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."

"Why?"

"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!



CHAPTER 16

NOW

“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?”

“Huh?”

“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

SEVEN UNHOLY DAYS - A TECHNOTHRILLER

SEVEN UNHOLY DAYS




MONDAY



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



1



1:02 PM CENTRAL DAYLIGHT TIME (LOCAL)GREAT CENTRAL ELECTRICYELLOW CREEK COMPLEXNEAR IUKA, MISSISSIPPI





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.”

Swell.

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!”






2

  

2:42 PM CENTRAL DAYLIGHT TIME (LOCAL)
YELLOW CREEK




      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:


SEVEN DAYS OF PERDITION


“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.



4:30 PM CENTRAL DAYLIGHT TIME (LOCAL)
THE PEABODY HOTEL
MEMPHIS, TENNESSEE


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.”



3




8:40 PM CENTRAL DAYLIGHT TIME (LOCAL)
IUKA COUNTRY INN
FIFTEEN MILES SOUTHEAST OF YELLOW CREEK





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: <i14_696938@hotmail.com>
Delivered-To: x7ijljAweRRv -deckerdigital:com-x7ijljAweRRv@deckerdigital.com
X-Envelope-To: x7ijljawerrv@deckerdigital.com
X-Originating-IP: [66.156.171.40]
From: i14_696938@hotmail.com
To: x7ijljAweRRv@deckerdigital.com
Subject:

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 x7ijljAweRRv@deckerdigital.com, 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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