full name. I fudged my birthday by two days and a few years. I used an old college photo for my profile image, gave my profession as “Freelance reporter,” not “Private Detective,” and listed my status as single.
            I posted a few pictures—one from college, a few from my reporting days, one of my posing next to my Honda back when it was new. None of Rachel.
            My finger hesitated over the button. This could be a very bad idea. For a moment I wondered if my anti-anxiety meds were doing their job.
            Then I clicked “Return.” I could always delete the profile if I wanted to, right?