“His name is Connie Uys. Cornelius Uys.”
The sheriff’s deputy looked at me. “Sorry?”
“The man in the woods. I recognized him.”
He nodded politely, but his mouth was twisted to one side, holding back his skepticism. “How do you spell that?” I did, and he wrote it down. “Okay, then. I’ll be sure to share that with the DCI agents when they get here.” He flipped through his notes, closed the pad, and tapped it against his palm. “Though to be honest, I don’t see how you could recognize anyone in that light, and he was a fair distance away.” It came out in a burst, as if he wanted to be done with this conversation, but couldn’t help himself.
“It was him. He looks like a wolf.” That was a mistake, I could tell from his expression: embarrassed pity. My mouth and brain hadn’t been syncing up ever since that bright muzzle flash had filled my head. The roar had faded to a loud hiss, but the flash left behind floating ghosts whenever I blinked.
“Connie Uys. Isn’t that the guy who was involved in the Nigerian campaign?” Graham asked, lowering the bag of frozen corn from the back of his head, reaching for a pen and his legal pad.
“He’s head of HUMINT, runs all of their IRL operations. I don’t understand why he killed Robbie instead of me.”
“We’re not sure whoever it was wanted to kill anybody,” the deputy said soothingly. “It’s turkey season. We see a lot of accidents this time of year.”
“Pretty accurate accident,” Graham muttered.
“Or could be a hunter saw a guy with a gun mistreating a woman, thought somebody should do something. Who knows? Like I said, the guys from the state police will be taking charge. They’ll get to the bottom of it.”
Oak leaned forward, his knee jiggling. “Are we done? She’s been through a lot. She needs to rest.”
“Are you looking for him, though?” I asked.
“For the shooter?” The deputy looked offended. “For sure, we’re looking. Two deputies are searching those woods and we got roadblocks up, checking with drivers. We’ll keep at it until we figure out what happened.”
“You and your men are welcome to drink our coffee or use the bathroom,” Dr. Mishkin said, taking charge. “But it’s late and Emily had a shock. She needs her rest.” She shooed me to my bedroom, followed me in and shut the door. “Shoes off. Under the covers.” She sounded like a strict commissar.
“I don’t think I can sleep.”
“Perhaps not, but you can lie still and I will keep you company. Unless you would prefer Oak?”
“No. You’re fine.” He was acting like a protective guard dog, but he was dealing with his own shit. He called not long after Dr. Mishkin got me back to the cabin. His father wasn’t in the ICU, after all. Oak was furious with himself for falling for the hoax. Furious that he hadn’t been here to defend me from my psychotic boyfriend. He was so guilt-ridden it was exhausting.
She picked up the ragged paperback of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy from the chair beside my bed and sat down. “You are interested in astronomy?”
“Not especially. It’s a book I read when I was a kid.”
“And here it is, again, in this cabin in Wisconsin. Things tend to come full circle.” She settled herself as comfortably as was possible on a hard ladder back chair and began to read to herself. “Don’t panic,” she muttered. Another page turned, a snort of laughter.
I pictured Uys and that little nod he gave me. Wondered why I was still alive, why poor, deluded Robbie wasn’t. Was it really Uys who I had seen standing in the shadows among the trees, or just a local hunter? In the moment, had I simply conjured up that hungry face?
A page turned. Another chuckle. “This is quite clever,” she murmured. I started to drift, the sound of an old lady reading silently beside me somehow nudging away the questions and the memories, a calm raft of sleep sending me off into a placid place where the hiss in my ears became the sound of waves lapping the shore.
The state investigators told me Uys had a rock-solid alibi; it couldn’t have been him. I didn’t bother pointing out that alibi-fabrication was a walk in the park for a seasoned operative. Their minds were made up. Over the next several days, they questioned an impressive number of hunters. As they wrapped up their investigation, they assured me someone would eventually have a few beers too many and spout off about it. That’s how these things usually went.
Robbie’s parents were happy to see it shelved quickly. They didn’t like to have their distinguished family name in the news. Surely it was just an unfortunate accident.
We left the cabin and returned to Mitagomee, where Dr. Mishkin adjusted to life in the slow lane once again, Oak finished up the semester and made household repairs, and we embarked on a new phase of our relationship. It happened naturally. A lingering touch, a shared moment that felt intimate, a look that broke off before it led to something. Oak seemed hesitant about moving too fast after my former boyfriend had tried to kill me. I didn’t have the patience for a trauma-informed courtship, so took charge and moved things along. Besides, the ancient fold-away bed in the spare room was wrecking his back.
Two weeks passed before Graham’s first article was published. It was juicy enough to get picked up by the national press and abroad; apparently it created a scandal in Nigeria that took on a life of its own. Though Graham’s story didn’t include my name or identifying information, and he was careful in the many interviews that followed to protect my privacy, word got out. I was inundated by interview requests, random troll attacks, and bill collectors. I still owed a fortune to the hospital that pieced me back together after the moose. At least I was able to tell the servicer for Maggie’s staggering school debt that they were shit out of luck, not that it stopped the paperwork from continuing to arrive, zombie bills addressed to a dead woman.
Eventive brought suit against me for breaching my non-disclosure agreement, among other infractions. Graham found a lawyer willing to help me out pro bono. She talked so fast I wondered if she was coked up, but she reassured me that she could hold them off with a variety of courtroom tricks, at least until the whole story came out.
Week by week, the story kept unfolding. There were eight front-page stories in the Post, four by Graham and the rest by staffers analyzing the fallout or providing context. Brian Friedman wrote an op-ed about his ordeal, and that led to some shallow soul-searching in the tech press that had fallen for Eventive’s slime. He began to get writing gigs again, but the best news was that he was able to see his boys, and that made him deliriously happy, even though his marriage apparently was beyond repair.
As the saga unfolded and Eventive’s PR team launched a defense, I realized why Adam Barton would want Robbie dead. He wouldn’t be able to speak for himself. To hear them tell it, Robbie was the mastermind behind everything. Handy to be able to blame it all on a dead guy.
I still wondered why I had been spared. Wouldn’t it have been cleaner if I wasn’t around to tell my story? It was a mystery until one day I got a Signal message from an unfamiliar number.
>I didn’t kill you that day.
Connie Uys. I dropped my phone in shock and looked around, feeling vulnerable. Glancing down I saw three dots as another message was being typed.
>don’t worry, I am retired. I live peacefully in a place where it never snows, people mind their own business, and there is no extradition treaty.
>Why didn’t you kill me?
>somebody had to be alive to take that fucker down. It was supposed to be a murder-suicide, a convenient way to get rid of a threat. But I knew Barton was scheming to make me take the fall if those stolen documents came to light, so I changed the script before I disappeared.
>You’re not afraid he’ll come after you?
>he’s not capable, not without me to do the dirty work. I look forward to seeing him go down.
>Did you kill Aurora?
The three dots appeared, lingered for a moment, then vanished. When I tried to text to that number again, it was unavailable.
When the semester ended, we said goodbye to Dr. Mishkin. Beasley moved in and took over household chores after negotiating a raise from Lara. Oak and I moved to a house in South Minneapolis that Oak’s home-renovation pal had bought at auction and wanted to flip. We got to live in the run-down craftsman bungalow rent-free while we refinished floors, rehung windows, and stripped layers of paint from woodwork.
I got a call from a staffer on capitol hill. Then another one, from a different senator’s office. The Cambridge Analytica affair had kick-started a techlash against data-sucking tech companies and Congress was taking note. With the Eventive drama unfolding, they wanted my thoughts about how targeted profiling could be reined in. I was invited to be a witness at a hearing in DC, but before I could have a panic attack about it, it was postponed as a new illness that had scientists worried began to occupy everyone’s attention.
Our world shrank to the house we were renovating, the streets around our neighborhood where we took socially-distanced walks, and the internet. Everyone cheered for healthcare workers and thanked cashiers at the grocery. That lasted about two weeks before the novelty wore off and everyone became crabby. Disinformation filled the voids that came from not yet knowing how this new virus would behave.
Allie tentatively broached the idea of writing a book together. I laughed, but she was serious. After a lot of back and forth, she settled on a plan to write it herself, once I promised to help her with the technical side of it. She published a couple of pieces related to the project, which led to an agent offering to take her on, which led to a book contract and a lot of angst as she polished and rewrote every word. Being a famous writer was harder than it looked, both the writing and the fame parts.
Dr. Mishkin and Graham Turlow talked regularly, too. If the pandemic hadn’t kept them apart, they might have shacked up together. At least her daughter no longer bugged her about moving into a home for the elderly, since that’s where so many people were dying. Beasley seemed to be taking good care of her, when she wasn’t busy complaining about the misery of teaching remotely.
Pritha Bello was on a podcast, telling the world about Eventive, her daughter’s death, and her belief she had been murdered. It kicked off a spate of crowd-sourced amateur crime-solving that didn’t go anywhere but made Aurora and her mother short-term celebrities.
We adjusted to life after academia. Oak helped with his friend’s restoration business. I got invited to work on a project with the German academic who knew Aurora, developing processes for scraping data from a variety of social platforms to analyze the spread of disinformation. It was a temporary gig that didn’t pay much, and it meant joining virtual meetings in the middle of the night, but it felt as if I was doing something to atone for my work at Eventive. In my spare time, I was conducting an audit of the coordinated attack Eventive made on Aurora’s reputation to discredit her work, trying out open source digital forensic tools and developing a case study of the multiple actors, platforms, and attack surfaces used, reverse-engineering the dirty work my former employer routinely performed for its clients.
In April, facing several lawsuits and questions from legislators, Eventive announced it was shutting down operations and filing for bankruptcy. In a statement, Adam Barton denied all wrongdoing but attributed the company’s demise to the actions of a couple of rogue actors and a hostile press that had destroyed their good reputation, rendering the business no longer viable. He would take no further questions at this time.
It seemed like something to celebrate, but Brian Friedman was skeptical. People like Barton didn’t just disappear in a puff of shame.
On a late spring evening, George Floyd was murdered on a corner about eight blocks from our house. After a pause filled with collective shock and horror, we took to the streets, the whole city, pandemic be damned.
The spontaneous uprising was inspiring, scary, and confusing. People chanted and sang, they wept together and built a shrine, fires broke out. Rumors circulated that the “umbrella man” who broke the first window was a white supremacist. Cops abandoned the third precinct and it was set on fire. Then they abandoned the neighborhood, and it caught fire, too.
Lake Street businesses were burned out. Boogaloo boys with their Hawaiian shirts and military cosplay filmed themselves grinning in front of burning vehicles. We set up a mutual aid group to protect our block from traveling arsonists, out of control cops, and any opportunist who wanted to take advantage of the chaos. The air was full of tear gas and smoke, and the sound of helicopters overhead was constant for weeks.
During those long nighttime watches on the front porch, Oak caught me up on the history lessons I had missed or slept through. So much I did not know, it was embarrassing. I thought of Aurora and her last public talk, explaining how the same gaps and biases I was discovering in me were magnified by the code that increasingly shaped our world.
Over the next months, Brian Friedman and I spoke frequently as he struggled to write a follow-up story, tracing the aftermath of Eventive. He believed assets from the company—both code and volumes of personal data—had been transferred in a musical-chairs game among several entities, including Barton’s shadowy contracting firm that worked for the NSA. He’d managed to trace the movements of top company employees to new enterprises that had arisen from the ashes with new names and addresses, but run by the same people.
“So it’s not over?”
“It’s a hydra. Cut off one head, it just grows more. Did you see how Barton responded when the FTC asked him questions?”
“Let me guess: Robbie did it.”
“Sure, he threw him under the bus, again, but he also claimed it was Uys who was responsible for the political shenanigans. Eventive was merely a marketing firm. They helped customers sell shoes and toothpaste. Their political clientele was a tiny fraction of their business.”
“And get this: When they pressed him for more details about what data was collected and how the algorithms worked, he claimed he couldn’t tell them. Since he had worked for the NSA, and still had contracts with the agency, he was prohibited for life from saying anything that might reveal tradecraft. Sure, it was tradecraft that sold toothpaste. Anyway, the White House got involved and the commission stopped asking questions. I’ve tried following the money, but that’s impossible. The funders are shady, everything gets funneled through shell companies, and there’s no way to trace federal spending on intelligence programs.”
“But you traced where people ended up. They’re still working in the same industry, offering similar services. That’s newsworthy.”
He finally wrote a piece about the new companies where Eventive staff continued to mine data and craft mischief for a fee, but hardly anyone noticed. The news cycle had moved on.
At the end of summer we took the van on a pilgrimage to retrace my journey to Mitagomee and the place where the accident happened. We found the spot: a nondescript stretch of grass, the ditch a tangle of brambles and weeds. Beyond the ditch, there was a barbed-wire fence and a field of corn that murmured and whispered in the breeze. I picked up the wreath a friend had made of grape vines and bittersweet, climbed out of the van, and squinted at the mile marker just up the road. “This must be it.”
“Do you remember it at all?”
“No. The last thing I recall was stopping for gas in the middle of the night. I got some coffee and we got back on the road.” In the ditch, a ragged plastic bag, snared on a twig, was twitching as if trying to escape. I walked down the slope to the bag and picked it up. “I was the one driving.” I spotted some more trash nestled in the weeds.
Not trash, a faded bundle of plastic flowers held together with wire and a shredded plastic ribbon, all of it bleached bone-white by the sun. I showed them to Oak. “Someone must have put them here for her.”
We sat on the grass beside the ditch while I told him, again, everything I knew about Maggie Farnham, gleaned from those hours we spent in the car together, from the emails on her laptop, and from the lesson plans she had left me, a detailed vision of a semester she was looking forward to. “It should have been her in that classroom.”
Oak rubbed my shoulder. We listened to the rustling corn, the chirp of insects and the hum of a passing bumblebee. Cars passed by on the highway. My foot fell asleep.
“We’d better go,” I said, finally. I didn’t know what to do with the bundle of plastic in my hands. Oak took the wreath from me, waded through the weeds to the other side of the ditch and used a twist of barbed wire to secure it to a fence post. I joined him and inserted the flowers some stranger had left, making sure they were well anchored in the grapevines. They looked like they belonged there.
We drove into the town nearby, past the gas station where I’d waited for the bus on my way to Mitagomee, past the hospital where I’d spent three weeks running up a bill I would probably never be able to repay. The address we were looking for turned out to be a 1950s ranch house on the edge of town. We slipped on our masks. An elderly man met us in the driveway and led us to his garage.
“I know it might seem a little undignified, but we ran out of space at the funeral home. Legally, I can dispose of them after a period of time, but I like to wait. Cases like this, you don’t know if a relative didn’t hear about it. Or the next of kin just didn’t bother, but later someone says ‘whatever happened to Aunt Ginny?’ and they decide they want to honor her memory.”
“Good lord,” Oak said under his breath. Shelves lined one wall of the garage, and except for one that held gardening supplies and tools, they were filled with rows of neatly-labeled boxes.
“The space crunch has gotten worse since Covid, but it’s always an issue. You’d be surprised how often people just don’t bother to pick them up after the service. Kind of sad. You said you’re her cousin, right?”
“Second cousin,” I said.
“See, this is why I wait. I was told she didn’t have any family, but people turn up. Now, I checked when you called and she should be…” He adjusted his mask and studied the shelves. “Oh, right. She has an urn. Here you go.” He pulled the metal can off a far shelf and turned to me. “There’s some paperwork I’ll need you to fill out.”
I held Maggie’s ashes in my lap all the way home.
Six months later, I sat in front of a shelf of books with a glass of water, my laptop, and a prepared statement printed out next to it. I breathed in and out slowly and tried to still the tremor in my hands.
I had once been used to public speaking, running through a pitch deck and wooing a room full of potential customers with ease, but it had been a while and I didn’t want to bomb. First the intro, then I’d give my statement—I’d timed it carefully to make sure it didn’t go over the five minutes I was allotted—then questions. No telling what they would be, but I had practiced a variety of scenarios with staffers and watched a ton of CSPAN. I checked my look: the lighting was good, my hair was behaving as well as could be expected, and the background, thanks to Oak’s personal library, made it look as if I really knew my American history.
The minutes ticked by, then the seconds until it was time. I cleared my throat as I was introduced. Wondered if it was too soon to take a sip of water, decided it was. I sought out the spot on the bookshelf behind me that was just over my left shoulder in the Zoom window where Maggie’s urn was tucked among books by her obscure poet, a tiny shrine.
It was my turn. “Good morning Senator, members of the committee. I’m here to tell you about how a company I worked for used behavioral profiling to manipulate people and influence society. Though that company was shut down, there are plenty of businesses doing the same thing, and it puts democracy at risk. I’m going to tell you what Eventive did and why it’s a problem.”
I glanced up at the photo of Aurora that I had pinned over my desk for encouragement. This is for you. And I kept speaking.