Plot for Quagmire in Queens

In the mid-1980s, the center of the hacker universe is Queens, New York. It is there that the world’s most famous hacker group M0D - Masters of Deception – ply their craft. With names like Phiber 0ptik, Acid Phreak and Sc0rpi0n, the members of M0D are at the top of the Secret Service’s ‘most wanted’ list. They are an arrogant bunch who thinks they own the biggest computer system in the world: the phone network. Indeed, besides their nightly forays into NYNEX servers, they openly sell warez - pirated software - to their teenage peers around New York City and are brazen enough to publish their own manifesto in Phrack, an underground ezine, “I am a hacker, and this is my manifesto. You may stop this individual, but you can't stop us all... After all, we're all alike.”

M0D is not the only hacker crew in town. There are others like John Clayton, a hacker from Queens who could be considered the poster child for the hacker community – a high-IQ teenage boy who is socially awkward. His classmates, those that he tutors in math, have dubbed him The Pr0fess0r. Like Steve Jobs before him, Clayton builds a ‘blue box’ so he can make telephone calls for free. Then, using just a PC and a modem, he stays on the phone all night calling hacker bulletin boards all over the country from his tiny bedroom in the largest borough of New York City. It is pre-Internet, and bulletin boards give hackers a way to associate with other people with the same interests. They send messages, share information, play games and download programs. Everyone is anonymous. All you know about your new-found friends are their handles, like Corrupt or Outlaw, but you have no idea where they live – maybe Texas or Florida or perhaps just around the corner in Queens.

Information exchanges increase dramatically as hackers find one another on the bulletin boards, or BBSes. Some hackers post their accomplishments on a board, boasting about infiltrating secure systems. Often they upload a document from their victims' databases to prove their claims. Eventually, law enforcement officials consider hackers an enormous security threat and finally, when the AT&T long distance network is shut down for several hours, the Feds go into overdrive. Homes of teenage hackers are broken into by the Secret Service, computers and hacker paraphernalia are seized, unknowing parents are aghast. Indictments follow and, then, prison. Only a few escape.

John Clayton is one of the lucky ones. He gets out - to the University of Chicago - where he studies mathematics and writes his famous encryption algorithm that is adopted by Wall Street and the banking industry as the de facto standard for encrypting their files. Clayton is paid a huge sum of money for his cipher with the provision that he safeguard the code by protecting it against hackers. To protect his secrets against a possible ‘brute force’ attack by an underworld supercomputer, Clayton needs a supercomputer himself - a machine which the government has declared to be illegal in civilian hands. It’s a classic catch-22.

After college, Clayton returns to Queens and secretly builds his own supercomputer in the cavernous basement of a building that because of its architectural elements - crenels, merlons, battlements, turrets et al - is named the Castle. The supercomputer is named Beowulf - a tribute to its design, based on an early-90s’ high performance NASA machine. Clayton adds a brilliant algorithm – called ‘fuzzy logic’ – to the machine which enables Beowulf to solve problems in hours which normally takes other computers weeks, or even months. The upper floors of the Castle are turned into a health club staffed, in part, by two of Clayton’s former Queens hacker pals with the handles, K00l.d0t.c0m and The Phreak Show. Phreak is a jibber-jabber-talking former black hoopster from Jamaica who knows more about the phone company than the phone company itself. K00l whose real name is Qi Wei Sun is from Flushing; he is an Internet specialist with family ties to the feared Chinese Tong, the Ghost Shadows.

One night at the roller derby, Clayton meets Darla - a tall, attractive former Olympic speedskater. Darla is skating for the home team - the Queens of Destruction - and gets into a fight with the opposing jammer from the Skates of Wrath. Darla bests the jammer, Mae Q. Kry, and then takes out Mae’s male coach in a 2nd fight. After the melee, Clayton, indelibly impressed by Darla’s prowess, hires her to work at the Castle. Over time, Clayton becomes a problem solver for the community, especially the Chinese community. The problems are usually solved via the power of Beowulf, Clayton’s all-knowing supercomputer who is lurking at all times in the basement of the Castle. But sometimes a little muscle is required. That’s when the Ghost Shadows or Darla - an Army-trained kickboxer - takes over.

The story begins when the Big Guy, a Mob enforcer, gets into a fender bender with Qi Wei’s uncle, Jimmy Chen. The Big Guy in a fit of rage slaps Jimmy around unmercifully and shames Jimmy in front of his wife and daughter. When Jimmy comes to John Clayton for retaliation, Clayton assigns the Ghost Shadows for payback but a bored Darla intervenes, “I need the action.” Darla then arranges her own fender bender with the Big Guy and gives him a beating. Lying crippled on the ground the Big Guy bellows incredulously, “Do you know who I am?” Darla’s curiosity is piqued and after hitting him again she takes the Big Guy’s wallet and memorises his cell phone number but leaves the phone with him so he can call for help.

Back at the Castle the Big Guy’s wallet is examined carefully by John Clayton and his group to see if the Big Guy was someone special. The wallet has some coded text and photos that reveal that a Unites States congressman from Queens – Daniel Eng - has been targeted for assassination. They try to locate the Big Guy by triangulating his cell phone but soon learn that the Big Guy and his cell phone are at the bottom of the East River. One of the photos reveals that the probable assassins are from a gang headed by the Corsican mob boss Cesare Borgo who runs the cargo facilities at JFK airport. Missing cargo, hijacked trucks, altered invoices and eliminating his competition have made Borgo very rich. He and his twin sons own the Manhattan art gallery the Berber Shoppe which is used to launder the money from their illicit activities at the airport and their other business, namely, VIP assassinations.

Clayton wonders why Congressman Eng is a target and, accordingly, assigns Beowulf to do a deep investigation but nothing unusual is found. The congressman’s office is just a few blocks away from the Castle and Qi Wei’s girlfriend, Mei Ling, an attractive lawyer, goes to the congressman’s office and charms a nerdy aide into revealing what the congressman has been secretly working on. It’s a congressional bill – the Usury Bill – that is meant to limit the exorbitant profits in the credit card industry by members of Big Bank. Mei Ling asks the aide how much money is involved. “At least $25 billion” replies the aide.

Shocked, Mei Ling reports back to the Castle where a lot of questions are raised: Should they contact the authorities [the Feds] right now? If they did, the authorities would ask a lot of questions: like, how did they get the Big Guys wallet and code? … and how did they decrypt the sophisticated cipher? … and, further, did the group have access to an illegal supercomputer? They don’t want to expose Beowulf who, according to current law, is illegal in civilian hands. But probably the most compelling reason to avoid the authorities and to stay under the radar is that they have to avoid any and all questions about the Big Guy, since – immediately after his struggle with Darla - he had turned up dead! It all amounts to a huge quagmire for the hackers.

Considering all things, the group decides it is too dangerous to go it alone and agree to contact the Federal authorities using an anonymous remailer, which is a server computer that receives messages, like emails, with embedded instructions on where to send them next, and then forwards them without revealing where they originally came from.

Less than an hour after receiving the anonymous email, Harold Humphley, the head of the CSS – the investigative arm of the National Security Agency – calls an emergency meeting of his senior staff to discuss the following topics: Topic 1 concerns an anonymous email he has received which details a possible assassination attempt on a United States congressman. Topic 2 is a RED alert because reception of the anonymous email meant that the supposedly impenetrable National Security Agency servers have been breached by a rogue hacker!

The RED alert triggers a series of high level initiative by the Feds who learn from the Hibernians – a secret society within the NYPD – that the source of the anonymous email is the Castle and John Clayton’s hacker group. Along the way, they accidentally learn that Dazhdbog, a spooky computer expert from Prague and known associate of the Borgo family is also monitoring the Castle. The Feds then, unsure of what to do, but needing to stave off the possible assassination, decide to put their best surveillance teams on both the Borgo family and Clayton’s hackers.

The last public appearance by Congressman Eng, before he unveils his Usury Bill a few days later, is at the Belmont Stakes, the third and final race in thoroughbred horseracing’s Triple Crown. Clayton’s hacker group holds a meeting and decides that this is where the ‘hit’ on the congressman will take place. On the day of the race, they arrive at the track early along with twenty armed Ghost Shadows who easily blend in with the crowd of more than 100,000 which includes the Mob assassins led by Lucio Borgo and the Frds who are watching them.

As Congressman Eng and his entourage are walking with the jockeys and horses through the dimly lit tunnel that connects the paddock with the track, Lucio Borgo makes his move. He fires several shots which causes the horses to stampede. In the confusion, he tries to kill the congressman and make it look like an accident but is thwarted by John Clayton, Darla and several Ghost Shadows. The Feds arrive late and whisk the congressman away but not before he gives heartfelt thanks to Clayton and Darla for saving his life. In the melee, Lucio Borgo is killed.

Mob boss Cesare Borgo, upon hearing of his son’s unexpected death, sobs uncontrollably and vows Corsican vendetta against Clayton – ‘a life for a life’!

Chief Harold Humphley is known by his subordinates as ‘Harry the Hound’ because he is a dogged investigator, who never loses the spoor of his target. He is a legend at the National Security Agency and, just like the NSA, is invisible to the general public. After Congressman Eng goes public with his Usury Bill before Congress, Harry knows that the congressman is no longer in danger and so decides to turn his attention to John Clayton. With a bevy of Federal officers and local police, Harry descends upon the Castle with the intention of arresting Clayton and his hacker pals and confiscating Beowulf, the hackers’ advanced supercomputer. But Clayton is waiting for the Feds and activates his escape route. First, he electronically transfers Beowulf’s files and programs to a remote location atop Waughaw Mountain in central New Jersey. Then he systematically destroys Beowulf’s hardware and servers before he and his group escape through a secret tunnel into the adjacent cemetery. Upon leaving, Clayton remarks ironically, “Every good computer program has a ‘back door’!”