Clicks and pops as Rob cracks his knuckles; he yawns, jaw-splitting and carefree, before he places his hands on the keyboard.
He should be in prison, really – it’s astonishing that the long arm of the law hasn’t yet got him in its grasp. That said, it’s not like he’s actually doing anything wrong, even though Rochford and his employees might say different. The fact he’s not behind bars is a testament to his skill, he supposes, though he isn’t one to boast; it’s dangerous when he is who he is.
This is child’s play. He burrows deep into the code, finding the weaknesses, the chinks in the armour. Rochford’s bank account has been drained twice now, and the man still has no idea how, or where it’s gone. You see, what would once have been daylight robbery has become online transactions, secure servers, coding errors – Rob’s realm. This is what he’s good at: playing with infrastructures, creating exploits. The money is gone in a matter of seconds, emptied into other accounts that need it far, far more.
His knuckles are white on the mouse as he thinks too hard about what Rochford has done, and he has to let go of it finger by finger, consciously unclenching his teeth. It doesn’t matter, it shouldn’t matter – he’s having his revenge the best way he knows how. The lines of code, the thrill of infiltrating through a backdoor… they’re second nature, have been since he was far too young. He would have been a prodigy if he hadn’t become a criminal.
He stands and yanks the hood up to cover his face due to the rain, the CCTV, and his own paranoia, and then he’s through the front door and out on the streets – again, he thinks with a wan smile at the thought – and going to see the owner of one account in particular. The houses in his street are small, cramped and run-down; they get bigger, brighter as he makes his way through town. These houses are all better than his current one, and are all Rochford owned, in the monetary and the symbolic sense: the man knows everything that goes on under every roof. In these leafy suburbs, Rochford is the only needed police. This is far more Rochford’s town than it’ll ever be the mayor’s – but then, the mayor is in Rochford’s pocket; the Right Honourable John Reginald has always been a coward, and Rochford does what he’ll never dare to.
Ian is selling a Big Issue, and Rob greets him by name as he makes sure to buy one; they once nearly had an argument once about whether Rob was selling on his turf, but that’s water under the bridge, and has been for a long time.
There’s a house, large and resplendent, the door a familiar and beloved green, that he has to pass every day. The twinge in his chest has never quite faded, even now, and every second he walks past that door is another day he should be walking through it. This house was his home once, before Rochford took it from him without ceremony and without mercy. He hears Rochford might have plans to move into the house. He prays those plans don’t come to fruition. He knows he couldn’t take it, that he’d do something and risk accidentally sabotaging the whole operation.
He finds the house he’s been looking for, raps sharply on the door. It opens, and his favourite pair of eyes – their brown as well-known and well-loved as his door’s green – widen in surprise. “Hi,” Marian says, but it’s cautious and more of a question than a greeting.
He smiles, eager to get out of the rain, and replies, “Hi.”
She steps back, turns to lead him through the house, and as he walks through the hall his eyes alight on a vase of pink roses that he doesn’t recognise. He licks his lips nervously, unsure whether he should ask, before the quiet question falls from his lips: “Were those a gift?”
She sighs, stops without turning round, and nods. “Well, Peter might have…”
“They’re from him?” he cries, gesturing wildly. “Let me guess: he said he’d renegotiate your tenant’s agreement if you didn’t come to dinner with him, because I know Rochford – ”
“Rob – ” she tries, finally turning to face him.
“You’re gorgeous, Marian, and you know what he does to beautiful things, he wants to own them and break them…”
“I’m not a thing, I have a brain.”
“That’s not what I meant, you know I don’t think… but he does – ” He’s grasping now, too desperate to be comfortable with her, with this house when he should be, and the words are tumbling from his lips without any semblance of control now.
It’s a shout, and she raises a hand to cover his mouth. His words die in his throat, and she shakes her head, saying quietly, “You know I won’t take him up on his offer. I’m better than that. I thought you were better than thinking that.”
He pulls her hand away. “What stops you?” Rob asks, and the words are bitter. “What’s stopped you the last four times he asked?”
She looks at him as if he is a fool. He doesn’t… he doesn’t understand, and maybe it’s clear in his face. There’s hurt and disappointment in her eyes, as if he’s failed some great test, before she quickly asks, “Is the money…?”
He nods with a sighed, “The money is in their accounts.” A little in hers, too, but just a little. The rest goes to the others like him, the ones who couldn’t keep up with Rochford’s unmanageable rents and ridiculous standards or simply got on the man’s wrong side. In Rob’s case it was the latter, but however it happened, they all lost their homes. Well, to balance things out, they’ve all just gained a large portion of Rochford’s money. Robin can’t say he’s sorry. The thing is, Marian is a step away from becoming one of them if she falls out of Rochford’s favour, and she knows it.
“Good,” she says. Her eyes fall to the roses. “Now get out of my house.”
There was a forest here once. Rob thinks about it sometimes, thinks about all those trees becoming doors and kitchen counters and hat stands. The thought makes him uneasy – fewer places to hide. He sees the trees, sees where they might have stood, as he makes his slow way back to the house. It’s small and dark, and he’s an IT consultant, but it’s something, and he has a computer again. He’s off the streets, and he’s taking Rochford’s money.
He’s far from the only one. They all go by different names – Scarlet, TheNanoJon, all the rest – and are careful to only ever use their username handles, but he knows they’re out there. They move in his circles, send him messages to exchange ideas, and from the things he’s heard are happening with Rochford’s security systems, the dirt mysteriously dug up and used to try and charge Rochford with fraud (it failed, but in a fair court it wouldn’t have)…
Yes. Definitely out there.
The maths makes more sense when they’re around; they can comb through the details, help to cover his tracks, make him feel… safe. He’s the best of all of them, something they freely admit, and maybe he could do this alone, but he works better with them. They make the big picture bigger, make things feel more complete. He has never met them, but they know him better than many of the colleagues he sees every other day.
There’s hope on the horizon, if he can hold out; Dick Leonard will be back up for election next year, after too long away. Leonard’s corruptible – they all are – but he’s not John Reginald. A new mayor and those fraud charges may be able to touch Rochford. A new mayor and Marian might not have to smile and make promises she can’t keep to have a roof over her head. Rob isn’t stupid enough to think he’ll get his house back, but it’s a start.
Until there’s a new mayor, until Leonard returns, he’ll rob from the rich and give to the poor, because it’s all he can do. Until he walks through that green door again, Rochford’s former tenants will receive laundered money and a message wishing them the best from Anonymous.
He doesn’t have a home, but he has hope, and the memory of trees to hide in.