Pay the Piper – Chapter Four

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“As a matter of fact, it’s not,” Natalie said. “Although we would like to examine the files you made to confirm that, if you don’t mind.”

“You certainly brought the right person for it,” Lao replied, giving me an amused look out of the corner of his eyes. He was getting back into his own rhythm now, apparently thinking that so easily answering the first question put him out of danger. Not even remotely true. He didn’t have to be on site, pressing the button that sent in the drones to be involved.

Still, it was best not to let Lao get on a run like before. I signaled Natalie to step up the pressure. She introduced him to Company A – the financial group hit the day before. In keeping with procedure, identified by the first available letter of the alphabet in all relevant documentation, so that a leak wouldn’t run the risk of exposing confidential information to the public.

In this case, they probably had a pretty good idea what was going on, but we still used the nomenclature in interviews and reports, because not acknowledging the situation on the ground is part of how the government works.

“You’ve had dealings with Company A in the past, correct?” Natalie asked.

“In the past,” Lao replied, growing a bit more sobor, clearly catching on to where this was going. “I don’t anymore.”

“Why is that?”

Lao waffled for a moment, struggling between caution and curiosity. Clearly he had more in common with the cat, because he finally decided to answer and see what happened. “I have a reputation as something of a troublemaker, Agent Chase,” he said. “As I mentioned before, journalism, and politics in particular, is my calling and I’m quite forthright in my beliefs. Unfortunately my beliefs leave me out of the favor of most people in Silicon Valley simply because I have different views on politics which resulted in a process they call deplatforming.”

As a long time follower of Lao’s I knew that already but Natalie didn’t and it did need to go in the record, so she asked, “What kinds of differences do you have?”

“In essence, I am not a socialist,” Lao explained. “I believe in civic responsibility but don’t think you can compel people to show it.”

“And this prompted your… deplatforming?”

“Not directly. I’ve simply fought with socialists in the past and don’t bother to be polite when I do it.” Lao settled back into his chair, starting to warm to the subject. “I’m not fan of the Chairman, you understand. Not that China was necessarily better before communism, but my parents fled the country because of Mao, not the Qin. I don’t feel a need to be polite when pampered rich children who have stumbled onto campus at Berkley try to sooth their guilt at inheriting money by preaching the gospel of socialism to me.”

Natalie gave me a look, asking if he was serious. I spread my hands, because half the fun with people like Lao is their ability to rant and I didn’t intend to stop him. Natalie had apparently had enough, though, and she held up a hand. “So you disagreed over economics-”

“Oh, it’s more than economics.”

“Economics and other issues, and they deplatformed you because of it?”

“Essentially.”

“And what does deplatforming entail?”

“In general? Not letting those you disagree with speak in any forum you can influence. In this case specifically, they closed down my account and refunded all transactions they had been processing.” Lao spread his hands. “So, if you were wondering, I’m not inclined to like your Company A. And I did have some difficulties in securing a substitute – but I did eventually procuring a new way to handle my revenue streams and I don’t really wish them any ill.”

Natalie cocked her head to one side in a classic curious dog pose. “I never asked about your attitude towards Company A, Mr. Wu. Why mention it?”

“Let’s not kid ourselves.” Lao dropped his casual act, an undercurrent of annoyance rising to the top and sharpening his attention to a pinprick. “You’re here because of the attack yesterday that put ‘Company A’s servers out of action for two hours. I’ve had a public falling out with them so you’re rattling my cage to see what happens. Well, lots of people have wound up in the crosshairs of Silicon Valley, and it’s a tight knit group of incestuous venture capital out there. They scratch each other’s backs, and it doesn’t take long for the doors to start slamming shut in your face if you cross them. I’m hardly unique.”

“You have been very loud in your criticism of Company A in particular,” I pointed out.

Lao’s irritation swung around to me just as quickly. “Tech startups from ten years ago are now some of the largest, wealthiest and most powerful companies in the world and I am, thankfully, an American. Criticizing big, wealthy and powerful companies and individuals is my right and duty. Some might even say it’s a virtue.”

This wasn’t anything I hadn’t seen before but, in person, I was pleased to see it was genuine. In California it often feels like people fake strong emotions just because it’s expected of them.

“Maybe, if it’s done with respect and within the bounds of the law,” Natalie said, not sharing my moment of admiration for Lao’s integrity. “But it’s my understanding that you’ve repeatedly hosted people whose criticism of them goes far beyond the bounds of just criticism into harassment and incitement to violence.”

“I repeatedly hosted victims of mistreatment by companies in Silicon Valley, many of them unable to find redress for their grievances in any other forum. I allowed them to voice their concerns as a matter of public record. I don’t endorse any of the actions they took before or after my interviews and I didn’t even agree with all of their points of view when I asked them to appear.” Lao shook his head in disgust, some of his fire from before fading away. “Just because you talk to someone doesn’t mean you agree with them. I did hope shedding light on the self-serving behavior of Silicon Valley might bring about some reform. So far, I’ve been disappointed.”

“If we asked you for a list of the people you talked to about this, how to contact them, and what companies they had trouble with, would you be willing to provide us with that information?”

Lao mulled over her question for a moment. “No, I don’t think I would. Not without a warrant and the help of a lawyer. Although, I suppose if you’re interested in the companies they complained about you could just go back and dig through my backlog and put it together yourself. But I am technically speaking a journalist. My subjects and sources are entitled to certain protections.”

“Even if they’re potentially involved with the biggest domestic terror attack of the last five years?” I asked.

“If that’s the case, you’ll be able to get a warrant, won’t you?” Lao got to his feet. “And now, I think I need to get back to work. In the future, if you plan to make visits like this I’d advise you to call ahead. If you’re this desperate to find someone to pin this on it might very well be me. I think I’ll have a lawyer with me in the future and I wouldn’t want you to waste taxpayer time and money waiting for him to arrive.”

Lao led us out of his studio with even more wariness than when we arrived, which was a good thing on the whole. No one should be complacent around the FBI, even if they do technically serve the public trust. Still, unless he was an actor skilled enough to fool psychometrics my read told me he wasn’t involved in the attack – or at least, didn’t think he was involved. One of his guests could still have played a part that Lao never knew about. But that wasn’t a huge concern and I was pretty sure coming back to this well again would be a waste of time.

I snapped my fingers and turned back to look around the studio again.

“Did you forget something, Armor?” Natalie asked.

“Chronological.” She waited a beat for me to explain. “The room is decorated in chronological order, from early pottery reproductions to Confucian ink paintings to the Terra Cotta soldiers. That’s why you walk around it in a clockwise pattern every time you go to start filming, isn’t it? You’re reviewing Chinese history. Interesting choice.”

I turned back around to find Lao staring at me like a deer in the headlights. “You could tell that?”

“I could see the traffic pattern in the room, yes. It took a little free association to figure out why you put things where you did.” I grinned. “It’s a chronological history writ small, right?”

Lao nodded slowly. “You’re really a psychic, aren’t you? That wasn’t just a line you fed me, along with some really brilliant hacking work, to keep me guessing.”

“Psychometric, Mr. Wu. I can read your mind, not change it.”

Natalie cleared her throat, impatience bleeding off her in waves. “The factory, Armor?”

So to the factory we went.

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