Now we are 13 parts into this story. As I look back on where we came from, we started with a low-level (or so we thought) traveling analyst who sits in the wrong seat on an airplane (autobiographical). From that point things spiral out of control for our main character who finds himself on the run with an ex-shipmate who is helpful, but less than trustworthy. Our hero has not put himself in the hands of an overachieving hacker in Florida that has helped him find out what was hidden on his computer and what the mysterious files meant. When we last left them, Jonesy, the hacker, had successfully hacked into the State Department server and our hero had discovered a disconcerting secret plot to steal oil from countries in the Middle East. Knowing these secrets could easily get him killed which is what already happened to the person who sat in the seat meant for him on the airplane. Now that you’re up to speed, please enjoy Part 13 of Road Kill.
Road Kill Part 13
I was trying to grasp what I had found. I also wondered how high the information that I found went in the U.S. government. Now that I had the information, I didn’t know what to do with it. Should I go to Donovan at The Mother Ship? Should I go to the press? I just wasn’t sure.
Ben Simpson had been hovering around me as I thought this through. Finally, his curiosity got the best of him.
“What did you find? The look on your face says it’s bad.”
I wasn’t sure if I should tell Simpson. At worst, he could be working with the people who wanted me dead to see how much I knew before finishing the job. At best, I would be putting him in even more danger than he was already in. I decided to tell him the nature of what I found without being specific.
I told him that I found something regarding foreign policy that could hurt people very high up in our government. Further, it could hurt the reputation of the U.S. around the world and change the view that other countries currently had of our country.
Simpson raised his eyebrows.
“That sounds pretty serious. The key here is knowing where to go with the information. You have to know who to trust and who not to trust. In order to do that, we have to figure out who planted the information on your computer. That will help us eliminate those that we shouldn’t trust. Maybe this trip Jones is taking us on in the morning to meet Mr. Athenos will help us find out.”
Simpson made sense. Even without knowing the information, his approach would help me identify who the enemy was. Whoever put the information on my computer wanted me to be caught or even worse, killed.
Maybe Athenos would get us there. Right now, the exhaustion that I usually experienced after intense analysis was sinking in. I needed sleep. Tomorrow was a big day. I was venturing into the unknown with a man I once thought I knew well and one that I hardly knew at all. I had no choice. Once I stretched out on the sofa, sleep came quickly.
At 5:15 A.M., the phone that Jones had given us came to life. Simpson was already up and answered it. I could only hear his end of the short conversation.
“Six. Okay. We’ll be ready.” Then to me, “Jones will be here at six. I already showered. Why don’t you jump in and take one and I’ll rustle up some food?”
After Simpson’s suggestion, it dawned on me that it had been a while since I showered. One whiff and I agreed with him that I needed one.
The hot water felt good as it brought me to life. It also gave me a few minutes to reflect. I didn’t feel entirely comfortable with this scavenger hunt to meet Athenos. I tried to come up with a Plan B and quickly realized I didn’t have one. I had no money, no passport, and no one else that I could go to without putting them in danger. I even thought of Brad Rafferty who, although stationed here in Jacksonville, was currently in Pakistan doing some inspection of that country’s nuclear program.
I toweled off and put on some fresh clothes. I felt much more human. I wolfed down the scrambled eggs and bacon Simpson had cooked in the trailer’s small kitchen and washed it down with better than average coffee. Even if I couldn’t trust Ben fully, he could cook.
At six sharp we heard a car pull up to the trailer. Simpson grabbed a bag that Jones had given him and we headed out to the car. Jones was behind the wheel. His usual calm demeanor showed signs of nervousness.
“Where are we headed?” Ben asked him as he slid into the front passenger seat. I sat in the back.
“I don’t know for sure”, Jones said. “I was told to head toward Green Cove Springs. It’s a small town southwest of Jacksonville. From there, I guess we’ll get further instructions.”
“You seem nervous about that,” Ben said.
“I don’t like going into the field without my partner, Frank. I couldn’t even tell him where I was going. I told him I needed to take the day off to go check out some new products for my surf shop. He knew I was lying, but knows me well enough that there was a reason.”
“What’s in this Green Cove Springs?”
“That’s just it,” Jones said. “It’s just a small town. I don’t think it’s our final destination.”
As we headed down back roads to get to I-95 and then more back roads for the next hour, the car was ominously quiet. The silence was broken by the sound of a phone that was next to Jones.
“Jones,” he said into the flip phone. “Okay. Yes, I know where that address is. Okay, yes, then we’ll head to I-75.”
Jones closed the phone.
“We have to pick up a package in Green Cove Springs. We should be there in about five minutes.”
As we entered the small town, Jones pulled into a parking lot behind a seafood restaurant and knocked on the back door. A man wearing an apron opened the door and Jonesy exchanged some words with him. After a minute or so, the man handed him a large bundle wrapped in butcher paper and tied with string. He put it into the trunk and got back in the driver’s seat.
“What was that all about,” Simpson asked.
“Athenos asked me to stop and pick up a package on the way. Now we have to get on I-75 south which is about an hour-and-a-half away and then we have about another hour-and-a-half after that. We’re supposed to meet Athenos at 10:30.”
“Any idea where he is?” Simpson asked.
“My guess would put us somewhere north of Tampa unless he has us get off the interstate before that.”
“What’s in the package?” Ben asked.
Jones let out a sigh.
“I have no idea, but it’s probably better that we don’t know. If it’s something illegal, we can just rack that up to another thing about this adventure that will get me in trouble.”
Jones had made it clear to Ben that he wasn’t in the mood to answer additional questions, especially since he knew about the same amount about this trip as we did. We silently passed through the interior of Florida headed for Interstate 75 which would take us south along the state’s west coast.
The area surrounding the city of Ocala caused me to be somewhat puzzled. It had hills. It actually looked more like Kentucky than Florida with sprawling ranches and horses grazing behind white split rail fences. After passing through this area, we finally made it to Interstate 75 which stretched southward to Miami where it connected with Interstate 95. It was three lanes of tractor-trailers and construction that seemed to stretch on endlessly. It gave me more time to reflect.
What if this was a trap? Jones seemed convinced that this was the right thing to do, but I thought he was probably excited to meet Athenos, a legend among hackers. That may have clouded his judgement. Ben was hard to read. I alternated between completely trusting him and not trusting him at all. What if finally boiled down to, as I played endless scenarios over in my head, was that I had no other options. As long as I moved, I wasn’t standing still where I could be caught.
As we neared Tampa, the disposable flip phone came to life once again. Jones picked it up and listened.
“Okay, we’re headed there,” he said as he put down the phone. “We’re headed to Tarpon Springs, just north of Tampa. The directions I just got put us near the water. It’s outside of town in along the water near a park.”
“Is it safe?” Simpson asked.
“Is anything safe right now? There are a lot of fishing boats docked in this area, so at least there will be people around.”
As Jones maneuvered through town, we crossed a small causeway and pulled into a parking lot. Jones looked confused.
“This is the address he gave me. Let’s go in, I guess.”
I concurred with Jones’ confusion. The building we had pulled up to was a run-down bait and tackle shop. It hardly looked like the lair of a computer hacking genius.
Jones retrieved the package from the trunk and we followed him into the shop. It had a strong seafood smell and was cluttered with various fishing gear and coolers filled with bait. Live small bait fish swam in tanks near the counter in the back. A portly man with a substantial beard and a shaved head stood behind the counter.
“Are you Jones?” he said.
“I am,” Jones answered.
“Did you bring the package?”
Jones handed him the bundle and the man immediately opened it. Inside was tightly wrapped plastic around what appeared to be shelled oysters.
“So much for anything illegal unless stinky seafood is against the law in these parts,” Ben observed.
“They’re oysters. They make great bait in this area. We get top dollar for him and a friend in Green Cove Springs gives us the ones that are past the date for human consumption.”
“We stopped for bait?” Jones asked.
“The boss will be very appreciative. These things are like gold for sport fisherman.”
“Speaking of the boss, is he here? We are right on time,” Jones pointed out.
“He is waiting for you. Just go down to the marina to slip 23 and you’ll find him on his boat.”
We left the shop and walked toward the water. There were fishing boats and pleasure craft of all sizes docked on the water with easy access to the Gulf of Mexico. When we reached slip 23, a large cabin cruiser was parked in the spot. We could see a man bent over the access hatch in the back apparently doing some engine work. Jones cleared his throat as we approached the aft of the boat.
“Mr. Jones,” the man said. “I’ve been looking forward to meeting you. It’s too bad that it took a matter of national security to bring us together.”
“Athenos?” Jones asked.
“That’s one of the names I go by,” the man said as he stood and extended a hand.
Jones took the hand of the unassuming, but wiry man who appeared to be in his early 30’s. He certainly didn’t fit the Cheeto-eating, Mountain Dew-swilling stereotype of the hacker, but neither did Jones.
“Let’s go into the cabin and sort this out.”
We followed him down a short set of steps into the cabin below. The cabin was filled with state-of-the-art technology.
Athenos sat at a small table and invited us to sit as well. Once we were settled in and facing him he said, “Now, let’s figure out how to get everyone out of this pickle.”
I had no inclination of the road he would be taking us down, but if I did at the time, I might have left the boat immediately.