Pied Woman by Henry Hatchet is the winning flash fiction entry for the Flashes Ekphrastic Challenge
The security guard, in the murky shadows, watched Octavio Vestal exit the rear entrance of the museum. The chief-curator was always the last to leave with punctual diligence. He set the alarms, marched to his old Volvo, and drove away in a cloud of smoke.
The guard pulled his cap low over his eyes, to hide his face from the dated, low-resolution cameras and ran to the back door, quickly swiping a forged card and punching in a PIN code. The door clicked open and he stepped inside. He strode down the long corridor swiftly, with urgent steps, towards the Phar Lap exhibit—a famous racehorse from years gone by—and removed a small painting from the wall, replacing it with another.
The following evening…
Daniel Whyte was fortunate to land the night-cleaning job at the Melbourne Museum. Fortunate, that his mother was dating, Octavio Vestal, the chief-curator. He hated the menial task of mopping the floors nearly as much as he hated Vestal. One day, he would get a real job, and he and his mum would leave this dreary city: leave Octavio Vestal far behind.
His phone chirped an incoming message.
“Shit,” he whispered.
Employees were required to switch off their mobiles. It was museum policy. He looked around, hoping nobody had heard the chirp and checked the screen. It read: ‘Your Coin-Card account is ready.’
He couldn’t help a big smile. He could now play games to his heart’s content.
“I’ll take that!” Danny spun around, startled. It was Mark the security guard. “You can have it back at the end of your shift.” He walked towards Danny with long, livid steps, hand extended.
Danny turned the phone off and handed it over, sheepishly hanging his head. “It was only a text.”
“Irrelevant!” Mark said, “you know the rules. Next time I’ll confiscate it for a week.”
Arsehole, thought Danny, returning to mopping the polished, wooden floor.
“What’s all the ruckus?” It was the fast approaching voice of Octavio Vestal.
Danny groaned softly.
“Caught the boy using his phone…again, sir,” said the guard.
“Well, we’ll see about…” Vestal’s voice trailed away. He was staring at a small painting behind Danny. “Is that a joke?” He stepped past Danny and tore it from the wall, turning it towards the boy.
It was a painting of a once lovely woman, badly mutilated in some kind of an accident, or worse. Maybe she was cut-up with intent; her blood was all around her.
“I…I don’t know anything about it,” Danny said.
“I don’t suppose you would,” said Vestal. “It doesn’t belong in this exhibit, that’s certain. Whoever created this is an artist. Unlike you, eh boy?”
“I guess so.” Daniel watched him tuck it under an arm. Then the curator picked up the Phar Lap painting, re-hanging it precisely in its original position. Vestal and Mark walked away together, leaving Danny with his mop.
Vestal sat at his desk staring at the painting, wondering who the culprit was that placed it in the Phar Lap display. A junior-curator’s idea of a sad joke, no doubt. He grabbed his 10x magnifier, casting an expert eye over it, looking for the artist’s signature or clues to the age of the work. His eye was drawn to, what he thought, were three fingerprints near her left shoulder.
He stood with a frown and placed the work face down on his copier, scanning it into his computer. Then he enlarged it, zooming in on the fingerprints. To his surprise, the top smudge contained two diagonal lines of letters and numbers. Oh, how he loved a mystery. He increased magnification some more and copied the ciphers to his pocket notebook.
They were: 15ihHoGs3onQBNnEH8afDFGvou9nD62Hm7 Fancy_Bear
Fancy_Bear may have been the artist, but the other string meant nothing to him. He opened his internet browser, inputting the numbers and letters with a puzzled frown. He clicked on the first result: something called Blockchain Explorer:
‘Wallet address 15ihHoGs3onQBNnEH8afDFGvou9nD62Hm7 Format Base58 (P2PKH). Transactions—1. Final Balance—111114.61516989 BTC.’
How intriguing, thought Vestal.
He’d heard of Bitcoin. It was that internet funny-money invented by libertarians.
He typed: ‘Bitcoin value’ into his search field, leaning anxiously towards his monitor.
It read: ‘USD $7621.30’. He shook his head in disbelief, punching the numbers into his calculator.
That’s over 846 Million-Dollars, he thought. This has to be a prank…surely.
He entered: ‘Fancy_Bear’ into the password field and a message appeared: ‘Welcome. Connected and synchronized with the network.’
Alarms sounded automatically all over the world at respective law enforcement agencies. Fraud and money-laundering investigators watched on, with hopeful eyes, as the dormant wallet came to life after three years of inactivity. The Bitcoin was originally stolen—by hackers—from a Japanese cryptocurrency exchange called Mt. Gox.
Vestal had been trying to figure out how to gain access to the money, for half an hour, when sirens screamed, and police cars skidded to a halt outside, blocking the road. Armed officers surrounded the museum.
Superintendent Peter Lucas, backed by a dozen cyber-crime officers, waved his fresh warrant in Mark’s face. “Australian Federal Police,” he said. “Who’s in charge here?”
“The chief-curator,” said Mark. “This way.”
Lucas pointed to Danny. “Bring him along as well.”
Two hours later, Danny was allowed to leave and got his phone back. Luckily, they hadn’t searched the backpack in his locker. If they had, they would have found the security uniform and shoes.
It was time. Time to contact Alexander Vinnik; his Russian hacking counterpart. He typed his message: ‘Execute.’ Encrypting it before he sent it.
The reply was almost instant. After decryption it read: ‘About time Fancy_Bear. This French jail sucks.’
Danny smiled; even a French prison couldn’t stop Vinnik.
“I’ll take that.” It was Mark the security guard. “You can have it back at the end of your shift.” He walked towards Danny briskly, his hand extended.
“Nah,” said Danny, “not this time—I quit.”
His phone chirped again. The message read: ‘Coin-Card deposit confirmation.’
About the Author:
Henry Hatchet grew up in Brisbane and as a teenager, his quest for work led him to the Country. He fell in love with the Australian Outback and although his work led him overseas for a time, he never worked in a city again. He experienced the trials and tribulations of rural life, first hand: the droughts, the floods, the fires, the accidents, the joys of happiness, and love. He now resides on his property in Queensland and wouldn’t have it any other way.
Other work by Henry Hatchet on Flashes: