Friday, March 13, 2020

Two out of twenty-six is a crazy ratio!

Being a dedicated introvert, I stopped going to grocery stores a couple years ago when InstaCart started servicing my area. I eventually switched to Shipt, which provides better service in my opinion, but the glorious result is the same:  I place an order online via my browser and an hour or two later, my shopper shows up at my door with groceries. Greatest service ever, right? (Right!)

Today I placed an order and about an hour later one of my favorite Shipt shoppers, Edwin, messaged me to let me know that out of the twenty-six items on my grocery list, HEB had exactly two of them in stock. Two. Out of twenty-six. He offered up a few substitutes that were available but in the end I told him to bring my sugar-free Popsicles and Tillamook cheese snacks and forget looking for the other things.

When he got here, Edwin described a scene of mayhem at the grocery store. People instantly grabbing all the meat that had just been put out, piling it into their carts as if they were solely responsible for feeding their entire neighborhoods. Same with other types of products. An entire produce section in a huge grocery store standing bare. Aisles of empty shelving everywhere.

Such is life in the early days of the CoronaVirus Panic of 2020. No big deal. I have plenty of food here at home, both for me and my furry friends, so we'll be fine. When it comes to in-the-flesh interaction, social distancing is sort of my default, so little adjustment is required. I love interacting with online friends and fans, and that shouldn't take much of a hit at all.

What I'm doing with my time is working hard on PROJECTIONIST. Some of you will remember this one, which I started years ago as a serial novel which I was releasing a chapter at a time right here on my StoryFreak blog. That approach didn't work out well. Too complex a story for a week-to-week approach, so it eventually got back-burnered. That hiatus has ended and I'm shooting for a release date of May 15 for this quirky tale. This book, which features some parallel-world and other interesting elements, along with romance and some other content, is way outside my typical wheelhouse, but it's also one that generated a lot of interest here on the blog and elsewhere from the fans who stay in touch. Stay tuned for more specifics.

As soon as PROJECTIONIST is on the market, my initial plan was to quickly release the third book in the Sam Flatt series, which started with UNALLOCATED SPACE and most recently continued via FAKE NEWS. That was before I looked at a couple factors. First, I've gotten a lot of negative feedback on the title of FAKE NEWS. To my surprise, it seems a great number of people see the title and the cover and instantly interpret it as a non-fiction book on politics. Not good. I'm going to fix that with a new title and a new cover that are more in keeping with thriller norms and more congruous with the cover of the first book in the Sam Flatt series, Unallocated Space. Stay tuned for more specifics on that.

The second factor I looked at with regard to post-PROJECTIONIST plans was fan reaction to my previous books across the board. I looked at initial sales, longevity of sales, reviews, and contact from fans regarding the various books. This analysis led to what was a momentous decision for me. Instead of the third book in the Sam Flatt series, the next book out (later this year) after PROJECTIONIST, will be a sequel to SEVEN UNHOLY DAYS.

Yup, Matt Decker returns! It will be a technothriller, of course, and will continue in the same vein as SEVEN UNHOLY DAYS in that Matt will face high-stakes issues that are global in scope, with the potential to be apocalyptic in severity. And you can expect to see some intersection between the worlds of Matt Decker and Sam Flatt. I can't say more on that right now, since I consider spoilers to be the Eighth Deadly Sin, but can tell you that it will be big and exciting, and it will also lead naturally into the next in the Sam Flatt series.

Bottom line? Stay tuned! Lots of thrills lie in the not-distant future. There will be no more multi-year gaps between books. I'm now writing hard and fast and will be producing new books much more frequently going forward.

On the more immediate front, stay safe and well out there, my friends. These are anxious times but I fervently believe we'll pull through this season and be stronger than ever.

Keep reading!


PS:  Stay in touch! I absolutely love hearing from you guys and it's easier to do than ever via any of the methods below:

Subscribe to my monthly newsletter (It's fun and not spammy).

Like my Facebook fan page and post there to engage with other like-minded readers.

Follow me on BookBub, where I'm trying to post more recommendations for great books from other authors.

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

It was a long time coming but FAKE NEWS is almost here!

FAKE NEWS, my newest novel and the second installment in the Sam Flatt series, is almost here! Yes, it took a while. Four years, to be precise, but I'll be delivering books in more timely fashion going forward. Promise!

Here's the descriptive blurb:  High-profile Washington politicos are vanishing. No trace. No ransom demands. Are they dead? Why were they chosen? Digital forensic sleuth Sam Flatt is dragged back into his black-ops past to answer those questions, but no one is ready for what he discovers. Discover a character in the mold of Mitch Rapp and Jack Reacher in this unputdownable thriller.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Crowdfunding: Is anyone really looking out for the buyer?

To my faithful blog readers:  This entry has little to do with writing, but as members of the online community, we all have a vested interest in the topic. Please give it a read.

Crowdfunding is all the rage, allowing innovators to bring exciting new products to market in a way that has never before been possible. A long time ago, I invented a product myself. And while I did successfully get it to market in a pretty big way, had crowdfunding been around in the mid-nineties, my process might have looked very different. It's exciting to see the little guys have an opportunity to reach the masses with product ideas and generate real results if the idea catches the crowdfunding public's fancy.

But there are problems. In the past, you typically had to have more than an idea. If you wanted to take an idea from daydream to market, you had to do a lot of work in between. You had to turn your idea into something tangible; in inventors' parlance, you started with a working model, something that proved your idea would actually work in the real world. From there you moved on to prototypes, more polished versions of the working model that more closely resembled the final product that you wanted to sell to the public. If all that worked out, you finally moved on to either licensing the product to an existing manufacturer, or went about the fundraising process to make and sell the product yourself.

All that has changed. Thanks to the ready availability of 3D modeling and rendering tools, along with countless people skilled in using them, it's easy to create a "product" in the virtual world that looks real, sounds real, and is accompanied by tantalizing descriptions of how it's going to change your life. More to the point, it's now easy to do all this without ever having proven that the idea works in the physical world. And you can take that purely virtual creation to Kickstarter or Indiegogo and present it to the masses and ask those masses to fork over tons of cash to you for it.

Many times, the process works as promised. You spend your money and you get a product in return. That often doesn't happen within the promised timeframe, but you eventually get something for your cash. There are a lot of people using the system honestly and ethically, and nothing in this post should be seen as disparaging to those operators.

But what if the "product" doesn't work? Case in point:  The Body Dryer. Although I should have known better, I saw the slick renderings of this device and signed up right away. (I loved the idea of stepping out of the shower onto a little platform that encircled me with warm air that dried me without the need for a towel, and I was the second backer overall in its crowdfunding campaign.) The campaign was a success (more than $304,000 raised) and hundreds of thousands of dollars were turned over to the people behind the invention. There was only one big, huge, mammoth issue. In the real world, it didn't work. The projected delivery date came and went. And time passed. And more time passed. And more time. Eventually, the sad but inevitable news came in an email to those of us who had bought into the campaign:  "Sorry, our idea didn't work out." (That's of course a paraphrased summary.)

The Body Dryer as shown on its Indiegogo campaign page

I'll give credit to the guys who were trying to invent the Body Dryer. I believe their intentions were pure, and when they eventually had to throw in the towel, they did make arrangements to return to the backers what cash hadn't been spent. Looks like I'll get back about $45 of the $125 plus shipping that I forked over. Pure intentions or not, however, this campaign highlights the troubling problem that people are able to sell something to the public that doesn't really exist, and may never exist.

So who's looking out for the buyer in the crowdfunding world? I'm not talking about complying with the legal minutiae we agree to when we participate in crowdfunding. I'm sure the fine print at Indiegogo and Kickstarter spells out the fact that we understand we may be spending our money for nothing. But in a simpler sense of right and wrong, who has the public's back? I'm a huge believer in personal responsibility. I'm technical and mechanical enough that I should have been able to look at what was being promised in the Body Dryer and know that it wouldn't work. It's on me.

But that doesn't alleviate the seller, or the facilitators, of responsibility. When these crowdfunding companies collect thousands, or hundreds of thousands, or even millions of dollars from the public in a campaign, then take their cut and hand the remainder over to the "idea guys," don't they have at least a moral, ethical burden to take a look at what's being promised and determine that the promises are at least realistic?

To be certain, both Kickstarter and Indiegogo tout their oversight and their careful examination of campaigns for problems. But is that translating into serious protection of backers' interests, or is caveat emptor their real underlying mode of operation?

There are many, many articles out there from major publications detailing high-profile crowdfunding failures and problems. Click here for a look. I'm not here to delve into the stats and such that others with far more resources have already covered. My big question and concern is just what I posted in the preceding paragraph:  Are the crowdfunding companies serious about looking out for backers, or at the end of the day is their cut of a huge campaign irresistible even when significant problems and challenges should be obvious?

There's one campaign in particular that has driven me to ask this question. I, along with about 18,000,000 fellow Americans, suffer from sleep apnea. The most common treatment is a CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) device that keeps us breathing through the night. An oversimplified explanation of CPAP is that it blows a steady stream of air into your nose (and/or mouth depending on the configuration) that is of significant pressure to keep the throat inflated and the oxygen flowing.

While I and countless others consider CPAP a blessing, the technology is cumbersome, uncomfortable, and restrictive. It takes quite a bit of air pressure to keep the human airway inflated and open, and maintaining that pressure requires not only something to generate the air pressure, but also a hose to deliver the air from the device to the mask, a mask that straps to your face tightly enough to maintain a perfect pressure seal.

So the idea of something tiny and unobtrusive to replace today's CPAP devices is very appealing. Very. Meet Airing, an Indiegogo campaign that as of this writing has generated over a million dollars in pledges. In case you're not familiar with the Indiegogo process, when you pledge to "back" a product, you give your credit card information up front in exchange for the promised "perk" that's supposed to be delivered at some future date. When the fundraising campaign ends and the goal has been met, Indiegogo charges the credit cards of all backers, takes out 4% of the total for themselves, then gives the remainder to the campaign owner.

Airing looks like a miracle device to those of us who go to sleep every night with a CPAP mask strapped to our faces. It's tiny. No hoses to string from the CPAP device to your face. No claustrophobia-inducing apparatus. No strap and mask grooves etched into your skin when you wake up. A miracle. This comparison photo from the Airing campaign page on Indiegogo makes a pretty dramatic statement.

My instant emotional response was to sign up for this miracle. Then I remembered the Body Dryer and started really examining the Airing concept and claims. After some time pondering it, I was bothered enough by the campaign that I decided to contact Indiegogo. I sent the following to their Customer Happiness Team (not kidding) on July 7, 2015.

Although the site said I would hear back from them in 24 hours, it actually took a week for this form response to arrive.

Tell me if I'm wrong but it reads like a blow-off response to me, and given that well over a month has passed since this exchange and Airing is still live on the Indiegogo site, I can only assume they found nothing troubling about the campaign.

Although I'm technical and mechanical, I'm absolutely not an engineer. For that reason, I'd love to hear from any engineers out there who are proficient in the relevant fields. If I'm wrong, please tell me, but to my mind, this "invention" looks completely impossible in today's state of technology. I laid out a lot of my concerns in the letter pictured above, but for starters I don't believe microblowers exist that can possibly move the necessary air in the space available in this device. (I see that the campaign page now talks about using the money to develop these microblowers. It's possible I'm misremembering, but my memory is that a couple months ago, the page was presenting the microblowers as something that already exists; and I still get that same impression when I watch the main video on the campaign page.)

I also can't fathom any battery tech that's going to fit into that device along with "hundreds of microblowers" and provide continuous power for eight hours. Finally, even if you deliver the necessary airflow and the electrical power required, how is the pictured device going to stay in the nose and provide the pressure seal required? Are we to believe that the manufacturers of today's CPAP devices include the plethora of straps and such just for fun? If it were possible to maintain such a seal with a couple of nosebuds, I suspect that style of mask would have been introduced a long time ago.

Wrapping up, this one campaign makes my point about the glaring problem with today's crowdfunding apparatus. While making clear that I'd be delighted to be proven wrong, I think this campaign is cashing in on the desperation of apnea sufferers by promising a product that cannot possibly be produced and delivered. I think Indiegogo has a duty to seek out those with relevant expertise and ask if they think the device is possible with today's level of technology. But from where I'm sitting, it seems to me that Indiegogo is more concerned about their cut than they are about protecting those who pledge their money.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

For Fellow Writers, and Readers Who Like to Peek Behind the Curtain

As an author, I'm very reader-centric, so I rarely post entries geared toward other writers. Every now and then, however, I get the urge. Like today. This little missive started out as a response to a question I saw on a Facebook group but by the end, it had grown enough to qualify as a blog post, so here we are.

The author asked for input on getting established, finding a fan base as a new author: How do you do it? What works? What doesn't?

These questions get asked a lot. I'm not yet to the point that I consider myself established, but having been published a couple years now, I'm making substantive progress. Most of the time my books are well ranked in multiple categories. I have a steady stream of email coming in from kind and excited readers. My fan base is growing steadily and there's a real clamor for the return of Sam Flatt. (Huge thanks to my readers!) So while I'm not yet where I want to be, I'm making real progress and I do have some observations that I hope new authors will take to heart.

There is no magic bullet, but there is an indispensable foundation: You must have the talent, honed craft, and stamina to write books that people want to read. If you don't have that, all the rest is meaningless. Be sure this is taken care of, and accept that this is a years-long process the overwhelming majority of the time. Ignore the stories about such and such whose first book sold a million copies, because those are extreme outliers. Chasing that is literally and exactly like chasing a lottery win.

I could literally whip out a dozen blog posts elaborating on the details of the above paragraph, but I shan't. There's a staggering amount of info already out there that will help you build that foundation. Use it. I do recommend starting with the greatest book I've found on the craft of writing, Stein on Writing.

Once you've shored up the foundation described above, you really do move into no-magic-bullet land, but here are some of my observations:

1. If you've written a book that people will want to read, repeat that process as soon and as often as possible. If you please a reader, the very first thing they do when they finish your book is look to see what other books you have available. Write more books that people will want to read. You don't have to be as impossibly prolific as my friend Russell Blake, who spits out exciting thrillers that lots of people want to read at the the rate of about one a month, but you do need to always be seriously working on the next book.

2. Do everything you can to score BookBub promos. I've been a businessman my entire adult life and have spent countless dollars on marketing and advertising, and I've never once seen anything remotely like BookBub. The notion of an ad venue consistently returning a profit in the very short term is unheard of, but that's what BookBub does. (Readers, I highly recommend you check out BookBub, too. They generate great exposure for authors because they take care of their readers. They're very selective in what they promote and this has led to a whole lot of readers who trust them to find good books.)

3. Never, ever stop honing your craft, and write more books that people will want to read.

4. Understand that social media It's not called "commerce media" or "ad media" or "marketing media." If you want results from social media, be social. Make friends, not customers. Talk to those friends as friends, not as potential customers. Talk about life, about sad things, funny things, frustrating things, good things, bad things. Get to know people. Care about them. If you build real relationships, these people will care on the rare occasion you have something meaningful to share about your books. You wouldn't go to a party or a football game or to church and walk around screaming, "BUY MY BOOK!" Would you? (If your answer is 'yes,' I'm guessing you don't get invited to a lot of social gatherings.)

5. Never, ever stop honing your craft, and write more books that people will want to read.

6. Do exactly what the author did in the Facebook group I mentioned up top: Ask those who have gone before for insight, and pay attention to what they say.

7. Do not get caught up in the vortex of endlessly analyzing Amazon algorithms and looking for a way to exploit them. Those algos will change, because Amazon is in endless pursuit of being the most customer-centric business ever formed. How do you please customers who read? You provide books they want to read, and *that* is what Amazon will keep evolving toward. Be ahead of the algos by continually honing your craft and writing more books that people will want to read.

I try to avoid cliches, but sometimes they're the best way to communicate an idea, so I'll wrap this up with one: This is a marathon, not a sprint. Never forget that.

Until next time!

Monday, February 23, 2015

SPACE: An Old Frontier?

Circa 2008 I did the "VIP" tour here at NASA. ("Here" = Houston. Anyone can take this tour; you just pay something like $80 for the tour instead of the normal $15 or whatever it is.) You get a lot more access, see a lot of the real work going on behind the scenes, eat with the engineers and astronauts, go inside the old mission control room made famous in Apollo 13, where you can sit and play at the same consoles, etc.

We were lucky in that a shuttle was in space while we were there. We were watching the mission control guys do their thing and I noticed among the wall of monitors a smallish area with a black screen and green hex characters. It looked a lot like the picture below.

I asked what it was and the guy said, "We call that the scratch pad. It's a live mirror of the terminal on the shuttle. When the astronauts enter a command, we watch and double-check it before they press Enter."

"But why is it in hex?" I said. (After all, even the vast majority of multi-decade nerds like me have never needed to enter any kind of computer command in hex, aka hexadecimal. Yes, digital forensicators of course still encounter these strange looking building blocks of data, but way behind the scenes where the non-nerds dare not tread. Not as a way to tell a computer to PRINT, for example, or COPY something. We were beyond all that a long time ago.)

"They enter the commands in hex," the NASA guy said.

"For what system?"

"The main flight computer."

"Sorry, we're still not communicating, because I know we don't have astronauts up there entering flight commands in hex. So what--"

"Yes, we do."

"As in the flight computer? You're telling me that if shuttle astronauts need to change something in their flight plan, they're doing it on the fly, in hex?"



"We still use the Apollo flight control software."

I laughed. "No, you don't. You're pulling my leg."

"Yes. We. Do." The look on Mr. Man's face made it clear that he pulls no legs.

After taking a few moments to compose myself (close my mouth that was hanging open), I said, "That's unbelievable. Why would we still be using forty-year-old software?"

"Because it's the greatest and most stable piece of software ever written, to this day."

Later in the tour, we got to see a cutout of part of a shuttle, the part that contained the racks of computer equipment. They looked ancient because, you guessed it, it was Apollo-era equipment. Racks stacked with row after row after row of big clunky metal boxes and contraptions. Looking at an array of gear perhaps six feet long and four feet high, I learned that this was the still-in-use configuration of "memory." I don't recall the exact amount of memory this conglomeration of iron contained, but it was something stunning, like eight megabytes. (That smartphone in your hand or your pocket contains hundreds of times that amount of memory.)

Yes, this is a true story. And no, I'm not misremembering my decades. It was almost certainly 2008, but definitely no earlier than 2007. I still find the idea of using such antiquated technology to have been a strange approach to flying around space so many years after the Apollo era. But there's probably also a good life lesson tucked in there about the so-called greatness of our knowledge today as compared to years past. The guys who wrote that software in the 1960s were using slide rules, not pre-written libraries of code like we have today. They were the giants upon whose shoulders today's software geniuses stand. Even if they don't know it.

*     *     *

Speaking of space (ahem!), have you gotten your copy of Unallocated Space yet? It's made a bunch of the good lists at Amazon already, but it will be doing even better if you go get your copy right now! You can grab the Kindle edition right now for just $2.99. The print edition is literally days away from shipping, and the Audible edition is in production. It's being voiced by the same stellar narrator who did Seven Unholy Days, William Salyers, a major talent in the world of people with great voices. As a teaser, check out the first chapter below. It's gonna be good!

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

It finally happened!

It finally happened:  Unallocated Space is now available in Kindle Edition on Amazon. The print version is coming very soon. I'm very proud of this one and think it's my finest work yet. Please check it out. If you read it and like it, please leave a review and help spread the word. I've said it often, but in today's publishing world, you the reader hold all the power, more than ever before. Thanks for reading!

SPACE. It's not just the glitziest casino ever built; it's the largest man-made structure in history. The scale and technology of this futuristic wonderland have captivated Las Vegas and the world, but beneath the shiny surface, something old lurks and festers. 
The casino's state-of-the-art gaming machines have been hacked; it's costing the company millions, and eccentric digital forensics expert Sam Flatt is brought in to find and fix the problem. But when Flatt stumbles onto the source of the technical trouble, he unearths massive financial fraud--and something far darker. 
UNALLOCATED SPACE is a thriller that delves beneath the surface and into the darkest recesses of humanity's capability for cruelty. It's a place where wealth and power can buy anything, and gamble for any stakes imaginable. And unimaginable. 

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Book Thoughts: Buried Secrets by Joseph Finder

For my fellow thriller readers and authors:  I recently finished Joseph Finder's Buried Secrets and have to dole out some praise and a hearty recommendation. It grabs your attention early and never lets go. Well written. Finder finds that elusive balance between HypoInfo and HyperInfo; he gives you enough info to figure out what's going on or what something means, but doesn't insult by spoonfeeding an explanation for absolutely every point, as if you're too simple to figure it out on your own. He writes what I like to call "thinking thrillers" without becoming in the least bit arcane and pretentious.

I give this one 4.75 stars. Although he didn't fill it with a bunch of cybernonsense or magic guns, there were a handful of errors on computer and firearm issues. Not many, mind you, just enough to glitch the read on occasion. I also thought the ending was a little anti-climactic; felt like he was tired and wanted to wrap it up.

Whether you're a reader, a writer, or both (like me), there's a lot to like here. Grab a copy.

 Buried Secrets

Monday, April 14, 2014

The Writing Process: Some Questions, Some Answers

The Writing Process (a blog tour)

My dear friend and awesome writer, Dora Machado, author of The Curse Giver, passed me the baton for the Writing Process Blog Tour. This means I have to answer four questions about my work. Here are my answers:

What are you working on?

A new thriller, of course! It's called Unallocated Space, and I think it will be my best book so far, filled with great characters, exciting technology, and a story that keeps you on the edge of your seat.

How does your work differ from others in its genre?

There are a lot of great thriller authors out there, and to stand out you really need to create stories that are distinctive, so I put an enormous amount of thought into coming up with story ideas that are truly fresh. Second, my "signature" as an author is a storytelling style that readers find hard to put down.

Why do you write what you write?

That's easy. I write stories I'd love to read myself.

What is your writing process?

I sit down and start writing, and that's not a glib answer. I've tried outlining and planning the story in great detail, but that doesn't work for me. It feels like painting by numbers, and it robs my work of the energy of spontaneity. Naturally, I have the broad story in mind before I start, but the details are created on the fly. It makes writing a lot more fun for me.

I’m passing the baton to:

Catherine Lea - My friend and fellow thrillerist, Catherine Lea, is a great writer who pens exciting tales filled with deep, memorable characters. She's an even more remarkable woman who lives and writes from New Zealand.

Brooke Monroe - My beautiful daughter Brooke has finished her first novel, a gripping YA fantasy that's gonna turn a lot of heads when it hits the market. She (thankfully) lives near me here in the Houston area.

Lea Ryan - This friend has one of the most amazing gifts for language I've ever run across. The words in her paranormal fantasy stories are almost melodic. She also has a really cool blog where she reviews the latest movies she and her family watched.

Friday, April 11, 2014

The Projectionist: Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Porter opened his eyes—correction—he tried to open his eyes, but they were matted shut. He used a thumb and index finger to gently unstick them, then opened them. Then wished he hadn't. The light pouring through his bedroom window hit them like needles, hot needles that went straight through the eyeballs and pierced his brain. What the hell was wrong with him? He turned to look at the old Big Ben wind-up alarm clock on the nightstand. It said eleven-fifteen, which couldn't be right. Porter Hamlin woke up at 6 AM, day after day after day. The alarm was set for 6:05, but it was never needed, hadn't been for fifty years. Turning his head made the pain worse, if that was possible. (Yes, definitely possible.) He rolled over on his side, buried the left side of his face in the pillow, and looked at the sunlit window, gradually opening his eyes to admit more of the soft light that powered through the blue curtain.

After a couple minutes it started coming back, little flashes at first, then more and more. He had gotten drunk. Very, very drunk. He had started at Harold's bar and after that…what? He closed his eyes, tried to concentrate. He remembered Harold refusing to serve him another drink, remembered it pissing him off, but what—oh crap, now he remembered:  Debra. His sister-in-law who didn't exist. Debra, with the beautiful feminine hands. (The rest of her wasn't bad, either.) The stories she told. The book she showed him. A book that looked older than him, older than Alice, but had their picture in it. Cripes, if the book was really that old, it had a picture of a movie theater that was created before movies were even invented. How was any of that possible?

The phone rang in the kitchen. He had wanted to install more phones in other rooms of the house, but Alice refused because she hated phones, didn't even want to see them any more than necessary. Yes, she got her way on that, like she got her way on most things. Why was that? Why hadn't he been more assert—

Another ring yanked him from his mental meandering. He rolled out of the bed, stretched, then gave a start when he realized he was naked. Porter Hamlin was a pajamas man, thank you very much, content to see as little of his aging body as possible. The blasted ringing continued, each strike of the old clapper on the old bell in the old phone a direct strike on his brain. He turned to head toward the kitchen and nearly jumped out of his saggy old naked skin. Lying in the bed, his bed—his and Alice's bed—tucked into the covers with a sweet little sleep-smile on her face, was Debra. His mind ceased to work in any meaningful way. He covered his privates with his hands until he could tiptoe to the door and retrieve his bathrobe from its hook. (He had picked up the tiptoe thing when he was a kid; his bedroom had tile floors that were always ice cold on his bare feet. Talk about old habits dying hard.)

Safely wrapped in the robe, he stumbled his way to the kitchen, where the phone continued its assault on his senses. He yanked the receiver off the hook and stuck it to his ear. "Who is it and what the hell do you want?"

After a moment of silence, Larry Walker's slickish lawyer voice said, "Uh, Porter?"

"Yes, Larry. What is it?"

"Are you okay?"

"I'm…fine. What is it?"

"Need you to drop by the office sometime this afternoon."


"I have a letter I'm required to read to you today."

"Wait, what day is this?"

"It's Sunday. And no, I normally don't work on Sunday, but I have to make an exception for this. What time can you come?"

"How about two?"

"Perfect. See you then."

Porter hung the receiver back on its hook, stood there a moment, then turned to go back to the bedroom and see if perhaps he was really still asleep and this was all a dream. There was no need.

Debra stood in the doorway to the bedroom. Naked as a jaybird. She smiled and said, "Hey, sweetie. Who was on the phone?"

Porter's senses swirled, then faded to gray on their way to black as he crumpled to the floor.

Monday, March 24, 2014

At long last, a new chapter of The Projectionist!



“Porter, are you drunk?”

Porter’s head snapped up and he glared at Debra for a moment, then started laughing and slapping the table. “Yes! Yes, I am! Why do you ask?”

“Are you coherent enough for this discussion?”

Both hands flat on the table, Porter leaned toward her. “Oh, believe me, Debra, I wouldn’t miss this conversation for all the—all the—well, I wouldn’t miss it. So let’s have it.”

“Where would you like me to start?”

“At the beginning, duh!”

“Which one?”


“I told you it was complicated,” she said.

"Well hell, girl. Just start somewhere!"

Debra looked at him and blew out a long sigh, then said, "Have you ever wondered how the Magic Theater got its name?"

"Nope. I know how. I was there. Alice suggested it."

"Just suggested?"

Porter flopped his head back and stared at the ceiling for a moment. "More like insisted, I guess you'd say. Alice could be insistent, in case you didn't know."

She nodded. "Indeed she can—could. Did she tell you where she got the idea?"

"Nope. She just always had it in her head that it should be named Magic."

"Not always." Debra reached under the table and picked up a tattered, cloth shopping bag.
From the way the thing hung, and the way the muscles in Debra's thin arm stood out, Porter figured it had to weigh 20 pounds or more. Then he upped his estimate to 30 when she plopped the bag down on the table between them and the whole booth shook. She reached inside the bag and pulled out a large book, and it was like no book Porter had ever seen. The cover looked to be made of metal. Not just any metal. Gold. He whistled. "Now that's an eyeful, Little Debbie! What the hell is it?"

"It's where this whole crazy story began."

"Do tell?" Porter slapped the table. "Then let's crack that heifer open and get down to it." 
Debra rotated the book counterclockwise so both of them would have a sideways view. He watched as she lifted the front cover with her long, thin fingers. Feminine fingers, on a beautiful ladylike hand. After lifting the cover a couple inches, she withdrew her hand, but the cover continued to rise and then pivoted over and came to a soft rest on the tabletop. It never made a sound. Not a squeak, pip, or peep. He guessed it had some kind of spring in it. "Now ain't that just slicker than snot?" he said. "Looks old."

"I had it looked at by an expert in old books," Debra said. "He said the paper, the writing, the illustrations, are all at least two hundred years old, maybe more." She turned a few pages, pages that looked like parchment the thickness of a Kleenex. Thin or not, there was no bleedthrough of the content on the opposite side of the page. And what content it was. Beautiful text, obviously hand drawn in ink. Vibrant pictures. Meticulous scrollwork. All of which ceased to be of any interest, the moment she stopped turning pages. Because there on the page she had stopped on, was a beautifully drawn picture of Porter and Alice, standing in front of the Magic Theater.

Saturday, December 21, 2013




Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good;
and God divided the light from the darkness.
God called the light Day,
and the darkness He called Night.
So the evening and the morning were the first day.
Genesis 1:2-5



I felt trouble in Jimmy Lee Tarkleton’s handshake. It was a little strong and a little long. This man liked pissing contests.

“The inspection is scheduled for next week, Decker,” he said.

“If you have a problem, take it up with headquarters. They dispatched me.”

“For what?” He was a bearish man, thick-chested and sturdy, and he showed no sign of moving.

“Three days of excessive grid fluctuations. I’m here to identify the problem and recommend a solution.”

He yanked the handset from a wall phone and dialed. “This is Tarkleton at Central. Put me through to the director, right now.” He paced back and forth, tethered by the cord.

I looked into the fifty-foot-square nerve center of Great Central Electric. Acoustic walls, subdued indirect lighting in a high ceiling, big air-conditioning ducts. Fiberoptic cables fanned out to a long bank of servers and a crescent-shaped console held two rows of flush-mounted displays.

A ten-foot transparent display dominated the front of the room. I drew a deep breath and smelled the thunderstorm redolence of ozone, ever present in a room full of computers. This was geek nirvana.

Tarkleton fired questions at someone on the other end now. Under different circumstances I might have admired, even liked him. He was the first manager in a long time who didn’t fall all over himself to suck up to me.

But after three weeks of flying around to inspect the four centers and reassure myself the facilities were up to par, along with a half-dozen useless meetings with government bureaucrats, I had no patience for Tarkleton’s brand of staunch integrity.

I missed watching the sun sizzle into the Pacific at the end of the day, looking at the stars through crisp mountain air. I missed my dog, Norman. I wanted to go home, spend some time reading, watch a few movies, binge on Netflix. Norman loves good movies. He hates the kennel. I hate hotels.

Tarkleton hung up the phone and turned back to me. “Mr. Decker, I just spoke with the director and she confirmed the dispatch. You’re welcome to proceed with your inspection, but like I told her, someone has bad information.”

“How’s that?”

“We haven’t had any abnormal grid conditions.”

“If that’s the case there’s something very odd going on with the reporting network, and it’s not affecting the other three centers.”

He shrugged and pulled a leather pouch from his pocket, from which he produced a pipe that he packed with tobacco and lit. “Inspect to your heart’s content,” he said through a cloud of aromatic smoke.

When the guy manning the code console looked my way and waved, I stepped into the control room.

“Mr. Decker. It is you!” He beamed. “I am Abdul Abidi, and I am pleasing to make your acquaintance.”

He looked like an Abdul Abidi, and he was pleasing to make my acquaintance. A wiry little fellow with dark skin, big brown eyes, and likely a stratospheric IQ. If the team was in order he was the super-geek of the bunch, the real codeslinger.

The second guy of the three-man team squinted at me through thick glasses that he pushed up every few seconds. “You sir, on the analysis station, what’s your name?”

“Harold Beeman.” He sounded like a kazoo. I smiled and nodded.

The final crew member, manning the main bank of system monitors, didn’t wait for me to ask. He turned in his chair and managed to look down at me without getting up. “Brett Fulton,” he said. “But you can call me Mr. Fulton.”

“Thanks, I’ll bear that in mind.” Every tech crew has at least one.

I drifted over to Abidi and we talked shop while I kept an eye on the monitors. I was pleased to see that he and the others continued working while we chatted, each man focused on his station, occasionally keying in an adjustment. The big display showed the sixteen states of the Central region glowing a uniform, reassuring green. Normal operation.

“Can you pull up a three-day flux graph, hourly intervals, please?” I said to Abidi. Seconds later, he had it on his monitor. I leaned down and examined it. To my surprise, Tarkleton was right. It was perfect. So was every other check I ran.

I straightened up, puzzled by the inconsistency, but satisfied that the problem wasn’t here. 
“You’re running a smooth operation.”

“Very smooth,” Abidi said with a big grin.

“Keep it up.” I shook his hand and headed for the door. The reporting glitch could be diagnosed remotely, so I needed maybe fifteen minutes to wrap up my review and I’d be homeward bound. Tonight, I’d finally sleep in my own bed again. I was almost to the door when the room exploded in a hellish cacophony of light and sound.

“Alert! Grid failure! Alert! Grid failure!” The synthesized contralto voice blared in sterile monotone as an ear-splitting Klaxon wailed through its cycles.

What the hell? The steady stream of cool air from the vents slowed, then died, as the control center switched to standby power from an onsite generator. Display screens all over the room scrolled in sync to the alarm that still screamed: “Alert! Grid failure!”

On the big screen, the reassuring glow of seconds ago was faltering. I watched in stunned silence as Mississippi flickered and went black.

Tarkleton blew back into the room, a gray-haired twister looking for a place to touch down. “Decker, I didn’t authorize any drills!”

I ignored him and started back to the console.

He put a heavy paw on my arm. “Where do you think you’re going? I’m not letting you anywhere near the controls!”

“Alert! Grid failure! Alert!” The voice was relentless.

“Will somebody please turn that dang thing off?” Tarkleton bellowed. The alarms died and the twister focused on me again. He was still holding on to my arm. “Mr. Decker, I suggest you tell me exactly what you’ve been up to in my control room.”

“And I suggest you let go of my arm,” I said. “This is no drill, man. You just lost a state.”
His hand dropped. He stood motionless, a spent twister. The room was unnaturally quiet in the aftermath of the alarms.

“Alert! Grid failure! Alert! Grid failure!” Hell broke loose again. This could not be happening. I looked up, unwilling to believe my eyes. On the screen, Alabama winked out.

I pushed past Tarkleton and returned to the console, where Abidi was already typing away, his fingers flying over the keyboard with uncanny speed. I leaned over, scanning the monitors. Grids don’t fail without a damn good reason. I directed Abidi’s search, telling him where to look.

Tarkleton’s massive presence loomed over me. “It’s a hundred and four degrees outside and a lot of air conditioners just quit. If we don’t get the power back up, we’ve got a problem.”

“Since we’re exchanging suggestions, I suggest you let me do my thing,” I said without looking up. I already had a problem of un-frigging-believable proportion. My company had designed every system in the room.

“You know what happened?”

“Not yet, but I intend to find out.”

He was silent for a moment, relighting his pipe while he mulled this over. “Very well, then. Gentlemen! Mr. Decker has the floor. Give him your cooperation.” He paused, and I felt the weight of his eyes on me. “It’s your system, Decker. Fix it.”

A secretary stuck her head through the doorway. “Mr. Tarkleton, North Mississippi Medical Center on the blue line. They have people in surgery and their generator failed. What do I tell them?”

“Lord Almighty. Tell them we’re on it, but get that generator back up.” He turned to me. 

“That’s the largest hospital in the state. Stop twiddling your thumbs and get that grid back up.”

“I need your station,” I said to Harold Beeman. The room was heating up and he was already covered in sweat. He looked right at me, his eyes the size of golf balls through the glasses, but he didn’t move. I motioned for him to get up and still he sat. I looked to Tarkleton for help.

“Harold, move your butt!” he said.

Beeman got up slowly, still staring at me. A big bead of sweat rolled off the tip of his oily nose. He finally cleared the chair and I slid into it.

I typed and clicked my way through analysis screens and grid models, looking for answers, finding none. Everything was normal, except for the two entire states that—

“Alert! Grid failure! Alert! Grid failure!”

Make that three. Tennessee faded. My career was disintegrating. I pictured a room full of reporters in bloodlust frenzy, jackals closing in on wounded prey. Mr. Decker, what went wrong? Did you cut security corners when you designed this system? Was Decker Digital not ready for the challenge of such a project? Exactly how vulnerable are your systems, Mr. Decker?

Someone killed the alarms.

“I’ll have to call Washington if we don’t get them back up in a hurry,” Tarkleton said. “Any chance these states went down independently?”

“Didn’t happen,” I said, working my way deeper into the system.

“I agree,” Brett Fulton said. “The problem is here. With Decker’s system.”

I vowed to wipe the smug smile off his face as soon as I had the grids back up. And to fire the Decker Digital employee responsible for this gaffe.

The secretary was back. “Mr. Tarkleton, blue line again, Memphis International, they’re screaming and cursing, demanding to talk to you.”

Tarkleton grabbed a telephone handset and punched a large blue button on the base. “Tarkleton here ... Yes ma’am ... I’m sorry, I don’t have a time frame for you ... I understand ... it won’t help, but call him if you want to.” He slammed the handset back into its cradle. “Decker, I’m in a world of hurt here.”

“Perhaps it is not trouble with Matt Decker’s system.” Abidi looked up from his monitor. “I am seeing something most unusual in my lines of code. I am thinking cyber-bomb.”

I leaned over and peered at the screen. “You’re saying the server ordered all three shutdowns? You can’t be serious. Too much redundancy, too many safeguards.”

“It has happened. I am showing you here, and here, and here.” He pointed to three lines of code. “These are the exact times Mississippi, Alabama, and Tennessee became dark. I assure you I am most correct.”

“Fulton, run me a printout of the core system activity log,” I said. “STAT, man, three states are down!”

He glared at me, then typed and clicked. Nerd Beeman waited across the room by the printer, ripped the sheet out as soon as it finished, and brought it to me. I found the three bold lines of print that marked the events in question and told Abdul to call out the times he had found buried in the program code.

“Eighteen-sixteen and thirty-seven seconds, eighteen-eighteen and fifty-three seconds, and eighteen-twenty-one and nine seconds, all Zulu times.”

Yellow Creek was five hours behind Greenwich Mean Time, also known as Zulu, the world standard for matters technical. Abidi was right. The times the states went down perfectly matched the cryptic numbers he had found. “There’s nothing wrong with my systems.” I slapped the printout down on the counter.

“Come again?” Tarkleton said.

“Somebody tampered with the code.” My code. Code engineered to be unbreakable.
Abidi cast me a worried glance. I could see he was already processing the implications, and he didn’t like them. Neither did I.

“Can’t we just do a manual override to switch this first grid back on and then deal with the others?” Fulton said.

This moron had obviously spent all of fifteen minutes studying the systems.

“Oh no no no,” Beeman said. “CEPOCS is not designed for manual overrides. A stunt like that could cause terrible damage.”

He was right. The grid switches were designed for precise machine control, not manual.

“Up until sixteen minutes after one, everything was fine, right?” I said.

“Sixteen minutes plus thirty-seven seconds after one,” Abidi said.

“Whatever. My point is that the shutdowns were rigged to occur at that particular time on the system clock. There’s no reason we can’t turn the main system clock back twenty-four hours until we can figure out what’s going on here.”

“I understand precisely to where you are traveling,” Abidi said. “CEPOCS will return all parameters to the pre-trigger state. You are a computer hero.”
Fulton snorted.

“I don’t know about hero, Decker,” Tarkleton said, “But if this works, you can call me Tark.”


Two minutes later we watched Mississippi, Alabama, and Tennessee sequence back to life on the display. Tarkleton wiped his forehead with a sleeve. Abidi was jubilant. Fulton dumped a BC powder onto his tongue and swallowed it dry. Beeman was too wired to stand still; he kept walking around peering at readouts. I watched him circle the room.

All states were back online and I could restore the CEPOCS code to its original state. Some P.R. damage control lay ahead, but I had friends in the media—along with a few vulnerable non-friends. I’d gotten off easy. Lurking in the rear chambers of my mind, however, was a nagging buzz: CEPOCS was Decker Digital’s flagship project, and until I could find the hole and plug it, the system was vulnerable.

After three trips around the room Beeman eased into his chair and hunched over the keyboard, his shoulders drawn in tight. Why was he still so worked up? He looked back and I caught his eye. I started toward him.

“Hey, Harold.” He turned his back. His hand was on the mouse, clicking away with jerky movements. Closing programs. Purging files as fast as he could type and click.

I was behind him in two big strides. “Beem—”

He sprang from the chair, sending it careening into my shins. I fell back against a support column. He bolted from the room. I shoved the chair out of the way and went after him. A high-security program had just been hacked and here was a freaky-acting geek.
I made it to the parking lot just in time to see him whiz by, firing a panicky look my way as his car fishtailed past.

Tarkleton came up behind me, panting, his dead pipe still clenched in his teeth. “What’s going on?”

I watched Beeman blow through the main gate and hang a hard turn onto the main road doing about fifty. “I’d say—”

“Matt Decker!” I turned around and saw Abidi in the doorway, motioning frantically. “Come here quickly!”




      Abdul pointed to the display. The sixteen states were gone. In their place was a black screen filled with bright red letters, a sickly animated font that seemed to drip and run down the screen like a bloody message on the wall of a murder scene:


“You better get Washington on the line,” I said to Tarkleton. “This is a nasty bunch.”

“Looks like some kind of religious nut,” he said.

“Hardly. There’s a group on the Internet called the ‘Sons of Perdition.’  They claim to be environmentalists trying to stop mankind’s ‘damnation of the Earth.’”

Abdul nodded. “I have read of them.”

“In reality,” I said, “they’re nothing but a gaggle of cyber-thugs who get off on hitting systems, the bigger the better. Corporate servers have borne the brunt of their attacks so far, but they’re getting braver and the infrastructure is a natural target.”

Tarkleton flicked a lighter and sucked the flame down into the bowl of his pipe. “If you say so, but perdition, even ‘sons of perdition’ for that matter, has biblical meaning too.”

“Washington will bring in the FBI, and I’m sure they’ll check all angles. If you’ll get that ball rolling, I need to spend some time inside Beeman’s station and the other systems. Our rollback was a finger in the dam. I want to close the hole for good.”

He puffed and nodded.

“By the way,” I said, “I think we should ask local law enforcement to bring Beeman in so we can find out what he knows.”

“I know where he lives. After we get caught up here, let’s go find him ourselves.”
A knock sounded at the doorway and I looked that way. Standing there was the most beautiful woman I have ever seen.

“Mr. Tarkleton, you mind if I speak to Brett for just a minute?” she said.
Her voice was smooth, almost melodious. The sight of her, the sound of her, captivated me.

“Hey Jana,” Tarkleton said. “Come on in.”
She walked by on her way to Brett and smiled briefly as she passed. Shoulder-length blond hair, tan skin the texture of butter, eyes I can’t find words to describe. They talked quietly for a moment, and he handed her a key. Girlfriend or wife? On her way out she caught me off guard by stopping.

“Where have I seen you?” she said.

“On TV,” Tarkleton said. “This is Matthew Decker.”

“Really, the computer guy?” she said.

I nodded and smiled. She extended her hand. “I’m Jana Fulton. Very good to meet you, Mr. Decker.” Fulton. Damn.

“My pleasure, Jana.” Her touch was like everything else about her, and another of my senses flooded with unfamiliar feelings. Our eyes locked for the briefest moment and I didn’t care that her jerk of a husband was fifteen feet away. I wanted to believe she didn’t care either, but I couldn’t trust my whirling psyche. She smiled again, and then she was gone.

I glanced toward Brett. He was oblivious.


Abraham Hart sat on the Victorian leather sofa in a white linen suit, dark hands laid neatly on his lap. Parked underneath coal-black eyebrows, his startling blue eyes flicked back and forth, looking first at Dane, then Riff. Both men looked hardcore military: sturdy frames, buzz cuts, Dane in blue jeans and a desert-camo fatigue jacket, Riff in black cargo pants and a painted-on black tee.

“Messers Christian,” Hart said, “perhaps you can explain this to me,” pointing a manicured fingertip at a lamp on an end table, unremarkable except for the fact it was on.

“Remember, sir, this was a test,” Dane said, “and quite successful.”

Hart slowly moved the pointing finger in front of his face, bringing it to his lips in a call for silence. “Mr. Christian, I never classified this as a test. I classified it as step one. My tests were carried out some time ago.”

Another staring session, as Hart reflected on a series of mysterious power outages in the western states a few years earlier, and another more recent string of failures on the Atlantic seaboard. Mysterious to some, not to him. “You are handsomely paid. I did not hire you for a display of trial-and-error buffoonery.”

Riff was turning red, his eyes narrowing. “Now look—”

Hart raised his finger back to his lips. “No.” Civilizations rose and fell during the silence. Finally he resumed, punctuating each word with an angry tap of his finger on the table. “You look. My instructions were specific. Three states. Three hours. I got less than one hour. Why?”

“Sir, this is a minor asset problem,” Dane said. “We have two people at Central, neither one aware of the other. Both failed to effectively limit Decker.”

“I see.”

Dane hesitated before continuing. “I must remind you that this game with Decker is—”

Hart drew a sharp breath and raised his hand. “Do not presume to lecture me. Simply explain how you plan to restore the primary code.”

“I’ll reinstall it myself. There’s no indication our code has been discovered at the other three centers, but as a precaution I’m going with the propagation code on the re-install. It will spread to the other three centers, as well as the archival code. By zero-hour, our code will be in place in all four centers as well as the archives, and the system will be locked.”

“What about the failed assets?”

“Riff and I will deal with them. As for Decker—”

“I will deal with Decker.” Hart tapped his lip. “Personally.”

Dane nodded. “Everything will be in order, sir. We guarantee it.”

Hart closed his eyes and drew a slow, deep breath through his nostrils. The eyelids slowly raised and he stared at neither man, instead gazing at the space between them. “Be very sure that it is, Messers Christian. Leave me now.”

Hart sat alone in the lavish hotel room and evaluated the afternoon’s events. The three states were of course a test, a very successful one and the last step before the Glorious Beginning, even though he dared not let the Christian brothers know. The flock deserved praise and encouragement. Barbaric mercenaries deserved nothing.

Decker had behaved predictably. He checked his watch and smiled—mere hours remained before the public’s love affair with that silly little wunderkind would lurch to a halt. Over the course of the coming week, destiny would be fulfilled, and in the process he would crush Decker like a cockroach beneath his mighty sole. The next few hours, however, were critical. Perhaps a bit of diversion was in order, something to occupy Decker’s mind until the plan was fully in motion.

Hart opened and booted his laptop, then established a link to his main personal computer seven hundred miles away. He composed an email, and through a series of tunneled commands, ordered the remote machine to rebuild and send the message via an elaborate network of anonymizers that would eliminate any chance for his crafty adversary to track its origin.

He shut down the laptop and switched on the television to CNN. File video footage of the Yellow Creek facility was playing while the anchor talked. “Join us this evening for in-depth coverage of today’s blackout in the South. Up next, we take a look at televangelism. Is it about God or about dollars?”

Hart switched off the set, walked to the window, and looked to the sky. “God,” he said with a sneer, “you had your chance and look what a mess you made. Prepare to step aside, old man.”



I combed Beeman’s station for clues and found none. Whatever he deleted, he did thoroughly. Nor did I find irregularities—beyond the one nasty bug—during an exhaustive check of every system in the plant. Plugging the hole presented a problem: I had to find it first.

Now, on Tarkleton’s recommendation, here I sat in a closet-sized room at the Iuka Country Inn. He was due at nine-thirty for a trip to Beeman’s house.

I showered, put on jeans and a tee-shirt, and powered up my laptop. My plan was to get in a bit of research on the GCE control crew, especially Harold Beeman, before Tarkleton arrived.

“You have new mail,” the laptop announced. There were only eighteen, so I decided to take care of them first. I moved through the list quickly, answering the ones that warranted it, filing some, trashing some.

Number sixteen broke the routine. It was from a gibberish Hotmail address and had no subject:

Return-Path: <>
Delivered-To: x7ijljAweRRv
X-Originating-IP: []

Never more horror, nor worse of days
Than those to come to he who stays.
Your filthy secrets Are in jeopardy.

The prickly hairs on the back of my neck stood up and a chill rippled down my spine. This was my private address; only a handful of people had access to it. No one accidentally emails, and I did have some features in my past best left alone. Nothing that rose to the level of “filthy secrets” as far as I was concerned, but not good for business, either.

What the hell was going on? This didn’t fit the Sons of Perdition. I could burn every one of them and they knew it. They wouldn’t confront me directly.

WHAM! WHAM! WHAM! The knocks shook the door in its frame, and I jumped six inches off the chair. I went to the door and looked through the peephole. Tarkleton was early.

“Come in, Mr. Tarkleton.”

“Thanks, but you’re supposed to be calling me Tark now, remember?”

“Tark it is. Listen, I’m sorry we got off to a rough start today.”

“Not a problem, it was edgy for all of us.” He cocked his head and looked at me. “You sure you’re okay?”

“Yeah, why?”

“You look a little pale.”

“It’s been a long day. I’m fine, really. Ready to go see Beeman?”

“I tried his cell phone about ten times. He’s not answering. I’ll get the sheriff looking for him.”

“By the way, I think you’re right. This doesn’t really fit for the Sons of Perdition gang I mentioned earlier.”

“What changed your mind?”

“Just thinking it over. Doesn’t feel right.”

We wrapped up the conversation and he left. I almost told him about the email, but I decided to keep it to myself for the time being. Tarkleton was beginning to seem like a nice enough fellow, but I’ve found it’s best to build trust the same way you build a house of cards: very carefully.

Back in front of the laptop, I went to work backtracking the email. It was naturally from an anonymous email provider, in this case Hotmail. Fortunately (for me, anyway), a lot of these brand-name systems aren’t as secure as they would have people believe. I was inside their traceroute log files within forty seconds, ready to see where the sender of that email came from when he logged onto the Hotmail server.

I found the IP easily enough and ran a quick trace on it. That was where I hit a brick wall. Whoever it was had the good sense to come into Hotmail from a cloaking service that hid his identity. I could punch through that brick wall, but it carried a detection risk and, depending on how many anonymizers they bounced through on the way to Hotmail, it could take a lot of time and crunching numbers. I decided it wasn’t worth it. Yet.

Checking out Beeman was next on my list. CEPOCS wasn’t my first government contract, and I had left a few back doors scattered about. It took two minutes to pull up a detailed dossier on Mr. Beeman from the Department of Public Utilities database. His DOPU file was unremarkable: a bunch of typical tech training and certifications, dependable worker, and no arrest record, not even a traffic ticket, IQ 121. Married, no kids. The file had a picture of his wife, Mary, who looked to be about the size of a Volkswagen. Harold better stick with the missionary position.

Abdul Abidi’s research was more interesting. He came to the U.S. from Iran on a student visa and eventually became a citizen. He had more than typical tech training. He was Dr. Abidi, with a Ph.D. in applied computer science from none other than MIT. Noteworthy, to say the least. IQ 154, single, parents and a number of siblings still back home in Iran. Lots of speeding tickets, but nothing more serious. What was an MIT Ph.D. doing in the GCE control room? I downloaded his file to the hard drive for easy access and a deeper look later on.

The file on Brett Fulton was as shallow as he appeared to be. He had an associate’s degree in information technology from Itawamba Community College, Fulton, Mississippi, not far from where I sat. Football star there in the junior college division, no 1-A scholarship offers when he finished his second year. Walked on at Ole Miss, got cut, took a swing at the head coach, got suspended from school and never came back. No IQ listed. Boring jock who wasn’t even good enough at that. The bottom of each file had a row of thumbnail images of family members and one of them drew my cursor to it like a magnet.

I clicked to open it, and Jana Fulton’s picture filled the screen. Twenty-seven, a trauma nurse, and sister of a prick. I stared at the picture for another couple of minutes, then saved her file to the hard drive, too.

It had been a hectic day and I was worn out, but I decided to go ahead and include Tarkleton in my brief investigation. “NO MATCH” was the surprising result of the search. I made a note to re-run the search later. There was obviously an error of some sort. Anyone associated with the power grid had a file. That included me, although my files were somewhat sanitized.

WHAM! WHAM! WHAM! The door shook just like last time, for good reason. Tark was back. I opened the door and he burst into the room, breathing hard, his pale blue shirt drenched with sweat and stuck to the big hairy belly underneath. I remembered that his name was all over the screen of my laptop, so I closed the lid as quickly and discreetly as I could. He was looking that way, but I couldn’t tell if he saw anything or not. I hoped not.

“You’re not gonna believe this,” he said. “Harold Beeman is dead.”

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