Ed Nobody: Identity Repossession

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Originally published 26 January 2003 at Backwash.com

Four lines in the back of Soldier of Fortune magazine, nested among ads for novelty IDs, grey-market weapons, and locksmith training CDROMs:


Ed stepped off the bus, on to the ivory cement of the newly-poured sidewalk. This was the address he got when he called the phone number, so now he needed to find Suite 2840.

New tile in the atrium, fresh plants in the hallways, new elevators, this building couldn’t be more than a month old, Ed thought. Quite a posh location for the office of a bounty hunter, nothing like Ed expected at all.

Ed could smell the new carpet in the twenty-eighth floor hallway before the elevator doors opened. 2801 was on his left directly off the elevator, so Ed followed the right-hand wall down, around two corners, until he reached 2840. It appeared to be the only occupied office on the floor. Hung in 2840’s window was a single sheet of paper, lettered by hand in marker: "Horizon Credit Systems".

As Ed hoped, the interview went well. His experience as a security guard weighed heavily in his favor, and a quick background check verified a clean criminal history. The interviewer’s eyes brightened at Ed’s response to the simple question, "why would you like this job over a security position?" Ed said, "I’d like to work where my efforts feel rewarded, and earning commissions for my work would be just the thing."

The interview ended on a positive but ominous note. "If you don’t have any questions," the interviewer asked, "I think we’ll be getting back..."

Ed spoke up, "Actually, I do have a question. You said repossession once, and I get the impression this job is after deadbeat borrowers, but I get the impression that you don’t actually lend anything. What’s this job actually entail?"

The interviewer laughed, forced, and replied, "we work with a lot of sensitive info, so I’m not really prepared to go into detail, and it depends on how your training goes. You’ll find out when we hire, I mean, if we hire you."

Three days passed, and the call Ed expected came. The job was his, if he accepted. His next call was to resign at the bank, and then he called his Mom to tell her the news.

"Hi Ed," was all his new employer would speak to him until he signed the nondisclosure statement. Three digital signatures, each encoded with Ed’s personal key, plus a thumbprint, and Ed was welcomed into his new position. The thumbprint seemed strange to Ed, considering the degree of security embedded in the chip under the skin of his wrist. But, as he had been told before, this job dealt with significant sensitive information.

Ed was given a uniform, Ed was assigned a gun, and Ed was given a small pocket-sized manual outlining basic steps for performing his job. He flipped through the fifty or so pages, and found no reference to why he was going to be tracking these people down.

The man who had interviewed Ed, who now asked to be called "Mr. Frank," led Ed into a small office with two desks. One desk was clean, new, and still tagged with ergonomic warnings regarding the use of it’s features. The other was lived in, but not much older.

"Bill should be back," Mr. Frank said, "he’ll be your partner. You’re the first employee we have, the rest of us were moved here to open the office. Bill’s one of the best, and he’ll train you on your duties."

A four-note chime jingled from somewhere in the ceiling, and Mr. Frank’s ears seemed to stand up a bit. "Excuse me, Ed, There’s someone for me at the front desk."

Ed sat at his desk and rummaged through the drawers: a phone book, twelve black pens, a pocket computer, and five sticky-note pads.

"You’re Ed, huh?"

Ed jumped with a start. "Need to stay on top of things, Ed. You’ll need to learn not to be caught off your guard."

"Oh, hi...you must be, Bill?"

Bill smiled and shook Ed’s hand. "That’s me, it’s Bill Farley. Head of Repossession. "

"Yeah, that’s my first question: what are we repossessing?"

Bill sat on his desk and furrowed his brow. "I’ll tell you, but once I tell you, you’re stuck in this job forever, Ed. Got it?"

Ed nodded, then briefly wondered if he shouldn’t have.

"You got debt, Ed?"

"My computer’s leased, and my stereo is rent to own, and some school loans. Nothing to big."

"What’d you do if they got too big?"

"Bankruptcy, or maybe come someplace like this, someplace to get help straightening things out."

"What if you can’t do either?"

"I dunno....skip town?" "With that chip in your arm, you wouldn’t get very far, now, would you?"

"No, not unless I went on foot, or got it reprogrammed someplace downtown--"

Bill narrowed his eyes at Ed, and Ed figured that he had spoken a bit too much.

"What do you know about getting ID rebuilt?"

"Just that they can do it for a couple thousand or something, give you one taken from a dead guy or a faked one, or from someone who doesn’t want to be--"

"Is a couple thousand worth a life, Ed?"

"How do you mean?"

Bill stood. "You think a human life can be bought for five, ten thousand dollars?"

"I guess, not much of one."

"Exactly. Real lives cost a lot, more than anyone has all at once. Monthly, usually, sometimes quarterly, but if they skip, that’s where we come in."

Ed struggled to understand. "Like, on lease?"

"Exactly. Someone needs a new identity, a real one – not some juke-joint throwaway ID – they come to us and we set them up. Most pay diligently, knowing what’ll happen if they miss even a few days."

"We track them down..."

"...and take back the identity." Bill sat again, watching Ed’s mouth open and close in an attempt to find the words. Finally, Ed stopped trying and stared at his feet.

Bill took two steps, closed the gap between them, and patted Ed on the shoulder. "I’ll teach you the system, and in a week I’m sure we’ll get a skip assigned to us. Once we go out on a pick-up, you’ll catch on."

"How is this even legal?"

"We have ways."

Ed sat on the edge of the fountain, watching children toss shiny coins into the water. Each made a tiny ’bloop’ on the surface, and flipped and spun in the water before hitting the bottom. His palmtop dinged at him.

"North elevator, on his way down," he said to nobody in particular. His earpiece hissed back a response, "got it, I am in position."

The red dot on Ed’s 3D computer map represented Gunther Anderssen, and it was just about to the first floor. It flashed brighter when Anderssen’s implant triggered the elevator sensors on his way out.

Anderssen’s eyes met Ed’s when they were barely ten feet apart, and it took him only a few seconds to realize why Ed blocked his path. He dropped his briefcase and headed toward the fountain.

Bill was three strides behind Anderssen, but the layout of the atrium prevented an easy pursuit. He drew his weapon and clicked the trigger, making a short sweeping motion in Anderssen’s direction.

The plant to Anderssen’s left wilted and died, the fountain bubbled and hissed to his right, but in the middle Anderssen fell to the ground. He rolled on his back, trying in vain to straighten his right leg. The muscles were cramped up, his heel bent almost back to his buttocks.

"Here you go, Ed," Bill called, "you can wipe him."

"Mein buchhalter kummert um der zahlung, lassen sie mich anrufen sie--"

"English please, Mr. Anderssen," Bill instructed.

"Please, don’t do this," Gunther begged. "I’ll pay you, I’ll give you--"

Ed wrapped Anderssen’s wrist with something resembling a blood pressure cuff. Gunther tried to pull his arm away, and Bill stepped on his elbow to keep it still.

Ed stared at the screen. "What’s wrong?" Bill asked.

"Do I need to pull up the original ID first, or after I read this one?"

"Always before, otherwise we’ll lose his current record. We’ve got another customer for this ID waiting."

Ed typed in a few numbers, and drew his finger across the palmtop’s screen in a wide circle. Tapping the screen twice, he entered the government’s ID record update screen.

"I have the original."

Bill nodded. "Reassign his key, then put the dummy key in Gunther’s record."

"’Always the original record first’," Ed recited, reminding himself of his training.


ID leasing used an obscure loophole, by which credit management services are allowed complete access to update customers’ records. Ed was told that, while a new identity usually caused legal problems for the lessee if they ended up in court, but there was no legal repercussions for the lessor, the credit manager, due to their position as credit trustee. The service was never advertised, never discussed by customers, and the ever-powerful nondisclosure statement prevented most exposure of such services. Only with extreme privacy could such an industry exist.

Ed’s finger looped across the screen, and the palmtop finally tweeted in completion.

"Done," Ed said, and Bill removed his heel from their quarry’s elbow.

"It’s been great doing business with you, Mr. Kingston," Bill said with a wink, leaving the former Gunther Anderssen lying on the floor. As they walked away, Ed watched the details on his 3D map. The red light indicating Anderssen remained stationary by the fountain, while a blue light representing Kingston slowly slid away, blinking brightly as he passed under a ceiling sensor.

In the elevator to the parking level, Ed gasped in surprise.

"Look at this," he said, holding the palmtop out to Bill. "Ralph Kingston has arrest warrants outstanding. There was a reward--"

"We can’t do anything about that, it’d expose us. Reassigning someone in a public place like that, it borders on excessive, but walking in to a police station with a man who hasn’t existed for ten years is only going to generate questions."

Ed nodded. "He was wanted for parking tickets. For all he paid for his identity, couldn’t he have just paid off the fines?"

"Who knows why people do these things. Frank deals with them. We just clean up afterwards."

"How much did we make today?"

"His monthly rate, split 50-50, so you’ll get around $3,000."

"Not bad...and we’ll do two, three of these a week?"

"Sometimes more, and Anderssen/Kingston is on the cheap end of the ID replacement scale."

To hone his new skills, Ed was assigned to three weeks of ’voluntary repossessions.’ These people were willing to take back their former identities, in exchange for the time to prepare for the rollover. With the help of a trustee, they have a chance to transfer funds, reassign property, and arrange for new bank accounts for the day that their current form suddenly disappears.

At first, Ed hated every minute of the job. The Voluntaries weren’t trying for a new start. They were criminals waiting for a Statute of Limitations to expire, they were people waiting out their 7-year bankruptcy, they were parents holding out for their kid’s eighteenth birthday and a release from obligations. Ed saw the permanent identity as a sacrifice, something the others gave up to get something new. The Voluntaries were storing their former life for a brighter day, getting their cake and eating it, too.

He soon found a few positive aspects. First, there was a lot less running and firing of guns. Next, he could do three or four a day, for an eighth of the monthly rate, and by dragging out each session Ed could avoid wasting time at his desk. Ed always liked chatting with customers, back in security at the bank, and the Voluntaries definitely had quite a bit on their minds. They spent years pretending they didn’t exist, so with a little prompting they’re more than ready to let the stories flow.

Ed pulled his company car to the mansion gates. He showed his credentials to the attendant, and the gates were opened. "Pull around to the front of the house, park on the left," the gatemaster instructed.

The drive to the house from the gate seemed as long as the drive from the city. When he first referenced the address, Ed thought this might be some small farmhouse, a grower evading agricultural loans or simple bankruptcy. This seemed a bit beyond the means of a past-due farmer. The phrase ’drug lord’ repeated in his head.

Another attendant was waiting on the sidewalk in front of the mansion, excusing Ed from the ’park on the left’ instructions. He handed his keys to the attendant, who skillfully maneuvered the car in an out-of-sight location. As Ed advanced up the front steps, another attendant opened the door and greeted him. Ed was led to a side room, one wall of floor-to-ceiling windows surveying an extensive tailored garden.

The room contained a few wingbacked chairs and a coffee table, laid out on an ornate rug centered against the window wall. His briefcase clunked darkly on the table, the echo of very dense wood, something more expensive than he could imagine. His apartment was plastic and glass. Ed opened his case and laid out the necessary equipment. He slid his firearm into his breast pocket, just in case.

Another attendant appeared from one door, crossed the room, and opened another door. Outside, awaiting her entrance, was the woman Ed was there for.

She approached Ed with a blank expression, but upon reaching the rug she smiled and took Ed’s hand in greeting.

"Hello, Mr. Karol. I’m sorry to bring you so far from the city."

"Not a problem," Ed replied. "My company car gets me where I need to be."

"Good, good. I’m sure HCS makes it well worth your while, too."

"They certainly do. Here, I have a few things for your signature."

Ed held out the paperwork, and touched his IDreader to her arm. As she turned a page, Ed noticed a long surgical scar along the underside of her wrist, running nearly to her elbow. As with his nondisclosure paperwork, voluntary repossessions required three digisigned copies and a thumbprint.

"I actually find your case quite interesting," Ed said, "Usually, the prior identity has serious problems, something to give me an idea why you’re leasing the Roberts identity."

"And you’ve got nothing?"

"Sort of, just basic information. School records, dental x-rays, urine tests for early jobs. "

"You’re little computer doesn’t know everything, Mr. Karol." Roberts/Kiegel frowned briefly, following up with a smile. "There’s things in a person that you can’t find in their records. The things that make a person which can’t be written down or classified. Are you in there, somewhere?"

"I’ve seen my records, part of my training was to play with my own ID catalog."

"No – I mean YOU, something other than your name or your encrypting codes or that chip in your arm. How do you find you?"

"Me? I’m just...me..." Roberts/Kiegel held out her arm for the programmer wrap. As Ed fastened it, he couldn’t resist touching the scar to see if it felt as embossed as it looked.

"Are you so sure of who you are, Mr. Karol?"

Ed completed the rest of his operation in silence, re-establishing the scarred woman across from him as Margaret Kiegel. He excused himself, using the fewest of words. As he left, an attendant opened the door from the outside, prepared for his exit.

Ed spun in his desk chair to talk to the back of Bill’s head.

"Hey, don’t let this sound dumb, but are you really Bill Farley? You haven’t set up your own identity or anything?"

Bill turned, smiling slyly. "Why, you think I have?"

"No, it’s just...I’m just curious. I worked on a woman last week, with nothing in her background. She basically switched one name for another. I asked her about it, and he made me do some thinking..."

"Don’t let it get to you, Ed. And, no, even if I wanted a new ID there’d be no way to afford it. It’d cost a third of my salary, and I need all the money I got. Bankruptcy is something for guys like us. Doing something drastic like getting a new ID is for people in a dire situation. Either way, there’s no escaping yourself. We haven’t done a suicide run yet, but you’ll see one of those eventually."


"We need to go get the ID off the body before it’s declared dead. Other deaths, usually those have enough warning that action is taken before the ID is killed off, or the ID is past it’s expiration date because the lessee is old and can’t be leased again anyway. But, some guy jumps off a bridge at age 40, there’s still value in that identity, even if the loser doesn’t have any value himself."

"Someone gets a fresh start, and they still kill themselves? What a waste..."

"A new ID lets you escape from the world around you, but if you’ve got demons inside, there’s no running from those. One suicide I did, the guy was on bail for killing his wife. Came in, signed up, really expensive ID to keep him under covers. Puts a gun in his mouth – a real one, not the shockers we use – and blows his fucking head off, before the courts even got enough evidence against him. "

"He did it, killed his wife?"

"Probably, but the trial never got that far. If he didn’t kill her, would he have offed himself like that? He could walk down the street, nobody’d know him from anybody else, but he was still inside, that guy who slit his wife’s throat."

Ed and Bill walked into his office, despite the objections of the secretary out front. The only word Mr. Renger got out was "WHAT--" before he recognized the logo on Bill’s extended credentials. No words were spoken, but Renger/Potter sobbed uncontrollably through the entire process. As Bill & Ed left, they heard the now Albert Potter request, via intercom, the contents of petty cash from his secretary and let her know he’d be out of the office all afternoon.

In the car, en route back to Horizon Credit’s offices, the voice of Betty, the dispatcher, spiked in chorus across both Bill and Ed’s headsets. Elisa Karol, address, current location, three months since last payment.

Ed went white.

"Hey, Ed, it’s a Karol – you know her?"

"It’s my mother."

"It’ll be fine, I’ll drive you back to the office, you wait there. Ed, everything will be all right, you just stick around the office."

As they slowed to a stoplight, Ed made a break for it. He made it almost to a gas station before the muscles in his back locked up, wrenching him over backwards and smashing his head on the sidewalk. His bowels writhed inside, twisting against themselves.

Ed could only see boots, and he could hear the capacitor of Bill’s gun whine as it recharged.

"Dammit, Ed, Frank can take care of this, but you gotta stick with us. The alternative is nasty, so fucking listen to me and go back to the office."

Ed nodded, tears running down his cheeks, and Bill lifted him over his shoulder and carried him back to the car.

Recovery always seemed quick when Ed watched others who have taken a blast, but with him as the target the experience seemed to take forever. He was given a couch in the big conference room at the office and left for the beam-induced charley horses to recede.

Ed awoke to find himself surrounded with an audience of the entire office staff, along with a few men he didn’t recognize.

Mr. Frank spoke first. "Ed, first we need you to understand your place in this whole situation. Your grandmother, Gladys Karol, was actually Mina Elkin, a political activist wanted in many, many countries."

"My grandma died, a few months ago."

"We know, she was long a customer of ours. Your mother was in her early teens when Ms. Elkin came to us, and she set up identities for both herself and your mother. Her original identity was Rachel Elkin. After your grandmother’s death, payments ceased and we were left to locate your mother, who refused to continue payments."

Bill chimed in. "She was more than cooperative, Ed, she’s a nice lady, you’re mom. She argued a bit, but understood the situation. She’s not in any trouble, she just had to take back her original name, so really she’s getting a new start this way."

"However," Mr. Frank continued, "you are a serious issue. When there’s children involved, they usually have to start with zero using a newly created identity associated with their parent’s original records."

One of the men in back stepped forward and extended his hand to Ed to shake. Ed ignored the gesture.

"Ed, I’m Gilbert Lyken, I supervise this region. Our problem is this: If we set you back to zero, turn you into Ed Elkin-Karol, we’d lose you as an employee because the Ed Karol we hired wouldn’t exist, everything you’ve signed and done, including your nondisclosure, would be invalidated. You’ve got talent, and we’ve devoted a lot of energy and financial interest in your career. There’s an alternative, and we’ve got an offer for you."

Ed sat up, as best he could. "What is it?"

Mr. Frank continued. "You can’t stay Ed Karol, and we lose if you stay your mother’s son. Our lawyers advised us to generate a new identity, give it qualifications, hire it, establish it’s credentials and then assign it to you. The process is nearly complete, but you have to decide."

Ed turned to Bill. "My mom...well, she’s not really my mother anymore. But she’s fine?"

"She’s your mother as much as anyone’s mother, Ed. Hell, a new identity doesn’t even stop you from visiting her, this is all on paper. But, like the rest of our work, what’s on paper is what matters."

Ed looked to the suits, presumably the lawyers. "I’ll do it, sign me up."

Ed was led to a computer terminal, and the programming band was wrapped around his forearm.

"Why is this stuff blank?"

A lawyer spoke up. "We think you’ll be more valuable if we leave open blocks in your records. Residences, weapons licenses, passports, aliases. You’ll have to fill in the name, though, that’s the last required piece before it can be set."

"Awfully nice of you, to let me pick that much about my life."

"You need to recognize the seriousness of this, Ed," Mr. Frank said. "We’re giving you something that people pay billions over a lifetime for. We still own the identity, you’re getting it for free. This is more than we really need to give you."

"I was just joking, Frank."

Ed typed in the name blank, set his own ID, and then used the rarely-executed delete command to remove Ed Karol from the public records.

Bill removed the programming band, and swept the portable reader across Ed’s wrist.

"’Ed Nobody’?"

"That’s me, pleased to meet you. I expect we’ll be working together, Mister...?"