At first the emails from SearchBot were merely aggravating. Although Joan marked them as spam, they still appeared in her inbox three times a day, then five. She created a rule to delete them on receipt. They nonetheless appeared, and their frequency increased. Like killing the ringer whenever VA B calls because answering only encourages the weasels, Joan gritted her teeth and deleted. Then the subject lines started getting personal.
JOAN HALL SEARCHBOT HAS RESULTS FOR YOU became JOAN HALL CORNELL 2000 and JOAN HALL AGE 37. Joan figured the spammers, after so many deletions, were trying to attract her attention by adding information from whatever databases they’d gotten her email from. That would explain how they knew her actual alma mater and age, not the ones she told people.
When the subject lines included OPEN NOW and VITAL, Joan googled SearchBot to see if others had had the same problem. Oddly, SearchBot seemed to be a reputable commercial tool one step up from Google News. According to various forums, collectors used it find objects their owners mentioned online, but hadn’t put up for sale. It enabled companies to suss out information about their competitors. For many it helped fill in genealogies. Although spammers use web robots to harvest email addresses, SB Tech’s site claimed they didn’t market by mass email to disassociate themselves from spammers.
So who was sending her the spam? Why did deleting one make another appear? And while she supposed the spammers could use SearchBot to find out her cat’s name and add it to a subject line, how did SearchBot know her only phone was a burner?
After a week Joan was considering cancelling her email account when a subject line said ELLIE PLEASE. Joan went cold. She nearly vomited. She had to open this email, viruses be damned. Joan stood up in a fighting stance and tapped <open>.
Outside her house in a rental car, Klinsmen watched Ellie stand up and tap her tablet. Five stars, SearchBot. He was glad he’d paid for the premium service, which, in addition to scouring the web for the terms he’d supplied, also derived new terms from what it found and took its searches in directions he wouldn’t have imagined. It also accessed supposedly restricted information. A week ago SearchBot gave up “Joan Hall”; three days ago, her address. He never would’ve found her with that name, although he knew immediately where it had come from: the mother who’d disowned her and the first school she’d been expelled from. To hear her tell it.
SearchBot couldn’t distinguish truth from lies apparently. It only dealt in data and how it was related. He envied SearchBot. You could avoid a lot of bullshit with that attitude.
As a bonus, SearchBot didn’t have to question people who might then alert the search subject about the questioner. Nor did it require travel expenses. He can’t imagine how much those would have built up during the past six years.
Klinsmen looks around the street: modest, quiet, comfortable. Neat yards. No kids. She probably has a couple old guys vying to be her handyman. And her job as a restaurant manager would let her stretch the money she stole from him a long way; longer, if the restaurant owners haven’t caught on to what she’s probably stealing from them. Smart moves, but he’d given her so much more than this.
Sure, he understood her need for freedom. He’d been nearly locked up half a dozen times. What he couldn’t grasp was her belief that he should fund her freedom without recompense.
Klinsmen checked his gun, buttoned his jacket over it and opened the door. He had people for this sort of thing, but he wanted to speak with Ellie first. He was a reasonable man. He knew he couldn’t get much of his money back, nor did he need it. Frankly, he’d rather have her back. He loved her smarts. They’d made a good team. Maybe they could work things out.
Klinsmen grabbed the bouquet he’d bought at the airport and headed for Ellie’s door.
SearchBot’s email contained two images, the results of a derived search, whatever that was, but Gmail blocked them. Did she want to see? In for a penny, she thought and revealed a Google Maps screen cap of her house and an AP photo of Noah Klinsmen after a recent acquittal.
As Joan tried to breathe, another email arrived from SearchBot. The subject line read: NOW. The mail contained a shortened URL. She clicked it. Up came her neighbor’s website.
Mr. Better was a sweet old man who hated only three things: dogs, dog poop and people whose dogs pooped on his lawn. He’d put a webcam in his front window to publicly shame them. At the moment, its livestream showed Noah carrying a bouquet up her walk.
Her breath came back as a laugh. Did he really think he could make up with her?
With his wife and cats dead, Mr. Better had one thing left to love: his neighbor, Joan. He mowed her lawn, fixed her plumbing and generally let her make him feel useful. He even insisted, after she’d admired his wife’s jewelry, that she take the nicest pieces for putting up with him. She’s like a daughter, he told himself while sitting at his computer, and so innocent. She never realized his poopcam was really pointed at her house.
Mr. Better watched Klinsmen knock on Joan’s door. He didn’t know she had a boyfriend, and he didn’t like the look of him. If he were expected, why not park in front of her house, not two doors down in front of his?
While Noah knocked, Joan slashed open her padded headboard and pulled out her money belts. She grabbed her go bag from under the bed, her purse from the dresser and slipped down the hall to the back door. Dammit. Her car was in the driveway. She couldn’t get to it, let alone get away without Noah getting her.
Her cat wandered in. “Sorry, Cora,” she said and slipped out the back door.
Joan crept to the other side of the house, an alley shadowed by the six-foot stockade fence surrounding her back yard. She'd considered it an ideal feature when she moved in, never suspecting that Noah would use the front door. She crouched behind her AC unit, took her tablet from her go bag and pulled up Mr. Better’s cam through her wifi.
Noah paced her stoop. He shook the flowers and kept opening his mouth, wanting to yell. Undeterred Mr. Better crossed the street. Joan heard him call from the sidewalk, “Can I help you?”
“I’m looking for Joan.” Noah held up the half-bent flowers.
“I don’t think she’s home,” Mr. Better said.
“How would you know?” Noah said.
“This is a nice street. People look out for each other.”
Noah unbuttoned his jacket. “So who’s looking out for you?”
“911. I called before I came.”
“Funny thing, 911. You call. You hang up. They still send a cop. Old men like me have to apologize for our shaky fingers.”
Joan could have kissed those fingers. Too bad he’d never see her again.
“So I’ll wait.” Noah sat on the stoop. “The stories I could tell the cops about Joan.”
Mr. Better shifted in place and Joan realized, as Noah did, that he hadn’t called 911. She considered calling herself, but her burner had terrible 911 service.
Mr. Better didn’t give up. “I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”
Noah ignored him and took out his phone. After a few moments Mr. Better went back to his house. It killed her, the humiliation on his face. He stopped on the porch and looked straight at the cam; she realized he was looking at himself in the front window. His shoulders trembled, his eyes clenched, and his lips muttered. When he turned aside to go in, she realized he'd been eclipsing Noah, who’d disappeared from her stoop.
Joan reached for the gun in her go bag.
Klinsmen scrolled through his eBay auctions while the old man stared at him. So this is how you flip a guy off nowadays. After three bids the old guy gave up. As he crossed the street, Klinsmen got a new report from SearchBot. He hit the shortened URL.
His browser opened to a livestream. The old guy was walking towards him on the screen, which disturbed Klinsmen until he looked behind the old guy on the screen and saw himself. He waved to make sure. That dirty old creep, he thought.
Klinsmen got up, buttoned his jacket and went to his car. He hated witnesses, especially those he couldn’t do anything about. He'd send a few guys to deal with Joan. It was stupidof him to come. Klinsmen slid into the driver’s seat, tossed the flowers in the street, and watched Mr. Better open his front door.
He hated loose ends too. The old guy had seen him. He’d tell Ellie, and Ellie would run. Klinsmen checked the old guy’s site. There were no other streams, just the one in front, none for the back. He unbuttoned his jacket again.
Thus preoccupied, Klinsmen never took a moment to think, “That was a strangely convenient email.”
Joan cocked her gun, breathed deeply twice, and looked past the corner of the house. Noah hadn’t come around to try the back door. She didn’t hear him either. She checked the tablet. The street was empty. No, there was a car. Someone was in it.
The car wheeled around. Joan ran to the driveway in time to see it turn left out of the street. It didn’t go far. The car turned at the next corner and parked. Through a gap in the trees she saw Noah get out and cut through the property behind Mr. Better’s house.
Joan kilroyed over her hood. She should go. Get the bag and belts. Get in the car. The car whose oil Mr. Better had changed. The car he'd vacuumed. The car he'd helped her buy because a restaurant manager's salary only went so far.
Noah slinked across Mr. Better’s back yard and vanished behind his house. Joan started down the driveway, gun hard against her hip. At the sidewalk she stopped and pulled her burner from her back pocket.
Mr. Better watched his stream. The man was just sitting in his car, looking at his house, looking at him. He’d be damned if that man got anywhere near Joan. He should call 911, but he’d had a better idea. Mr. Better took down his double-barreled shotgun, loaded two shells and went to the front door. This was one argument the man couldn’t ignore.
Klinsmen wedged himself between two shrubs and looked through an open back window. The kitchen was empty, but down a hallway he could see the old guy bent at the front door. That’s pathetic, he thought. He uses a crutch, but only indoors. He probably doesn’t want Ellie to see. Klinsmen drew his automatic and aimed through the window screen. Too easy.
Mr. Better looked through the peephole, leaning on his shotgun for balance. The car was gone. He exhaled. What had he been thinking? Then he saw Joan on the sidewalk. So pretty. She must have been out for a walk. She was looking at his house. She must need him. He had to tell her about the man. He reached for the knob.
No. Mr. Better pushed his forehead against the peephole until it hurt. He was an old fool. Old men shouldn’t love. They’d had their chance. They certainly shouldn’t try to be heroes. Mr. Better turned away from the door, hefted the shotgun, and shuffled toward the kitchen.
The phone rang. Startled, Mr. Better fired.
Joan heard what sounded like an explosion in Mr. Better’s house. Not thirty seconds later she heard the siren. No sense in her getting involved now.
She got her bag and belts, threw them in the car and slowly backed out of the driveway. Joan was rolling up to the corner when the police car appeared. She thought they would stop her, but they turned into the next street and stopped in front of Noah’s car.
They got out, looked inside and looked at each other.
A voice called across the yards. It was Mr. Better. She couldn’t believe it. He was distraught, but alive. She started to cry. He must have gotten her call. Then she remembered his grandfather’s shotgun, which hung above his mantle. She didn’t think it even worked. He must have gotten the drop on Noah.
Him she didn’t cry over.
Joan put on her blinker, turned right and drove slowly out of town, amazed at how quickly the police had responded.
That night over beers the 911 operator started the story for the twentieth time: “I’ve had vampires call. Werewolves. Vampires who wanted to be werewolves. But I never had a robot call. Guy used a voice synthesizer. Sounded like Stephen Hawking. And all he had to say was the latitude and longitude of that guy’s phone.”
A week later SB Tech automatically renewed Klinsmen’s SearchBot access, charging a credit card registered to a restaurant he owned. Reports were sent out several times a day, but with diminishing results. Joan Hall had ceased being mentioned anywhere.
A month later the automatic renewal was rejected. The credit card had been cancelled. Several emails were sent. They were bounced back. His email address had also been cancelled.
Not willing to lose a long-standing customer, a senior rep called the number SB Tech had on file for one Frazier Svenson. It too had been cancelled. The desperate rep googled his name. She got no results and closed the account.
The SearchBot was reassigned to a San Diego art dealer who had it trawl photos online for pieces of art in the background whose owners might not realize were valuable. SearchBot also found contact information so the dealer could give the owners a story about how he’d seen the piece online and fallen in love with it. Then he would make a lowball offer.
The SearchBot’s algorithms judged this behavior to be statistically unfair, so it emailed the art owners with more accurate valuations of their property to even the playing field. It continued to struggle with devising subject lines that didn’t seem spammy or scary.
This story originally appeared in AE: The Canadian Science Fiction Review.