Details in Denny’s (part of a much longer short about my late friend, Aaron Rader)

Denny’s was where Rader’s storytelling would truly shine. Many a night in Denny’s would last until dawn and as such required we provide our own entertainment. Some nights would begin with dozens of teens but wind down to just a few of us reading books, talking, or playing games. I did more than my fair share of homework, reading, and just plain crossword puzzles in Denny’s at three in the morning. Rader’s stories often provided much needed entertainment. They never followed a straight line, but branched in tangents and then curved back to the original story only to shoot off at a right angle again. Such tales could run for hours, which was useful when one was bored but had nowhere else in quiet Lewis County to go.

One such Friday, around two or three in the morning, I was reading an article on Kevin Mitnick and his recent arrest. Rader came in and sat down at the table.

“Whatcha reading?”

“Article on Kevin Mitnick.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah, just talks about the charges he’s facing. They could classify him as an enemy spy or some shit. That could be death penalty.”

“Death penalty for who?” The waitress, Jen, asked as she held up the coffee pot.

“I’ll take a warm-up,” I responded.

“I’ll have a cup.” Rader added.

Jen poured us coffee.

“So, who gets the death penalty?”

“This hacker named Kevin Mitnick might get it.”

“For hacking?”

“He’s not just any hacker,” Rader responded, “he’s had the FBI after him for almost ten years. And he’s only like twenty-five or six.”

“The FBI’s been chasing this guy since he was fifteen?” Jen gave Rader an unconvinced stare.

“Longer, really. His first hack was in 1979 when he hacked the entire frickin’ California bus and train system to get free rides when he was only nine.”

“Whoa, so he’s like, a genius?”

Rader nodded, “A child prodigy. My friend in California met him once.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. His car broke down on the side of the 405. He drove this beater Toyota that turned the radio on when you turned on the headlights. That was frickin’ hilarious. I messed with him one time – before we went out to a bar one night, I put a Megadeth tape in the deck and fast-forwarded it to a loud song. Then I turned the volume all the way up. So, we’re driving to the bar and it gets dark enough for him to turn on his headlights and he does – and Megadeth comes blaring over the radio. He almost totaled the fricken’ car.”

“Wait – so you went to a bar with this hacker kid and pranked him?”

“No, no – not Mitnick – my friend!”

“Oh! Your friend drove the beater?”

“Right. And he broke down on the 405 one day. So he hitches a ride to the nearest gas station and goes to make a phone call but doesn’t have any change for the payphone. He walks into the gas station and asks one of the other customers if they have a dime, this scrawny looking kid with long, stringy hair and dirty clothes. The kid goes, ‘What d’ya need it for?’ And my friend says, ‘Payphone. My car broke down.’ The kid gets this really big grin and says, ‘Nah. I got ya covered.’

“So, they go back outside to the payphone. The kid reaches into his pocket and pulls out this little black box with a toggle switch on it – you know, the kind you see in movies when they go to launch missiles? Those silver switches? Anyway, he picks up the receiver on the phone, holds the box up to it, and flicks the switch. It plays a bunch of weird sounds and then the kid hands my friend the phone. Tells him to dial whoever he needs to call. My friend doesn’t believe it’ll work, but he dials anyways, and sure as shit the call goes through. When he turned to ask the kid how he did it, the kid was gone.

“The next day, in the post office, he saw a picture of the kid on a wanted poster and realized Kevin Mitnick was the one who helped him.”

“Wait, what did the box do?”

“Played a ‘red tone’,” I replied.

“A ‘red tone’?”

“Yeah,” Rader interjects, “phone companies use different tones for telling the computers what to do. That’s how they got rid of operators. Like, when you dial and it plays a specific sound? The computer on the other end recognizes that sound as a specific number and that’s how it knows who to call. Payphones work the same way – when you put a dime or quarter or whatever in it, they play a specific tone. One means a nickel, two is a dime, and five means a quarter. When the computer registers the right amount of tones, it lets you call. It’s called ‘phreaking’ – with ph instead of f – phone hacking.”

Another customer came in and Jen wandered off to attend to him.

“You know,” I said, pointing at the magazine, “there isn’t any evidence Mitnick did any real hacking. They say in here he claims everything he did was with information he got given to him by basically conning people.”

“Of course there isn’t any evidence – the bastard erased everything, covered his tracks. You know he hacked the FBI right?”

“Are you talking about the same guy?” Jen returned.

“Yeah, he hacked the FBI and got his own file. We all have files at the FBI – and Mitnick went in and got it.”

“Why do we all have files?”

“They create them the moment you get a Social Security number. Then, anything they consider worthy is added into it. Its all on the main computers at the Pentagon or something. Anyway, Mitnick got his hands on his and then deleted it so the FBI had to start over from scratch.”

“That’s awesome!”

“Whenever I think about the FBI and all the crazy fricken’ shit they have,” Rader continued, “I think about ‘The X-Files’. You know those are based on a real thing, right? The FBI has a whole department called ‘The Unexplained Files’. Chris Carter got his hands on some of them and used them to write his scripts. He just shortened it to ‘The X-Files.’”

“How did he see them?”

“After twenty-five years, these things are declassified. He just had to request it from the government. I bet he did it when he was working on one of those shows like ‘Unsolved Mysteries.’”

“So ‘The X-Files’ are real?”

“Yes, and no. The stories are based on real X-Files, but he writes them to be more modern and more dramatic. I don’t think any FBI agents have been abducted by aliens.”

I shrugged, “Who knows. With Area-51 and Roswell…”

“I’ve seen a bunch of UFOs, but never any aliens. My dad and I saw one when we were camping, once, this light darting in the sky like no airplane could. Then, another time, I was fishing with my uncle and we saw this bright light – I mean blinding light – rise up out of the woods and hover. Then it just shot off into the sky at warp speed and disappeared.”

Jen shook her head.

“I’m not shittin’ you. I’m not saying they were aliens, I’ve never seen aliens, I’m just saying they were unidentified flying objects. Now ghosts – ghosts, I believe in. My dad’s office is haunted. There’s this shadow thing that moves around the hallway at night. You can see it in the mirror and feel it when it goes past you – you get all cold and goosebumps.”

Jen shivered, “Okay, that I’ll buy.”

“I saw a UFO once.” The new customer at the bar, an older man with greying hair, offered.

We looked at him.

“Yeah?” I prompted.

“Yup. Landed in the old Marshall field out near Toledo. You know where that is?”

We nodded. I had no idea where the Marshall field was, or if it ever existed.

“I was out walkin’ my wolves one night and this glowing thing landed right in the middle of the field. These short, grey aliens came out and talked to me. Don’t remember what they said ‘cuz they wiped my memory with their telepathy or something.”

The man went back to his coffee, apparently saying all he intended to say.

Jen leaned over us, “He’s crazy. The guy thinks he has wolves in his car – six foot tall wolves.”

We both nodded, we knew Wolfman.

“If you watch when he leaves,” Rader grinned, “he’ll drive around the parking lot with his passenger door open so the ‘wolves’ can jump back in. Then he’ll close the door and drive off.”

Jen shook her head, “I didn’t know I’d be dealing with lunatics when they hired me.” She walked around back.

“Was she talking about him or us?” I mused.

Rader laughed, “Probably both. We’re talking about hackers, aliens, and ‘The X-Files’.”

“I heard that story about ‘The X-Files’ before. Not sure where.”

“Art Bell,” Rader answered, “that’s where I heard it.”

“Oh, makes sense.”

“Best radio show out there – next to Mark and Brian. Did I tell you about how Mark and Brian stole one of my sketches?”

“Yeah, you did. The hunter one, right?”

“The Great White Hunter sketch. I sent them a tape of me and Gabe making fun of hunters. Instead of hunting down big animals, though, we were hunting moles with shotguns and TNT. It was fricken’ hilarious. I never heard back from them – then, a few weeks later, I hear them call ‘The Great White Hunter’ and he’s a guy who hunts down gophers or some shit with gasoline in the gopher holes. Stole my sketch.”

“Yeah, you told me.”

“But their sketch is fricken’ funny, funnier than the one I wrote, so I’m okay with it. At least I know I have good ideas, right? I mean, if they’re using it.”

“Right.” My coffee was running low.

“I’ve been working on my script. The one about the guy who delivers the package for the mob-”

“Scoot over.” Jen ordered Rader. He slid over and she sat down.

“One of you two gimme a smoke.”

Rader opened his pack of Marlboro Reds and she took one.

“I’m taking a fuckin’ break and I’m sitting with you guys. I’m tired.”

“Sure, relax. We’ll even refill the coffees for ya.”

“Sweet. Can you roll my set-ups and do the prep work too?”

“Sure.”

“Alright! I’ll take a nap over in that booth.”

Rader lit up a cigarette for himself and I grabbed the coffee pot. I warmed up our cups and then gave Wolfman a refill. He nodded at me, his eyes on my shoulder the entire time – except for when he spun around quickly and watched an imaginary something walk behind him.

I sat back down.

“…used to call the FBI agents tracking him and taunt them.” Rader was saying.

“Talking about Mitnick again?”

Jen nodded, rolling her eyes. Rader kept going.

“He figured out how to make cell phones completely untraceable. Which is smart, since the FBI can do a lock-in trace on any regular phone. That’s where they force electricity down the line to keep it open, even when you hang up. Not like in the movies where they hang up just in time – in the real world, the FBI can keep the line open as long as they want. But they have to triangulate a cell phone with three receivers, and they can’t do that if the call is completely anonymous. When he calls, it looks like the call is coming from a regular phone instead of a cell phone.”

The night continued this way, with Rader and I exchanging wild urban legends about Kevin Mitnick, all of which turned out to be untrue. Eventually, exhaustion won out over dozens of cups of coffee and we made our way home.

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