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By Brian O'Connell

[This story grew out of an, um, offbeat discussion on the Bogie Board, Bogie and the Sons of Lee Marvin." The characters are based on participants in that discussion, and any resemblance to those people is purely coincidental.]

The Blue Cockatoo

Harriet took the call. It was Inspector Rosenberg. A theory had been discovered on a web site and it was causing concern amongst the general public. It seemed that two guys were tying up the web page with philosophical imponderables. Someone had to volunteer to sort it out. My name is Dee Forest. I’m a Private Individualist. I’ve got a scar on my top lip. Don’t ask how it got there or you’ll find out. The hard way! I surfed on over to the scene of the crime. There were lots of messages from people with unlikely names. They referred to things that had happened over fifty years ago that they seemed to recall with crystal clarity. Questions were asked about how tall this guy was and how many times he had been married. If I could have known where this would lead I would have never begun the case. As it was I contacted Inspector Rosenberg and told him I was interested. He gave me the go ahead. My interest in philosophy and politics had helped me to make it through the night on many occasions. Life on this planet had to mean something! Later I called in at The Blue Cockatoo for a drink or two to try to relax. The usual crew were lined up at the bar. Dickerson, Nichols and Martinez. They were already well oiled and looking to put the world to rights. Bush and Peck were talking sports as usual. Clark was playing country music on the jukebox. If I heard one more track by Garth Brooks I wouldn’t be responsible for what I might do! I ordered drinks all round.

A lovely woman appeared from behind Blaine who owned the bar. I had never seen her before, but she looked at me in a strange way. Like she knew me already. I felt the urge to put Sinatra on the jukebox, but Clark had fed it for the next hour or so with his choice of tunes. I bummed a cigarette and put it in my mouth without lighting it up. Merle Haggard was singing a song about not smoking marijuana, as I pondered my assignment. The new bartender rejoiced in the exotic name of Asia. She was beautiful, but I was preoccupied with names like Nietzsche, Kafka, Sartre and Oprah. Of course, suddenly it came to me! It was I. Ron Brand who was behind the confusion. There was only one thing to be done. I was going over to her web site to uncover the truth. If I wasn’t back by midnight, Harriet would know what to do!

Midnight in the Web site!

There was no turning back now! I was deep inside the philosophical thoughts of I. Ron Brand! As I read the strange theories that she had expounded, I kept coming back to the name. The computer had corrected me when I typed in "I. Ron Brand" and told me to try Ayn Rand instead. Ayn Rand? Obviously an assumed name! I tried to make sense of it all by making new anagrams from the letters! Dan Ryan! D.N.Aryan! ARYAN!

The old master race theory! DNA! The secret of life, or just something the mailman writes on a parcel that can’t be delivered? Door not answered! Doors and windows were closing all around me, and I was trapped in the web site! I typed in another question. The screen went blank. Then a strange shrieking sound almost pierced my eardrums!

"Who are you?" came up in large type.

"Who are you?" I answered back.

"I asked first," came the reply.

"I am Dee Forest," I replied.

"Weren’t you in Star Trek?"

"No, that was Deforest Kelley."

"Who are you?" I asked again.

"I am called Ayn Rand."

"Yes, yes! But who are you really?"

"I don’t know! They tell me I came to America from Russia, and I wrote some books about being superior."

"Did you think you had all of the answers to life?"

"Yes."

"And now?"

"I’m just a web page. A ghost in the machine."

"Have you met Nietzche?"

"Crazy Fred you mean? Yes, he’s in here somewhere!"

"Tell me Ayn, did being selfish made you happy?"

"Why do you ask?"

"It’s just that I object to your Objectivism!"

"Are you now or have you ever been a communist?"

Suddenly the words faded out! A screensaver of Harriet appeared. Midnight! Good girl! She had followed my instructions to the letter. Now I had to report back to Inspector Rosenberg and tell him what I had learned about the cyberspace philosophers. They had taken control of the Internet. But now I knew what was going on! My job? To pull the plug on them! I was going to need help.

Strange Encounter on Sunset Strip

The next morning I had my usual breakfast of anything that was in the fridge that didn’t smell too bad, washed down with a cup of un-decaffeinated coffee. I switched on the television and put the Patriotic Channel on to see what my fellow Americans were up to. It all seemed quite innocuous at first until the advertising messages started to register in my brain and I found myself reaching for my checkbook. I left the house and got into my car. Someone had pulled the windscreen wipers off again. You get used to that sort of thing living around here.

As I drove along the Strip the traffic lights all seemed to be against me. I pulled up at the front of the line. A woman who was carrying a briefcase looked directly at me. Being used to female attention I gave her a conspiratorial wink and my best Burt Lancaster smile. My eyes took the scenic route from her legs upwards and back down again. Her face was hidden behind a black lace veil and only her eyes were visible. Then I saw that her briefcase had the initials A.R. monogrammed in silver upon it! The lights changed and she walked briskly across the Strip. There was something oddly familiar about the way she walked. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Several cars behind me were honking furiously and I gave them two fingers in the rear view mirror before I pulled away.

I arrived at the Police Station and went into Rosenberg’s office. He looked up from his paperwork and grimaced.

"What have you got for me, Forest?" he growled.

"Something that’s going to blow your socks off!" I said triumphantly.

"Oh yeah?"

"Yeah!"

I explained all about my Internet encounter with Ayn Rand and how I had seen a woman at the traffic lights carrying a briefcase with the initials A.R. on it. The Inspector looked at me as if I was crazy.

"So, you are telling me that dead philosophers are controlling the Internet! And that you’ve just seen one of them walking down Sunset Strip?"

"That’s right! Tonight I am going back into the web site and you are coming with me!"

I left the Station and drove over to my office. It was going to be a long day. And an even longer night! I reached for the bottle of bourbon that I kept in the desk draw next to my reverse dictionary. They were both fully loaded with everything I needed. So was Harriet!

Conspiracy Theory

I had spent most of my day improving my vocabulary and trying to iron out the faults in my personality. Harriet said the last one was a waste of time! I told her I was going into the web site again and that I was taking the Inspector with me. She told me to be careful. I lied and said I would be! Robert Mitchum once said that being careful wasn’t what living was all about! Old Bob had a philosophical streak!

I went over to the Blue Cockatoo to check something out that had been bothering me. I ordered an alcohol free drink and watched Asia walk down to the end of the bar. Then it hit me! Asia was the woman with the briefcase I had seen on the Strip! I left quietly and returned to the office.

Around about 11pm, Rosenberg arrived at my front door. After insults were exchanged I switched on the computer. The Inspector and myself settled down in front of the computer screen. I took the controls and selected the Patriotic Page from the favorites menu.

"This is exactly what you did last time?" Rosenberg growled.

"Exactly! Then I went to the Philosophy Page and was re-routed to Ayn Rand. I asked some questions and that’s when I became trapped in the web site!"

"How did you get out?"

"Harriet followed a set of instructions I had left her."

"The great escape plan?"

"Yes."

I began to type in the name of a popular film star. CUBA. The awful shrieking noises began again.

"Who are you?" came up on the screen.

I thought for a minute about typing the name of Che Guevara, before I identified myself. The same question about communism came up again. These people controlling the Internet would probably think Elvis was a communist for recording two songs written by Bob Dylan!

The Inspector called Harriet and told her to activate the rescue plan.

"Now do you believe me?" I asked.

"There’s something going on, but I’m not sure what it is," he replied.

I told him that the woman I had seen was Asia Ram, not Ayn Rand. He said he would check her out on the Police computer. Tomorrow we would both go over and ask her some questions. Another day, another conspiracy theory I replied. I watched him drive away with the blue light flashing, before I poured myself a nightcap and called it medicinal. I fell into a fitful dream where the face of Ayn Rand kept superimposing itself over the face of Asia Ram. RAM! Random Access Memory!

Access Denied!

The morning after felt like the night before! Nothing substantial in the fridge so I made do with a black coffee and a piece of chewing gum! I switched the computer on. Access denied! I went over to the TV. Nothing shaking. The phone was down too. Strange. Maybe the Big One had hit during the night and I hadn’t noticed. I called out the utility repairmen on my cell phone. Five minutes later there was a knock at the front door. Two men in blue boiler suits wearing sunglasses stood there. I noticed that a third man was sitting in the parked van outside. It had out of state licence plates. No name on the side either. I let them in anyway.

As they checked out the TV, computer and phone line I checked them out too! Gucci shoes and Rolex watches! FEDS! Federal Undercover Covert Anti-American Squad! After half an hour they assured me that everything was working again. I watched them through the Venetian blind as they drove away. The van parked up at the top of the avenue.

An antenna on top of the van rotated in my direction. I switched on the Patriotic Channel for a short time before I left for the Police Station. Rosenberg looked worried as I entered his office.

"This Asia Ram business?" He said, shaking his head. "It’s classified!"

"Now there’s a surprise," I said sarcastically.

"The Chief has blocked all of my enquiries! National Security."

I had already figured it out anyway! Anyone who subscribed to the Patriotic Channel had to be checked out by the Feds!

Asia had been "planted" in my local bar and told to report anything she found suspicious! I was trying to stop smoking, so normally I didn’t buy a pack and bummed one or two from Dickerson or Nichols.

"Bogart me!" I usually said as a request for a cigarette. I guessed that Asia had reported me to her superiors and they had bugged my house! It was she in the guise of Ayn Rand who had asked me if I was a communist! Paranoia in twenty-first century America! Where would it all end? Who guards the guardians of democracy? It was imponderable, so I invited The Inspector and Harriet to join me for a drink at the Blue Cockatoo. Asia was nowhere to be seen. The new bartender was another equally beautiful woman. I asked her what her name was. She told me it was China. China Dahl. Her smile gave nothing away. I checked out the way she walked. Just in case. The price of freedom is eternal vigilance. The price of a drink these days is even worse! As we were leaving, China asked me what my name was. I paused at the open door and I tipped the brim of my hat before replying.

"I think you already know, Dahl face!"

I tied the belt of my raincoat and stepped outside into the gathering storm.

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