Catfish – Charlie Chitty
May 24, 2022
The days of Los Angeles are hot, but even the nights are humid. Winds, clouds and rains are turned back by the towering San Gabriel Mountains eternally dusted with snow.
The skyline is mostly flashing lights of planes in place of stars, freckled with fog. All the way through the streets you can hear life as it takes out perfectly polished phones to take pictures of perfectly folded spaghetti cooked by perfectly underpaid chefs. Thin glittery television stars holding thick skin cream jars. Neon bars that exist to be seen in because Sean Bean was seen there once.
There’s money in Los Angeles. Not even just up in Silicon Valley where it’s being turned into ones and zeros and pictures on your phone. But the money in Los Angeles is stranger, darker. As dark as the night sky, with no cold stars to light the way. The smog has all but taken care of that.
Just plane engine lights. And another one, fading and becoming dimmer before-
“Two hundred meters,” said Jennifer. “New record.”
Maxine watched as the miniature drone fell from the sky and pressed the button on her remote to deploy the miniaturised parachute. Twice. Three times. The plastic casing had snagged the button, stopping it from depressing. The drone hit the concrete smashing into a hundred pieces.
“FOR FUCKS SAKE, MAXINE!”
“The button didn’t go down!” Jennifer protested.
Maxine yanked the remote away and began to press the button over and over, noticing that it kept getting jammed. She pulled out her iPhone and opened a PDF.
She was silent for several minutes as Jennifer stood by. As warm as the night was, the air felt cold on her sleeveless shirt. And here they were, flying a drone around an affluent neighbourhood in the middle of the night. It was surprising nobody had called the cops.
“An entire half-inch in height difference. The shell casing is a half-inch smaller than the spec I sent off for. Oh, I am just going to KILL Travis tomorrow!”
She headed off to get to the broken down drone, Jennifer trailing behind.
She reached it and began salvaging.
“Maxine, are you going to apologise to me?”
Maxine didn’t respond. Eventually, after putting half of the pieces into her eggshell blue backpack, she turned back to Jennifer.
Her lip was quivering.
“It’s just we put a lot of money into Flup. Money I didn’t really have.”
“Yeah, us and all the other tech startups,” she muttered. Blades and cogs and gizmos littered her hands. The drone beeped twice and then puttered out.
“I mean it, Maxine. I promise you.”
“We’re going to get this project off the ground.”
Maxine stared daggers at her, kneeling on the cold road and covered in bits of robot. And then she started laughing. Soon after, Jennifer joined her.
They packed the rest of the robot away together. And somehow everything felt just that little bit better.
The morning came slowly, sunlight oozing across the landscape. Maxine got out of bed and stretched, reaching over to her bedside table to where her alarm chirped at her. Jennifer lay on the floor, mostly covering the light square on the carpet.
Maxine wondered if Steve Jobs had had to sell his sofa to build Apple. Probably. Maybe. Probably not. She pulled her phone across from her, where it clinked against the half-full glass of water on her bedside table. She compressed the side and looked at the smiling picture of herself and Jennifer at graduation, arms around each other. The picture now felt as if it had been taken on another planet.
She shuffled through her contacts until he saw Travis May. It was seven in the morning, but it was worth a shot.
She pressed the green circle.
“What’s up, you tech-bro piece of shit?”
Maxine could hear a blurry noise at the other end of the line. Travis was in bed.
“I told you to be diplomatic, Max,” came a dreary grunt from the carpet. “You never listen, do you?”
Jennifer stretched out and Maxine could hear a few joint-clicking noises as Jennifer fell back asleep on the floor. She began to snore slightly.
“Good morning to you too.” said Travis. “And to what do I owe this honour?”
“You didn’t follow the schematics, the controller you made for me was defective and now my drone has been crushed and the parachute has been cut to bits.”
“Woah woah, slow down. What’s the problem?”
“Did you do the sockets at two or one point five?”
“One point five.”
“Check the PDF I sent you.”
There was silence from the end of the phone for a minute. Maxine switched to speakerphone.
“I messed up.”
“Fuck yes you messed up, now what about my drone?”
“That’s just The Caviar Emperor, baby.”
Maxine looked over at Jennifer, confused, as Jennifer crawled out of the blanket on the floor and over to a kettle and set of mugs on a stained glass table that was the only other piece of furniture in the shared bedlivingroom. She cracked open a jar of instant coffee that had clumped together and mined out a hunk to throw into a mug. She clicked the kettle on.
“Caveat Emptor?” Jennifer asked.
“That’s it! Buyer Beware and all that Latin shit. Yeah, I don’t see how this is my problem. Like, straight up.”
Maxine looked livid. She opened her mouth but Jennifer interrupted.
“Is there anything you can do for us? We know you have connections and know a lot of techy people. We kinda need the drone fixed today.”
The kettle clicked and Jennifer poured herself a mug of hot black coffee and supped it, feeling the water, scalding, against her lower lip.
“I mean, no not really. I-
The line went silent and so Jennifer spoke up.
“Travis. Are you still there?”
Maxine was pacing. Which Jennifer knew wasn’t good.
“Yeah, I was actually just looking up a guy. Um. So I made a contact yesterday but he doesn’t really fix this, this guy is like a massive geek. Does investing in businesses and stuff. Does some stuff with those images people see on the internets. You know, like the monkeys and lions and shit that rich people love. Apparently he’s all about bankrolling new tech startups.”
“Yeah, the old boys club,” replied Maxine. “And I want my fucking drone repaired by next week you garbage son of-
“No, he only bankrolls females.”
Jennifer put down her coffee, half finished. Maxine was silent.
“I can give you his contact details if you need them. I’ll text them over or you can swing by the shop. He actually left his business card here which has- Okay, it has his address on it. That’s weird right?”
“Definitely weird,” said Maxine. “And you still have his card, yeah?”
“Yeah,” said Travis. “Slid it into my phone case. But get this, the guy lives in Paradise Cove Bluffs. That’s, like, money money, right?”
Maxine felt her heart speeding up. Paradise Cove Bluffs wasn’t just money money of a small time company winner with a bank account in the five figures. That was celebrity money money money. Six, seven, eight. More.
“I’ll call you back.”
Maxine put the phone down and climbed out of bed. The morning haze was dissipating and the sun was beginning to break through towards a new day in Los Angeles.
Maxine looked at Jennifer.
The two women made their way to Travis’s Tech, a storefront squeezed between two convenience stores only two streets away from their apartment. The shop itself was a mishmash of tech and wires and post-it notes in the window offering all sorts of services from repair to battery replacement to sourcing PC components.
Travis himself was there, trying to open up a watch, as they walked in. He heard the bell above the door chime, but didn’t look up.
“Can you believe people are out here trying to make analog watches a thing? All the little hands and gears n’ shit? When they have smartphones? Anyway, how can I help-
He froze as he looked up, a deer in a set of two very different headlights that his eyes switched between in panic. One angry, the other absolutely furious.
Maxine emptied the drone components from her bag onto the dust-mat on the glass display counter that Travis stood behind.
Underneath the glass counter sat a variety of sad looking computer processors and motherboards, propped up by cardboard beer coasters.
“Now either you lie about having stupidly important connections and I have to climb over the counter and punch you.” said Maxine. “Or you fucking fix my drone.”
Travis put up his hands in mock horror and then reached into his pocket. He pulled out a business card on dimpled and expensive card stock.
Maxine felt her jaw drop as Travis handed it over.
It felt thick and weighty. Strange.
‘Crypto Specialist and Femme-Financial Advisor’
And below, the address.
Jennifer scooped the drone parts back into the backpack as Maxine read and re-read.
Eventually she opened her mouth as Jennifer finished nitpicking the odd diode and scrap metal piece.
‘If this is fake-
“If this is some sort of joke and-”
Maxine stormed out of the tiny tech store without looking back. Jennifer thrust the heavy backpack onto her back, jostling the broken pieces of drone inside.
‘Sorry,” she mumbled. And then she left.
A diode lay flickering on the glass countertop. Travis pocketed it. Afterwards, he took out his phone and sent a text.
‘On way. Probably thirty, forty if traffic bad.’
Later that night, as he walks home, he will turn off his phone, open up the back, pull out the SIM card and drop it into a nearby pedal bin at the end of the road.
“Turn left. LEFT.”
The battered sedan swerved down another lane of palm trees, gates as high as them and houses that looked like a family of five houses stitched together with varying types of glass, wood and, in one case, what seemed to be burnished gold.
The car stopped at the end of the lane, where the grandest building of all stood behind an gigantic pearlescent gate, easily as high as a block of flats. Whilst the others were incredible, there was an element of sameness to them. McMansions. And none of them were anywhere near as big.
It wasn’t quite a house or a mansion, but looked like some sort of military silo that had been invited to the Met Gala. A dark and squat, mean thing, but with all the trappings of the rich and grandiose. Opulent windows, crystal clear, showcasing a gigantic chandelier that had to be at least ten meters squared. Velvet sofas sat underneath, both gilt edged.
“Gucci wallpaper,” breathed Jennifer.
Before Jennifer could answer, the circular intercom in front of them buzzed by itself. A crisp male voice spoke up. Young, self-assured.
“Yo, what up?”
“Are you Tristan?”
“Yeah man, you Maxine? Your friend phoned ahead.”
‘He’s not my-
‘Come on in!”
There was a loud clacking noise and the giant pearlescent gates in front of them slid back, bouncing gently across the gigantic hedgerows behind them.
The two women walked up a long winding pathway. Concealed hoses spritzed the perfectly manicured grass and, neither could believe their eyes, two magnificent peacocks strutted. A short distance off was a gigantic pool that seemed to dazzle in the midday sun. But it wasn’t just the sparkling water, it was-
“24 carat. Plated, obviously.”
The man in dark sunglasses smiled with a gleaming set of perfect teeth. He walked down the marble steps in front of the strange silo-house in an obviously well tailored Armani suit. He held out a hand, beaming.
Maxine took it with gusto and shook.
“Maxine, Co-CEO of Flup Enterprises. This is my partner, Jen.”
“Flup? What do you guys do?”
Jennifer spoke up. Her hands were crossed over her chest but they shook slightly.
“We, uh, work with pre-existing drone models. Flight drones. So, uh, so we are working to ensure the reusability of drones over time using… software such as parachute deploying?”
Maxine looked back at her partner, smiling ever so slightly. She put an arm around her and Jennifer’s shaking slowed.
“Or the relaying of a sponge block to help absorption of falls. We have considered these options and others in our testing.”
Tristan raised an eyebrow. ‘Why Flup? Is it to appeal to the younger demographic given their interest in shorter names? Distinguishing a short named IP given the degradation in attention spans in order to capitalise on a generation of TikTok and Instagram users?”
Jennifer blinked. “Drones fly up.”
She shrugged apologetically.
Tristan looked stoic. And then broke out laughing. “I love it! Flup! And how much were you looking for?”
“Ten million.” said Maxine, as Jennifer opened her mouth to say “Fifty thousand,” before shutting it before the words exited her throat in nothing more than a stutter.
“Ten million,” Maxine repeated. “5% equity.”
Jennifer’s eyes widened but she tried to conceal her surprise. At present, Flup was ten business cards, a broken drone and another half prototype written on the top-half of a Denny’s napkin. There was grift and then there was whatever Maxine was doing.
But Maxine’s face was immutable.
Tristan nodded, his face returning to a look of uncertainty and discomfort. “I see. Well, maybe you two should leave.”
Maxine opened her mouth to respond, her face about to twist into a look of rage that Jen had only seen her reserve for frat boys, staid bankers, two local councilmen working for the governor and, at one point, her very religious father when discussing that she was more than a business partner to Jennifer.
“Unless you want eleven million! Ladies, I want to fund Flup to the moon! I want this thing to go to big places!”
Maxine was flabbergasted and found herself, for the third time that day, completely speechless. She held out a trembling hand and shook it.
“If we could work out the ins and outs of it, come inside and I’ll give you some papers to look at, but I’m pretty confident that we can make this Flup deal work! I’m all about female talent!”
“Maxine can I talk to you a minute?”
Maxine was nodding, and didn’t hear.
“Can I talk to you a minute?”
She pulled back from Tristan who stood with his hands in his pockets, surveying them.
“If you two business moguls need some time to work things through and talk, absolutely cool. I’ve got five more appointments this afternoon, but the next one isn’t until three. So you’ve got a little while to talk between yourselves. If you need me, follow on through and I’ll crack open some Chablis!”
He turned and walked away, leaving his front door wide open.”
“Jennifer, I appreciate what you’re doing here.”
“A false time restraint and pretending as if we’re considering the offer, but I really think we should just go for it. We don’t need to barter for more money. If he does background checks and it turns out-
“I don’t trust him.”
Maxine paused. Behind her, the giant oak front door hung like an abyssal maw. Some sort of monster, and one giant treasure.
“You shouldn’t,” Maxine replied. “But this isn’t about trust. We take the funding, we’re rich. Whether Flup succeeds or not, he’s willing to put money in it. Smart money, dumb money. Either way it’s our fucking money.”
“I’m not coming in with you.”
“Jen, I fucking need you.”
Jen folded and unfolded her arms. Paced the garden. Looked back at the open door and then back at Maxine’s worried and searching face.
“Jen, don’t make me choose between you and eleven million fucking dollars because you’re worth twelve to me but neither of us even have money for rent this month.”
Jen took a step back. “I’m not coming in with you, Max.”
‘And you choose the fucking time, now, to grow a spine?” Maxine hissed at her. “Fuck it. Go sit in the car and I’ll sign the damn papers.”
Jennifer left. Her amble soon turned into a run, her hands covering her face. She was crying.
Maxine adjusted her shirt and turned. She headed into the house. Her fists were balled.
Behind the front door was no hallway, simply a gigantic lobby with the chandelier high above. The window alcove with the sofas above was inaccessible and Maxine wondered briefly how you would sit there.
Jennifer’s voice seemed to ring in her head. ‘Nobody does, Max. They’re decoration. Window dressing. Light of an angler fish to distract from the teeth.’
She shook her head, ridding herself of such ideas. The neurotic partner was waiting in the car. And she wasn’t about to sign for the best payday of her life.
There was no furniture, though the walls were lined with what looked like portraits of hundreds of women, each one in their early thirties.
Tristan stood in the centre of the room and noticed her staring at the wall display.
“Don’t worry, they’re not my girlfriends or anything sinister.”
“Just part of an online art project I’m currently working on.”
“Okay. Hey, my partner’s back in the car. I think it’s a stomach bug thing. She had a really bad Taco Bell two days ago so it could be that.”
Tristan removed his sunglasses and Maxine was struck by the intensity of his sea blue eyes.
“I see. That is indeed no problem. You can sign for both of you and I will e-mail ahead at a later time.”
He looked at her.
“If you don’t mind, that is.”
“That should be no problem. At all. Tristan, isn’t it.”
He nodded. “The very same. Tristan Douglas Whitewall the Third if you want my full title. My grandfather worked with the very first hedge funds and my father worked in personal finance, diversified into property… All very boring, I can assure you. A lot of my wealth is inherited and so I spend my time-
He chewed, selecting his words.
“Finding ways to be a competent angel investor in projects I believe are good. But more importantly, projects good for humanity. Mostly I am focusing on BAME businesses. Businesses centered on female empowerment. Equality. I trust you understand these terms.”
“I have, interestingly, doubled the portfolios of both my father and my grandfather. Using Crypto and Web3. As I’ve said, very boring stuff. Would you like to come through to the kitchen?”
Maxine nodded again. He was ticking all the right boxes. He’s ticking too many boxes and something’s wrong and you know it.
“Shut up Jen,” muttered Maxine.
“Something the matter?” Tristan asked.
Maxine smiled. “Oh. No, no, not at all. Lead on!”
The kitchen was bathed in a wash of light from the stoplights of a stainless steel kitchenette. Tristan pulled open a drawer, revealing a neat stack of contracts, each stapled perfectly together with an almost surgical neatness.
He pulled a sheet out and passed her a pen from his jacket pocket.
Maxine signed and Tristan pocketed the contract, pushing it deep down into his jacket pocket.
He pulled out a cheque from the other, took his pen and filled out the numbers before handing it over with a flourish.
“If you cash this it should clear within one to two working days, and I’ll be sending over an email with a few more details.” He turned to a gigantic chrome fridge and pulled it open. Inside were rows and rows of wine, each arranged an exact centimetre apart. Maxine felt as if she was living in some sort of showroom or strange kitchen advertisement. Everything felt so real but yet so, forced? Fake.
She took the glass that Tristan handed her and drank it quickly, pushing down the feelings that something was off. “I’d better head. off. Just to check on my partner, you know?”
“Can you do me a favour quickly?” said Tristan. “Nothing weird, I can assure you. It was actually part of that contract you just signed, that I get to use your likeness for any project of my choice.”
“Oh, yes,” said Maxine, regretting not looking over the contract. But it had been so hard, given that the man clearly wasn’t some sort of grifter and actually had the money, clearly.
“If you’d like to follow me downstairs please.”
He pulled open a hatch on the floor, hidden in the ceramic tile.
“I know, I know. Creepy millionaire lures you into his basement. But trust me, I have absolutely no reason to hurt you.”
Maxine opened her mouth.
“You’re not scared are you? If you don’t want to do it we can do it another time, it’s just that you struck me as someone who was, y’know, kind of a hustler. Same day shipping kind of girl.”
Maxine stepped onto the ladder and headed down the ladder into a dimly lit room below.
“Nothing sexual,” she called up at him. “I didn’t sign up for that. Now get down here before I change my mind.”
Her heart thumped. Something in her crawled, demanding why she’d done something incredibly stupid. He was goading you on purpose, Max.
Tristan climbed down the ladder and clicked a button on the wall.
The lights cracked on to reveal that they were standing in some sort of cave. The walls were just hollowed out without wallpaper, just clay indents and markings on the wall.
In the centre of the jarringly rustic cavern was a giant device covered in what looked like hundreds of top-of-the-line cameras all snapped together inside a giant hamster cage made out of see-through strings and wires.
“So what I’m doing is creating a series of NFT’s. Non-Fungible Tokens. Basically, I sell pictures online of women in limited quantity.”
Maxine raised an eyebrow. “But there’s plenty of pictures of me on Facebook and Twitter, why would people want pictures of me?”
“But they’re not going to be of you. Essentially I take pictures of women, run it through a procedural AI application I have invented and put quite a bit of my money into and we get a picture of a person who doesn’t exist. A true one of one. People online pay quite a lot of money for these, especially as the image is only generated after purchase and so is unavailable anywhere else.”
“How much money are we talking here?”
Maxine nodded again, slightly fiercely. She hated how she felt, at the whims of someone who was clearly a much bigger player. But this was a step up, a step forward, in a few years she’d earn more than even him and he’s not going to let you leave, Max.
Maxine tried to block out the voice of Jennifer, of her own internal voice that screamed for her to run out of the tiny cramped cave she was standing in with a man in a pricey suit. But she didn’t.
She went to stand in the centre of the strange machine.
“Do you want me to do my hair or anything? Make-up or something?”
Tristan squinted. After a moment he stepped forward and brushed a lock of hair away from Maxine’s face with an almost deliberate slowness.
“The clients like to see the whole face.”
Before Maxine could respond, Tristan clicked a button on the side.
The cameras started to oscillate and turn, each beginning to snap as they sped up, whirling and clicking. Tristan was staring at a console as the front as a 3d image of Maxine’s face showed up on the screen.
The cameras whirred faster, faster.
You can smell it.
It’s an old cave.
Not dirt, think.
As Maxine noticed the marking on the walls as indents, she leapt from the machine as something fired.
The snub nosed Beretta attached to the internal workings of one of the many internal cameras fired off with an almighty BANG.
“YOU STUPID BITCH!”
Tristan’s face contorted into a look of pure rage as Maxine leapt for the ladder leading up to the kitchen.
She kicked and thrashed as Tristan pulled her, by the jeans, back into the cave as she clung to the ladder for dear life, screeching and screaming.
She raised up a boot and rammed it back down, hearing a howl as it connected. Something made a cracking noise. Tristan’s nose had broken, or his jaw. Something.
The hands let go and the body dropped.
She didn’t look back, simply clambered out of the kitchen and sprinted to the front door, her foot slipping on the floor. She looked down and noticed, idly, that she was trailing blood from her shoes. However hard she’d stomped, something had given way.
She pulled at the front door, locked. She reached across to pull the latch, wrestling and fumbling the bolt across so that-
She felt a strange warmth spread across her chest, followed by a sharp stinging pain. it hurt. It really hurt. She collapsed to the ground, turning her head to see Tristan, most of his perfectly white teeth smashed in by her shoe and blood pouring down the front of his perfectly expensive Armani suit.
He was holding the pistol he’d wrenched from the camera.
When he spoke, it was in less than a whisper through his broken face.
Tristan spat blood.
“You have no idea. Not even close to what’s going on.”
Maxine felt a buzzing above her. A fly or a wasp or something. It didn’t matter now.
“I told you they were one of ones. And I always make sure. The people that pay the money for this kind of stuff make Musk and Gates look like penniless crackheads. And you, or your dumb fuck of a friend Travis, less than fucking atoms.”
The buzzing got louder.
“I keep the masters on my wall but the real ones will never be seen. No, I make sure of that.”
He levelled the gun.
The glass shattered as a shaky and broken drone broke through, veering and twisting across the lobby. It smashed straight into the candelabra and the monstrosity shook. The drone backed up and then crashed into it again.
The entire thing dislodged, falling straight on top of Tristan Whitewall.
He had not time to scream as the thing crushed him, snapping off both his left and right leg.
His body shuddered as it bled out, the pistol still clasped in his right hand. The finger wriggled like a thin pale worm but couldn’t compress the trigger. And then, suddenly, it stopped moving completely.
Tristan was dead.
Maxine felt the world become grey and lay back on the floor. She couldn’t quite remember where she was or what was happening. But the floorboards felt deliciously cool on her aching body.
She closed her eyes and drifted off, far away from the world of Los Angeles, California.
Maxine opened her eyes.
She was laying in a hospital bed.
She tried to move and found that she couldn’t.
A hand reached out for her. She looked across and tears flooded her eyes as the entire ordeal rushed back to her. The glittery nails were something she’d recognise anywhere.
“Jen. I’m so-
“No, I almost-
She held her hand for a while.
The machines next to her beeped.
“They managed to get the bullet out but you lost a lot of blood,” said Jennifer. She tried to keep her voice level. “It was touch and go for a while.”
Jennifer felt her own eyes welling up as she looked over at her partner, tubes arcing her body.
“Next time what?”
“Next time we’re gonna just pay Travis to just fix the fucking drone.”
And the two of them laughed, there in the hospital.
And after a while, the world seemed to look just a little bit better.