Big Brother – A Serial – Part 2

I started writing this story in September and let it sit on the shelf until now. This second part is taking some twists and turns. Initially, I thought I would just mention this candidate in passing as a casualty of the smear campaign of the ACA, but now it’s turned into something different. It will be interesting to see where it goes.

You can catch up on Part 1 of this story HERE.


Big Brother – Part 2

Samantha Agnew sat in the desk chair of her suite at the Hartford Downtown Marriott hotel with her campaign manager, publicist and proposed candidate for lieutenant governor. As she looked around at the the pillars of her all-female campaign team she marveled at their ability to bring her gubernatorial campaign from cocktail party chit-chat to her leading in the polls in the state of Connecticut.

The state was solidly blue as was most of the northeast in terms of political leanings, but Agnew knew her platform was dark blue. After all, she had the three strikes that usually spelled doom in the world of politics. She was a woman, a lesbian and a celebrity.

Here campaign manager, Helen Reuben, was a political veteran in the state of Connecticut. She had worked under some of the most successful campaign managers in both state and and national elections including the last democratic presidential campaign that came as close to toppling the heavily favored conservative candidate as any candidate had in the past three elections. Helen was ready to be in charge of a campaign and the results of Agnew’s campaign for the highest office in Connecticut were indicative of what she could achieve.

Agnew’s publicist, Zoe St. Moritz, was her friend of 25 years. She had been with Agnew since her first staring role on the soap opera, Memories of our Life, back in the late 1990s and had followed her through her television and movie successes. She always new the right way to spin events in Samantha’s life so that she came out on top.

Catherine Meyers was the sharp, former state attorney for the State of Connecticut. When Samantha decided to become involved in politics eight years earlier, Meyers had been the first candidate that she had endorsed in her home state of Connecticut. While working in show business, she had endorsed other candidates for Senate and Presidential campaigns, but Meyers was the first candidate where she was all in canvasing neighborhoods and making telephone calls. Meyers had won the state attorney election by a landslide and was not only Agnew’s choice as her running mate for governor, but she was also her choice as a partner in life. The two had officially married three years prior and had an adopted baby daughter named Jasmine.

Agnew contemplated running for office. Her celebrity made choosing the right foray into her first campaign difficult. Obviously, the presidency was a monumental uphill battle with little chance for success. A position in the Senate or Congress, although more realistic and potentially attainable, might find her lost in the sea of others on Capitol Hill.

She remembered that night, almost two years ago, when she sat down with Catherine and explained to her that she wanted to run for governor in her home state of Connecticut.

“You’re serious about this,” Catherine asked. “Turner is in his last term but he’s all but anointed Jameson as his successor.”

The current governor had served for five consecutive four year terms and, even though Connecticut has no term limits for the top state office, at 76, Robert Turner wanted to retire to spend time with his grandchildren. His lieutenant governor for the past two terms was William Jameson, a 45 year-old privileged native of Connecticut who seemed destined to carry on the Turner legacy for the foreseeable future. He had been deemed unbeatable by those in the know in Connecticut politics.

“I am serious. I think change is needed in this state and with my national name recognition and your knowledge of the inner workings of the state, I think we can do it.”

“We?”

“Of course. You could run as my lieutenant governor. Really, though, we’d run the state together as partners.”

“Partners…interesting choice of words.”

“What do you mean?”

“Do you think the stodgy old state of Connecticut is ready for two lesbians married to each other and running the state?”

“We won’t know until we try. We just need the right team helping us out,” Agnew said.

“Well, I think I know just the person that can help us figure out if this is even possible.”

That was how Helen Reuben became involved. It was the right situation at the right time. Helen was coming off of working for a “close but no cigar” democratic presidential campaign as the second in command to the campaign manager and was licking her wounds. She couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that if her boss had taken some of her suggestions, the outcome might have been different.

Now, a mere 18 months later, Agnew was the front-runner in the election, leading Jameson in the polls by double-digits. That was, until her campaign manager and publicist received an anonymous email with a link to photos and a video.

Helen Reuben had been the first to click on the link. At first she thought the photos and video were doctored or fabricated until she checked with her candidate.

“It was 5 years ago. I had just wrapped a movie in Greece. Practically everyone is nude on the beaches there. I didn’t give it a thought. You remember it, don’t you Cathy?” Agnew said trying lighten the tension.

“I remember. I didn’t know there were pictures,” her partner said, sounding deflated.

“Neither did I. It was probably some American with a cell phone. They’re everywhere.”

“I would be fine with that,” Reuben said, “but what about the video.”

The video, although grainy, showed Agnew giving a topless lap dance to a well known actor.

“That was a long time ago. We were both single and had hit it off when we filmed a movie together.”

“But, I thought you were gay,” Reuben said innocently.

“During that time, I was not sure what I was. I reacted to attention and the fame of the people I was with.”

“The video could be a problem. The pictures might offend the conservative voters, but they weren’t going to vote for you anyway.”

“I’m not sure how they’re different,” Agnew said.

“The video represents you as a distinctly heterosexual woman. Much of your base and the reason for your lead in the polls is the solidarity of the LGBTQ community behind you. That video might shake their confidence.”

“So what do we do?” Catherine Meyers asked the room.

“Well, that depends,” Zoe St. Moritz said. She had been silent until this moment.

“Depends on what?” Helen Reuben asked.

“It depends on the credibility of the second email I received.”

“What second email,” Agnew asked.

“It was from someone who says their deep within the ACA, you know, the American Conservative Alliance. The email said that Samantha was being set up based on orders from their leadership.”

“And you believe the email?” Catherine Meyers asked.

“Well, think of it this way, who else knows about the photos besides us?”

While the team pondered the question, Samantha Agnew finally spoke up.

“I think we should embrace it and use this as a way to fight the ACA. They can’t get away with this. If I were a man, this would be played off as youthful mistakes or an invasion of privacy. As a woman, I should have the same fighting chance.”

“It could get ugly,” Helen said.

“What do I have to lose?” Agnew asked. “I don’t want to turn and run unless…”

“Unless what?” Catherine asked.

“Unless it makes you uncomfortable. I don’t want to hurt our family.”

Catherine rose from her chair, walked over to her partner/friend/running mate and placed her hands on her shoulders as she looked her directly in the eyes. “It will hurt our family more if we turn and run from this. I’m all in if you want to take this on.”

“Then it’s settled. We will have a press conference in the morning,” Zoe said.

The other women nodded in agreement.

Big Brother – A Serial – Part 1

Hello,

I started this serial way beck in September of 2018 and then, with the stress of a new job and other commitments, I never continued it.

I thought I would go back and post Part 1 and then try to continue the story in installments each week. So here is the re-post of Big Brother – Part 1


Depositphotos_33652291_xl-2015

Big Brother

PART 1

Julian Sanders sat at his station hunched over a high-end laptop that was provided to him by the ACA. His current target was an ultra-left-wing celebrity. It was his third one this month. The first two had been successfully taken down. These celebrities made it much too easy. For the most part, all Julian had to do was hack into their phones and home computers and find the damning content that was almost always there.

These technological novices thought that hiding behind an off-the-shelf firewall and a simple internet password was ample protection. It was like slicing through butter for Julian who was a very hot knife. This latest celebrity, a forty-something ultra-liberal television and ‘B’ movie star had stored picture of herself at a nude beach in Greece on her phone. It took Julian less than fifteen minutes to extract the photos. This, along with the video of her giving a lap dance to strangers on a yacht would be about all the ACA would need to ruin her political ambitions.

He could almost visualize the headlines the ACA would provide to right-wing news sources. A Woman’s right to choose – how one aspiring celebrity politician chooses to use her body. Julian felt sorry for this woman, however, and this was a feeling that was creeping into his work more and more lately. In situations like this one, it could be said that someone in the public eye should use more discretion. He also, believed, however, that individuals were under a false sense of having their privacy protected and his agency had no right to compromise that privacy for political purposes.

He had no choice but to do this work, however. It all stemmed back to the presidential campaign that was now six years ago. He was working with a group of fellow hackers to find dirt on the game-show host turned presidential candidate. It was well-known that the man, a good looking unabashed right-wing conservative had skeletons in his closet. After he was adopted by the political machine as their poster boy, however, the skeletons began to dissipate almost as quickly as they could be found.

Julian and his group had been on the verge of releasing a highly compromising video tape of the man cavorting with three hookers in a Beverly Hills hotel room when they were raided by a nondescript group of government commandos from some dark agency in their downtown Los Angeles factory floor-turned loft. The agents were heavily armed and totally silent as they took Julian and five of his comrades into custody.

They were handcuffed and loaded into an unmarked panel van and transported to an unmarked building in Duarte, just outside of Pasadena. Here, they were chained to chairs in a semi-circle waiting for whatever interrogation or torture was in their immediate future. No one had spoken to them about who had apprehended them or what they were being charged with. Theories on who had apprehended them among Julian and his cohort ranged from terrorists to the NSA. Ever since Edward Snowden fell on his sword, what had happened today was something that most hackers feared.

Julian thought his group had taken every precaution. Their location was secret. Their computer network was buried behind multiple firewalls and heavily encrypted to a point that someone would have to know exactly what they were looking for in order to begin uncovering the group. He wondered how they could have been compromised and then noticed the one scenario he hadn’t considered. He had seven people in his group. One member, Stefan Martz, had called Julian sounding like he had pneumonia this morning. Julian told him to stay home and get into a doctor. Had Stefan turned on the group? That was a worry for later. Right now, he feared for his life and that of his team. Their situation was unknown and, when you got down to it, they were just computer nerds that were only savvy when it came to cyber combat. The idea of any kind of physical confrontation was foreign to them.

As he mulled the possibilities over in his mind, two men in suits entered the room and made their way toward the group. The reek of federal agents came off them in waves. Julian told himself he should be relieved, but in these times, he felt very little relief or reliance on his rights.

The two men conferred with each other and then one of them, a forty-something man with impeccable grooming and a strong jaw stepped forward and appeared to assert himself as the leader.

“You people are in deep trouble. It’s the deepest kind o trouble, actually,” he said as his laser beam eyes scanned the group. “You’ve crossed a line. You’ve compromised the safety of a candidate that is protected by the U.S. Secret Service. That is a crime that approaches treason.”

Julian felt two emotions rise in him. First, fear. This man seemed capable of hurting him and the members of his group severely. Something about his aura said that he had done this many times before. The second emotion, which was beginning to dominate, was outrage. What the man was saying was exaggerated and simply not true in certain aspects. It was this emotion that caused him to respond.

“The man is a game show host. We are simply revealing things that he’s done that make him unfit to be president. Certainly, you don’t want this huckster leading our country.”

The response from the agent was swift and severe. He backhanded Julian knocking him and the chair to which he was chained backward to the floor. He felt a sharp pain in the shoulder upon which he landed. Something had broken or torn and he was powerless to remove his weight from the injured joint.

“Any other questions?” the agent asked.

The room was smothered in silence. One of Julian’s associates, Del Perkins, actually urinated on himself. When the agent noticed, his face struggled into a slight smile knowing that his point had been made.

“Each of you could be facing 25 years to life in prison for your offenses. We’re not talking about country club prisons with tennis courts and spas. We’re talking maximum security federal prisons where you would be integrated with some of the worst prisoners this country has captured. They would just love this bunch. You’d each have your own private bully.”

Julian heard shudders among the group. He supposed that a dark government agency could make him and his colleagues disappear without much fanfare. They had, for the most part, no family ties or friends outside of the group. These things had been prerequisites that Julian had looked for in forming the group.

The agent let what he had said soak in for a bit before he delivered the punchline.

“Of course, there is a way out for some of you. If you have any shred of patriotic fiber left in your pathetic bodies, you can stay out of prison and do a great service for your country.”

As the agent was delivering this message, Julian and his chair were lifted back to a sitting position by the other agent who seemed to barely extend any effort in doing so. His shoulder still ached but felt better without his weight pressing on it.

As he looked around, Julian could see that his colleagues were intrigued by what the man was saying. He was not interested at all and would rather be an example in prison without compromising his principles. That was until the man further clarified the terms.

“This is an all or nothing situation, people. Either all of you agree to serve your country or all of you go to prison. This must be unanimous.”

Julian’s spirit collapsed as he heard these terms. He knew that some of his coworkers would not survive prison. They were the closest thing to family that he had and he felt like he was condemning some of them to death if he clung to his principles.

“I’m in,” Julian said in a near whisper.

The agent walked over to him with a slight look of surprise on his face.

“I’m sorry, I don’t think we quite heard you, Mr. Sanders.”

“I said, I’m in.”

“Well, that’s interesting. The mighty Julian Sanders, the ringleader of this crew, is the first to crack,” the agent said with a satisfied smile. “Anyone else?”

Julian looked around at his associates trying to convey that they should relent. It worked as, one-by-one, they uttered the same phrase, “I’m in.”

“Excellent,” the agent said. “That was much easier than I expected. Of course, you are just a collection of spineless video game addicts.”

********

Since that time, Julian and his coworkers were employed by the ACA, a secret government agency under the direct supervision of the now-president/game show host’s chief of staff. Their mission was to seek out any public figures that opposed the president and, basically, find or fabricate evidence to destroy their lives.

As Julian collected the dirt on the actress turned politician, he still clung to the promise he made himself on that day. He and his group would have vengeance on the ACA and the individuals that oversaw the heinous organization. He just needed to bide his time and look for the right opportunity. Though he and his group were monitored closely at work, they found ways to plot their strategy in secret after hours. The time for vengeance was drawing near but, until then, they had to keep up appearances by continuing to destroy the lives of those in opposition to the current ruling hierarchy.

Short Story/Serial Monday – Big Brother – A Serial

Well, it’s time for another serial. The idea for this tale came from an article in Wired magazine that talked about talented hackers that have been enlisted to work for the government in exchange for avoiding prosecution and prison.

I took the idea a bit further partly based on the current environment of “fake news” and “alternative facts”. It’s going to be a fun story to write as I enjoyed writing this introductory installment.

As always, your comments and critiques are welcome.

Please enjoy Big Brother – Part 1.


Depositphotos_33652291_xl-2015

Big Brother

Part 1

Julian Sanders sat at his station hunched over a high-end laptop that was provided to him by the ACA. His current target was an ultra-left-wing celebrity. It was his third one this month. The first two had been successfully taken down. These celebrities made it much too easy. For the most part, all Julian had to do was hack into their phones and home computers and find the damning content that was almost always there.

These technological novices thought that hiding behind an off-the-shelf firewall and a simple internet password was ample protection. It was like slicking through butter for Julian who was a very hot knife. This latest celebrity, a forty-something ultra-liberal television and ‘B’ movie star had stored picture of herself at a nude beach in Greece on her phone. It took Julian less than fifteen minutes to extract the photos. This, along with the video of her giving a lap dance to strangers on a yacht would be about all the ACA would need to ruin her political ambitions.

He could almost visualize the headlines the ACA would provide to right-wing news sources. A Woman’s right to choose – how one aspiring celebrity politician chooses to use her body. Julian felt sorry for this woman, however, and this was a feeling that was creeping into his work more and more lately. In situations like this one, it could be said that someone in the public eye should use more discretion. He also, believed, however, that individuals were under a false sense of having their privacy protected and his agency had no right to compromise that privacy for political purposes.

He had no choice but to do this work, however. It all stemmed back to the presidential campaign that was now six years ago. He was working with a group of fellow hackers to find dirt on the game-show host turned presidential candidate. It was well-known that the man, a good looking unabashed right-wing conservative had skeletons in his closet. After he was adopted by the political machine as their poster boy, however, the skeletons began to dissipate almost as quickly as they could be found.

Julian and his group had been on the verge of releasing a highly compromising video tape of the man cavorting with three hookers in a Beverly Hills hotel room when they were raided by a nondescript group of government commandos from some dark agency in their downtown Los Angeles factory floor-turned loft. The agents were heavily armed and totally silent as they took Julian and five of his comrades into custody.

They were handcuffed and loaded into an unmarked panel van and transported to an unmarked building in Duarte, just outside of Pasadena. Here, they were chained to chairs in a semi-circle waiting for whatever interrogation or torture was in their immediate future. No one had spoken to them about who had apprehended them or what they were being charged with. Theories on who had apprehended them among Julian and his cohort ranged from terrorists to the NSA. Ever since Edward Snowden fell on his sword, what had happened today was something that most hackers feared.

Julian thought his group had taken every precaution. Their location was secret. Their computer network was buried behind multiple firewalls and heavily encrypted to a point that someone would have to know exactly what they were looking for in order to begin uncovering the group. He wondered how they could have been compromised and then noticed the one scenario he hadn’t considered. He had seven people in his group. One member, Stefan Martz, had called Julian sounding like he had pneumonia this morning. Julian told him to stay home and get into a doctor. Had Stefan turned on the group? That was a worry for later. Right now, he feared for his life and that of his team. Their situation was unknown and, when you got down to it, they were just computer nerds that were only savvy when it came to cyber combat. The idea of any kind of physical confrontation was foreign to them.

As he mulled the possibilities over in his mind, two men in suits entered the room and made their way toward the group. The reek of federal agents came off them in waves. Julian told himself he should be relieved, but in these times, he felt very little relief or reliance on his rights.

The two men conferred with each other and then one of them, a forty-something man with impeccable grooming and a strong jaw stepped forward and appeared to assert himself as the leader.

“You people are in deep trouble. It’s the deepest kind o trouble, actually,” he said as his laser beam eyes scanned the group. “You’ve crossed a line. You’ve compromised the safety of a candidate that is protected by the U.S. Secret Service. That is a crime that approaches treason.”

Julian felt two emotions rise in him. First, fear. This man seemed capable of hurting him and the members of his group severely. Something about his aura said that he had done this many times before. The second emotion, which was beginning to dominate, was outrage. What the man was saying was exaggerated and simply not true in certain aspects. It was this emotion that caused him to respond.

“The man is a game show host. We are simply revealing things that he’s done that make him unfit to be president. Certainly, you don’t want this huckster leading our country.”

The response from the agent was swift and severe. He backhanded Julian knocking him and the chair to which he was chained to the floor. He felt a sharp pain in the shoulder upon which he landed. Something had broken and he was powerless to remove his weight from the injured joint.

“Any other questions?” the agent asked.

The room was smothered in silence. One of Julian’s associates, Del Perkins, actually urinated on himself. When the agent noticed, his face struggled into a slight smile knowing that his point had been made.

“Each of you could be facing 25 years to life in prison for your offenses. We’re not talking about country club prisons with tennis courts and spas. We’re talking maximum security federal prisons where you would be integrated with some of the worst prisoners this country has captured. They would just love this bunch. You’d each have your own private bully.”

Julian heard shudders among the group. He supposed that a dark government agency could make him and his colleagues disappear without much fanfare. They had, for the most part, no family ties or friends outside of the group. These things had been prerequisites that Julian had looked for in forming the group.

The agent let what he had said soak in for a bit before he delivered the punchline.

“Of course, there is a way out for some of you. If you have any shred of patriotic fiber left in your pathetic bodies, you can stay out of prison and do a great service for your country.”

As the agent was delivering this message, Julian and his chair were lifted back to a sitting position by the other agent who seemed to barely extend any effort in doing so. His shoulder still ached but felt better without his weight pressing on it.

As he looked around, Julian could see that his colleagues were intrigued by what the man was saying. He was not interested at all and would rather be an example in prison without compromising his principles. That was until the man further clarified the terms.

“This is an all or nothing situation, people. Either all of you agree to serve your country or all of you go to prison. This must be unanimous.”

Julian’s spirit collapsed as he heard these terms. He knew that some of his coworkers would not survive prison. They were the closest thing to family that he had and he felt like he was condemning some of them to death if he clung to his principles.

“I’m in,” Julian said in a near whisper.

The agent walked over to him with a slight look of surprise on his face.

“I’m sorry, I don’t think we quite heard you, Mr. Sanders.”

“I said, I’m in.”

“Well, that’s interesting. The might Julian Sanders, the ringleader of this crew, is the first to crack,” the agent said with a satisfied smile. “Anyone else?”

Julian looked around at his associates trying to convey that they should relent. It worked as, one-by-one, they uttered the same phrase, “I’m in.”

“Excellent,” the agent said. “That was much easier than I expected. Of course, you are just a collection of spineless video game addicts.”

********

Since that time, Julian and his coworkers had been employed by the ACA, a secret government agency under the direct supervision of the now-president/game show host’s chief of staff. Their mission was to seek out any public figures that opposed the president and, basically, find or fabricate evidence to destroy their lives.

As Julian collected the dirt on the actress turned politician, he still clung to the promise he made himself on that day. He and his group would have vengeance on the ACA and the individuals that oversaw the heinous organization. He just needed to bide his time and look for the right opportunity. Though he and his group were monitored closely at work, they had found ways to plot their strategy in secret after hours. The time for vengeance was drawing near but, until then, they had to keep up appearances by continuing to destroy the lives of those in opposition to the current ruling hierarchy.

Short Story/Serial Monday

This week’s story is a strange one that, once again, came out of a combination of my travel experiences. First, the story’s title, Room 666, comes from a recent stay in room 668 of a hotel. There was, in fact, a room 666 next door to me and every time I passed it on the way back to my room I thought, there’s a short story idea in that room.

The second part of this comes from a leisure stay in a hotel in which the room next to mine had very loud music coming from it (Pink Floyd for the most part) with the odor of a particular kind of smoke wafting into the room.

Sure enough, when I checked out, I heard the hotel manager berating the guests from that room for smoking with a threat to charge them extra.

All of these bits of data wove themselves into this week’s strange little tale. I hope you enjoy it.

You can find my other short stories and serials by clicking the links.


Depositphotos_103978060_xl-2015Room 666

Another week in the same hotel. The glamorous world of business travel was not so glamorous. After traveling 45 weeks each year, Steven would often wake up and wonder what city he was in and what direction the bathroom was located.

He had a fairly long stint in Southern California that kept him consistently staying in the same hotel. The staff recognized his repeat business and went out of their way to accommodate him. He frequently received thank you notes with free breakfast coupons and extra bottles of water in his room. He was able to leave some items with the hotel over the weekend which lightened his travel load. He had stayed in a few different rooms but had been encouraged by the hotel management to let them know if he liked a particular room so that it could be reserved for him each week.

Steven had done this. He liked being on the top floor of the hotel facing the courtyard and the mountains beyond. This was the quiet side of the hotel and the room he had chosen, 668, was perfect. That was, until the second night of his second week in the room. He was just drifting off to sleep at about 10PM when he heard the sound of music and laughter coming through the wall to the right of his bed from the adjoining room. At first, he decided to ignore it for a while. 10PM was late for him as he tried to stay on east coast time, but it was not late for those that lived in this time zone.

The music stopped at about 10:45 and Steven drifted off to sleep. He slept peacefully until about 2:30AM when the music started again. He could hear the distinctive beat of the song, Strawberry Letter 23 by The Brothers Johnson. He didn’t know why he knew the song and artist, but he just did. He could hear the sound of laughter and loud chatter and thought he could even smell smoke that was a mixture of tobacco and marijuana.

While he was tolerant at 10PM, he was not so at 2:30AM. He had an important meeting at 8:30AM and wanted to get some rest. He groggily sat up in bed, reached for the telephone receiver and illuminated the buttons on the phone with his cell phone.

“Front desk. How may I help you Mr. Robins?”

Steven plugged his right ear so he could hear the phone above the noise from the room next door.

“Yes. I was wondering if you could ask the guest in the next room to quiet down. It sounds like there is a party going on in there. I’m sure you can hear it over the phone.”

There was silence on the other end of the line and then finally a response.

“I can’t hear it over the phone, but I will ask them to quiet down. Which room is it?”

“It’s the room to the left of mine as you exit.”

“Okay, Mr. Robins. I will give them a call right away and ask them to keep the noise down. My apologies. Is there anything else we can do for you?”

“No. That’s all I need,” Steven said.

Steven was pleased that the noise stopped almost immediately after his call to the front desk and he tossed and turned for about 15 minutes before falling back to sleep.

At 4:30PM, the bass and guitar strains of The Brothers Johnson hit started up again. Steven was now becoming a bit angry as he was rudely roused from his deep sleep. He turned on his bedside lamp, sat up and swung his legs out of bed. He put on his slip-on shoes and grabbed his key. He was going to address these rude hotel guests directly.

He exited his room and turned left toward the source of the noise. It was coming from room 666. He could see the light coming from the crack under the door along with the return of the acrid smoky smell.

Steven knocked on the door.

The music continued. The volume of the laughter and talk increased. How many people were crammed in this room?

Steven knocked again with more authority. Still no result. No one answered the door.

He decided to walk down to the front desk and ask for a different room for the remainder of the night if they couldn’t curtail the activity in room 666.

He shuffled from the elevator to the front desk where the night manager was keying some data into the computer terminal. He greeted Steven with a daytime smile.

“Mr. Robins, how can I help you?”

“You’re call to my neighbor worked earlier, but the noise is back with a vengeance and I can’t sleep. I’ve got an important meeting in the morning and it’s pretty annoying. I knocked on the door, but no one answered.”

“I’m so sorry, Mr. Robins. Which room is it from which you heard the noise?”

“It was room 666, right next door to my room.”

A look crossed the night manager’s face as he appeared to struggle keeping his smile.

“Are you sure about the room number, Mr. Robins?”

“I’m pretty sure. I’m in 668 and it’s right next door. 666.”

“We don’t have a room 666,” the night manager said. “When the hotel was built, the company was Christian-owned and it was thought that having a room 666, due to it’s connotations, was inappropriate just as some buildings don’t have a 13th floor.”

“I’m pretty sure it was 666, but it is late,” Steven said becoming slightly annoyed. “All I know is I can’t sleep and the guests in that room obviously didn’t stay quiet for too long. Do you have another room I can crash in for a few hours? I need some rest before this meeting.”

“I’m sorry, Mr. Robins. We are completely booked because of this week’s college football game,” the night manager said. “Why don’t I come up to the sixth floor with you and see what’s going on.”

“That would be great,” Steven said. “I really need to get back to sleep. Maybe you can end the noise for good.”

Steven and the night manager, who’s name was Lawrence according to his name tag, walked to the bank of elevators in the lobby and took the ride up to six. Lawrence appeared to be struggling to keep a pleasant composure. Steven imagined that his typical shift as the night manager was quiet and Steven had upset the routine.

The doors opened on six and the duo stepped out into a silent hallway. Steven’s room was a bit distant from the elevator bank and the two men headed in that direction with Lawrence leading the way. They passed rooms numbered in the 640s and 650s and finally made it to the rooms in the 660s. They walked past 662, 664 and then arrived at Steven’s room, 668. Steven was confused.

“I could swear the placard next to the door said ‘666’. It must have been 664. I was only half awake.”

“Well, that room appears to be quiet now,” Lawrence said in a hushed tone.

“It certainly wasn’t when I came down. Can you knock anyway and see what the story is? I don’t want to be awakened again.”

Lawrence seemed to ponder this but decided to knock on the door to room 664. He wanted to make sure, if there was some kind of party going on, that there wasn’t damage to the room. He tentatively knocked and, at first, there was no response. After his third round of knocking, a sliver of light shone from beneath the door and the sound of the security locks being opened was followed by the door cracking open.

A man in plaid boxer shorts, a white tank top undershirt and a healthy crop of bed hair blearily looked out at the two men.

“Can I help you?” he asked.

“Um, I’m sorry to bother you sir, but we’ve had a report of loud music and other noise coming from your room. I just wanted to make sure you understand that you were disturbing other guests.”

“Are you the one that called my room earlier? I told you then that I wasn’t making noise. I don’t know what’s going on here, but I’m not staying at this property again.”

“Do you mind if I have a quick look around the room?” Lawrence asked, apparently not dissuaded by the man’s threat.

“I’m awake now. It’s worth it if you let me sleep for the rest of the night.”

Lawrence motioned for Steven to stay in the hall as he entered room 664 and flipped on the light switch by the door. He reemerged in about 90 seconds with a grim look on his face.

“I’m so sorry for this inconvenience, Mr. Moss. The hotel will not charge you for your stay and you can have another night free at your leisure.”

“Thank you, but I don’t think I’ll be staying here again.”

“I’m sorry to hear that, sir.”

The door closed with a bit more force than needed and Steven and the night manager stood facing each other in the hallway.

“Well, Mr. Robins. It appears you will be able to sleep the remainder of this night in your room. Mr. Moss does not appear to have his room equipped for a party and there is no evidence that there was one in there earlier.”

“I didn’t imagine the noise and the smoke smell.”

“Nevertheless, there is no evidence of anything untoward in his room.”

Steven felt the embarrassment rise in his face.

“I…I appreciate you checking. I know what I heard, but apparently he cleaned up quickly.”

The two men parted without a goodbye. Steven let himself into his room for another two hours of sleep. After he dozed off for what seemed like a very short time, he was once again yanked from sleep by the 1970s hit from The Brothers Johnson. This time they were singing the chorus of Strawberry Letter 23. The lyrics were actually ‘Strawberry Letter 22’ with no explanation for the difference from the title. Again, Steven was not sure how he knew this.

This time, when he sat up in the midst of the sound and smells of the nonexistent party from the nonexistent room, he noticed a sliver of light under the door that adjoined his room to the next.

Had that door always been there?

Without thinking much about it, Steven moved toward the door. He thought if he opened his side, he might be able to pound on the door on the other side and get the attention of Mr. Moss or whoever was partying in the adjacent room.

When he opened his side of the door, he found that the other side was already open. In the room he saw a hoard of partygoers moving in rhythm with the music. He also saw a portly man dressed in white. From the back, he thought it was Mr. Moss, but when the man turned toward him, he saw that it wasn’t him at all. The man had dark black hair that was slicked back on his head and a pointed goatee.

“Steven Robins. You’ve finally made it to the party,” the man said.

“Not yet, but you will before the party is over.”

Steven meant to ask him what he meant, but the beat of the music seemed to be pulling him into the room. He was moving involuntarily and in perfect rhythm with the beat. The door closed behind him and he suddenly, like never before in his life, had the urge to dance.

Short Story/Serial Monday – Fake News

Here is a quickie for this week. I thought I would have some fun with the recent trend toward calling stories fake news based on political leanings. I was careful not to use the current president or even mention him by name as I set this story in the future.

I hope you enjoy this little tale. You can check out the rest of my short stories and serials by clicking the links.


Rolled newspaper with the headline Fake News

Marian Grumberg waited in the lobby of the Federal News Bureau or the FNB. She had written a story about the President’s trip to Asia and was waiting for approval. Ever since this branch of government had been established, every news story that was filed for national media outlets had to go through the scrutiny of government ‘Public Relations Specialists’. Her stories usually got through because she conformed to the rules. The rules were extensive, but the newspaper for which she worked, the D.C. Gazette had special software to ‘scrub’ stories before they were submitted. The app mirrored the rules and protocols that the FNB had established. It had to be constantly updated as the rules changed constantly.

During this particular trip, the president had a closed door meeting with China’s leader, They emerged smiling and shaking hands, With only an interpreter in the room, the sanctioned news media was not privileged to the conversation that was held. The topic of the conversation was referred to by the President as ‘trade stuff’. When pressed further he said, “When the American people need to know, I’ll tell them.”

This was the attitude of elected officials for the last three presidents. It started in the second and third decades of the 21st century. More and more restrictions had been placed on the media until, in 2023, the First Amendment was modified with a few choice words. The original text read:

 

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

A subtle change was made via executive order. The modification in the second line read:

 

…or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the ability of the press to report the truth; or the right…

 

Because the president’s party controlled both house of Congress and the majority of justices on the Supreme Court, his ability to do this was affirmed despite massive public protest and strong opposition by the minority party.

On the heels of the change, the FNB was established and news agencies were forced to submit stories to the agency prior to the going public or they were faced with crippling fines and potential criminal charges. CNN was the first network to be dissolved when it resisted the new regulations along with The Washington Post. Other news organizations saw resistance as a losing battle and did their best to represent the truth in what they reported.

In the beginning, stories were edited vigorously and rejected by the FNB. This was when many journalists discovered the difference between reporting the truth and reporting what was to be accepted as the truth. Shades of the book 1984 by George Orwell began to be talked about. Unfortunately, stories noting the similarities were not allowed.

Now, ten years after the amendment had been ‘amended’, Marian had dutifully turned in her stories for the past five years. It had been nearly two years since a single word had been changed in her stories. She had a reputation as a reporter that followed the rules and had been cited by the President himself as one of the ‘good ones’.

Today was no different. Only ten minutes after turning in her story on the Asia trip, she received a text telling her that her story was approved for publication.. As she glanced at her phone she smiled to herself. Another story successfully filed. Another victory for the JFT.

********

The web site, bensluckynumbers.com was heavily trafficked. The site was very simple. It posted groups of 12 numbers that corresponded with the government’s new federal lottery program. Lucky winners could win up to a billion dollars by matching all twelve numbers. There had been two winners in the ten years that the program had been in place and one of them, just one year ago, had used numbers found on the web site.

The site gathered little attention except for the fact that it had over a million visitors each day. This was chalked up to the quest to win the life-changing lottery and the fact that a winner had visited the site.

********

President Visits Asia

By Marian Grumberg

 

The President’s trip to Asia was a complete success. He met with President Ji of  China for over an hour. The two emerged with what is being called an idiot-proof trade plan that will benefit the two countries with shared benefits for all men and women in both countries. The President’s strategy of meeting only with the interpreter and the Chinese Leader indicates that he is confident and working to prevent harm to the American people. It is believed that he pave the way for the selling of goods to all of Asia that will result  benefits for all of us and will raise us up as a river of money will soon be flowing into our pockets.

 

Marian shuddered as she read the story, but she knew that the story within the story would promote the message of the JTF.

********

Otto Brockmeyer logged on to bensluckynumbers.com. The innocuous landing page had its usual message and disclaimer.

 

Welcome to Ben’s Lucky Numbers.

Please keep in mind that this site is only for entertainment purposes.

 

TODAY’S LUCKY NUMBERS ARE:

1,13,26,29,30,37,38,44,46,50,58,62,64,77,86,100,105,107,108

 

As Brockmeyer applied the lucky numbers to Marian’s story, the story within the story emerged:

 

The President’s trip to Asia was a complete success. He met with President Ji of  China for over an hour. The two emerged with what is being called an idiot-proof trade plan that will benefit the two countries with shared benefits for all men and women in both countries. The President’s strategy of meeting only with the interpreter and the Chinese Leader indicates that he is confident and working to prevent harm to the American people. It is believed that he pave the way for the selling of goods to all of Asia that will result  benefits for all of us and will raise us up as a river of money will soon be flowing into our pockets.

 

Brockmeyer chuckled to himself as he reread Marian’s story with the numbers applied to it. He quickly texted her to congratulate her, as the editor of the D.C. Gazette, for her wonderful story.

 

Brockmeyer was the founder of the JTF or Journalists for Truth. The D.C. Gazette and other ‘trusted’ news organizations around the country had been using this simple code to create a groundswell that would soon turn the tide of the government. It the past five years, a movement of over 70 million Americans had quietly organized and were set to take the country back by storm in the next election.

 

Short Story/Serial Monday – Another Day In Paradise

Well, it was fun to have three back-to-back serials. I thought I would write a standalone short story this week just to prove I could. This story is a bit strange, but for those of you that share my daytime profession, it might make you smile and cringe at the same time.

If you want to catch up on my other short stories and serials you can click on the links.

For now, please enjoy the short story, Another Day in Paradise


Elevator with opened doors

What a party. Sid Abernathy woke up at 4:15 AM in the bed of his Pasadena hotel room with an alternating feeling of needing to vomit and needing to urinate. The project was a success and the partner had taken the team out for a celebration. The alcohol had flowed freely and Sid drank an uncharacteristically large number of gin and tonics.

All he could remember was a few large Uber SUVs being ordered and the feeling of being poured into the backseat and guided to his room. The rest seemed self-explanatory. He was on top of the duvet still in his jacket, tie and shoes. He couldn’t remember being this drunk in years…maybe decades. He was older than most of his team by at least 15 years. He could keep up with them when it came to the work, but these young people seemed to have the capacity to stay out drinking and socializing until 1 or 2 AM and then show up for work the next morning looking relatively human.

Sid remembered the days of being able to do this, but it wasn’t necessarily a fond memory. Now, here he was laying face down on the hotel bed with a pond of drool on the pillow near the left corner of his mouth. His need to urinate and/or vomit were far outweighed by his need to stay still. He knew his body would rebel if he tried to lift it off the bed. He just needed to sleep this off for another hour or six.

He drifted back into his alcohol induced sleep for what seemed like 30 seconds. Suddenly, he was awakened by violet tremors all over his body. He had done it now, he was having a seizure. Way to go, Sid old boy. You literally drank yourself to death. He had resigned himself to the fact that he was seriously ill when he finally came to the realization that the entire room was shaking, not just his body. A picture fell from it’s hook on the wall and the floor lamp over by the sofa tipped over. This was no alcohol induced tremor, it was an earthquake, a substantial one from the feel of it.

The shaking seemed to go on forever but finally subsided. He could hear car alarms and sirens coming from the exterior of the hotel. He looked over at the clock radio but its amber readout had died. As he struggled to sit up and slowly walk to the window of his room, he also realized that the external lights were out. The world outside was in total darkness except for the millions of stars visible over the silhouette of the mountains. Now that the world had apparently settled down, the urgency to relieve himself of toxic bodily matter resurfaced. He walked as quickly as he could, in the dark and in his condition, to the restroom and vomited enthusiastically. He felt miserable as the expulsion was in progress and fully expected to see undigested gum that he had swallowed in elementary school among the debris.

When the first, second and third waves were over, he felt better. He was sweating and realized the air conditioning was not functioning. He was intimidated by the utter silence throughout the hotel. Beyond the absent electrical hum and HVAC whoosh, there was total silence. He would have expected the sound of guests being evacuated and and hotel personnel checking rooms, but instead there was only silence. He poked his head out of his door, careful not to let the electronically locked door closed behind him, and there was total blackness and silence in the hallway. This struck him as strange as well. Weren’t hotels supposed to have emergency lighting? One would think that, in a state prone to so many natural disasters, the maintenance of emergency equipment would be a priority. Apparently not.

Sid went back into the room and sat on the bed. He contemplated what to do next. He picked up the phone and, unsurprisingly, it was dead. He wondered if he should get dressed and get out of the hotel. He was on the eighth floor, however, making the prospect of heading down eight flights of hot concrete stairs in the dark was not appealing to him. He lay back on the bed even though he knew there might be structural damage to the hotel that would necessitate evacuation. FOr right now, the calm and quiet was calming his stomach and easing his headache.

As he tried to drift off with his eyes closed, he sensed some type of light trying to penetrate his eyelids. As he opened them, he expected to see some kind of external emergency lighting, but what he saw surprised him.

The television had flickered to life. The screen was pure white for about 10 seconds and then a message appeared. He took it for some kind of emergency alert system, but was confused when he saw the content of the message.

 

MR. ABERNATHY,

WE ARE GLAD TO SEE THAT YOU ARE AWAKE.

A SERIOUS EVENT HAS OCCURRED.

PLEASE TAKE A SHOWER (IT WILL MAKE YOU FEEL MUCH BETTER), GET DRESSED AND JOIN THE GROUP IN THE CLOUD 9 CONFERENCE ROOM ON THE FIRST FLOOR. TAKE ELEVATOR H AND TURN RIGHT AS YOU EXIT.

WE ARE LOOKING FORWARD TO SEEING YOU.

Sid read the message again to make sure that he wasn’t hallucinating or dreaming. It was still there. The interesting part of it was the lack of electricity anywhere else in or near the hotel. Apparently, there was some kind of dedicated circuit for the television. Sid had been involved in emergency management projects before, but never saw a system like this. Leave it to California to use a show business medium to get one’s attention in a disaster.

Now that he thought about it, a shower might just make him feel better. He padded to the bathroom and discovered that there was a light source, although he couldn’t find its origin, that would allow him to see as he showered. He turned on the faucet expecting the pressure to be low and the water to be cold, but found neither. Warm water surged from the shower head and steam began to rise. He stepped into the shower and immediately felt better as the hot water coursed over his body. He reached for the hotel sample-sized shampoo and found full-sized bottles of shampoo, conditioner and body wash. As he worked the shampoo into his scalp, he couldn’t believe the quality. Maybe the hotel had switched brands since yesterday. He found the same to be true of the conditioner and body wash.

He could have stayed in the shower much longer, but he felt much better and was eager to find out what was going on. He stepped out of the shower and reached for a bath towel. As he dried his hair, he could swear the towel felt softer and thicker than the one he used the day before. He was also surprised to see an expensive silk robe hanging from the back of the bathroom door. He put it on and opened the closet door. Luckily he brought jeans on this trip. He didn’t want to put on a suit again and the one he brought likely smelled like a distillery from the previous night’s festivities.

His jeans were nowhere to be found, however. Instead, there was a soft cotton pair of white pants and a pullover collared shirt. He didn’t remember seeing this before, but the clothes looked comfortable and the right size. He put them on along with the high-end white canvas shoes that were on the closet floor.  He intended to grab his phone and room key, not that they would do any good, but couldn’t seem to locate them in the darkened room. Suddenly, the white glow of the television appeared once again with a new message.

 

YOU LOOK LIKE FEEL MUCH BETTER, SID

PLEASE PROCEED TO THE CLOUD 9 CONFERENCE ROOM

DO NOT WORRY ABOUT YOUR PERSONAL BELONGINGS

 

The new message confirmed his suspicions that there must be some kind of surveillance camera in the room. Perhaps there were people watching him right now. He had some questions and decided that going to the conference room might lead him to some answers.

He exited his room and there was a sign right in front of him indicating that Elevator ‘H’ was to the right. As he approached the end of the darkened hallway, he could see an open elevator that was completely lit. Again, this was counterintuitive to his emergency management background, but he entered the elevator anyway. It immediately closed and opened again after only ten seconds.

Somehow, as the elevator door eased open, signage indicated that he was on the first floor. He turned and found the Cloud 9 Conference Room. It was a large room occupied by about 50 people. There was a buzz in the well-lit room. Television screens were affixed to the wall around the room and were broadcasting news feeds from, it appeared, around the globe. The chatter in the room stopped abruptly as Sid entered.

“Mr. Abernathy. Welcome,” the speaker at the front of the room said from behind a podium. “We’ve been waiting for you.”

Sid was confused.

“Who are you and how do you know my name?”

“We’ve been watching you for some time. We’re glad you are finally going able to join our efforts.”

“Watching me? What efforts? I have a job. I don’t even know what you do, so how can you assume I’m going to join you?”

The man behind the podium snickered.

“Let’s just say it’s an offer you can’t refuse.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“Maybe if you direct your attention to display number 13, you’ll understand a bit more.”

Sid looked at the screen. A reporting crew was standing in front of a crater filled with rubble. It looked familiar to him somehow. Suddenly, the audio filled the room as the attractive female reporter was mid sentence.

“…in Old Pasadena was destroyed, along with several other buildings, by the quake. The hotel, built in 1937, seemed to take the brunt of the damage. All eight floors, along with the parking garage, collapsed into the basement. The hotel was nearly filled with business travelers and, because of the hour and the way the building collapsed, it is feared that there are no survivors.

The audio faded.

“Did this happen near this hotel?” Sid asked.

Laughter erupted in the room.

Sid was confused.

“You could say it was very close to your hotel,” the man behind the podium quipped.

“And I survived?” Sid asked.

“In a way.”

“I’m totally confused here,” Sid said.

“All of the team was at first. I think when you see the work we’re doing, it will fit right in with what you did when you were…before…in your previous life.”

“So, am I dead?” Sid asked vocalizing the question that had been bubbling up since the television came on.

“It’s not black and white,” the podium man said. You’ve been given an opportunity to problem solve and assist others during their transitional phase. That’s what this team does.”

“So what are we, guardian angels?”

More laughter filled the room.

“Not exactly. What were you in your previous job, Sid?”

“I was a consultant for the past 35 years specializing in emergency management.”

“Well, this will not be that different. Look at the screens around the room. Each one of them has news coverage of life disasters taking place around the Earth. Our job is to ease people that meet the proper criteria into our existence. This team adjusts the criteria based on ever-changing standards. You’ll be a key member of the team that formulates and maintains the standards.”

“How long does this project last?” Sid asked.

“That’s an interesting question. That depends on your usefulness. One of our early directors in the group, Karl, has been here for 135 years. Our senior partner, J. Iscariot has been here for over 2,000. As long as you’re vibrant, you’ll remain on the team. As soon as you start to fade, you’ll become a burnout.”

Sid began to feel that he didn’t have a choice. He wasn’t sure he liked where this was ending up, but decided that it wasn’t the first consulting team that seemed intimidating.

“Okay, where would you like me to start Mr. …?”

“My friend, Mr. Ailles will get you oriented. The rest is up to you. As for name, it’s up here on the white-board. You can call me Mr. Tan.”

Sid looked up to the front of the room at the gigantic whiteboard. There, in red letters, was the name of his new boss:

 

S.A.TAN

 

Sid had long suspected it, but now new it to be true. Consulting is Hell.

 

 

Short Story/Serial Monday – First Impressions – The Conclusion

Well, this serial came to a natural end in this week’s installment. I was able to end it to my satisfaction and give it a subtle tie to one of my other serials as well as mix in some call backs to my third Frank Rozzani novel.

I’ve enjoyed writing this serial and look forward to putting it together with other related short stories in a super-sized book.

On a side note, I’ve updated my Author Directory and Serial pages. You can now find all  the authors I’ve interviewed over the past 3 years and the serials that I’ve written, two of which have become books this year.

Please enjoy this last installment of First Impressions.


Couple Holding Hands at Sea Sunset

What in the world was Jones up to? He gave no clues for the four digit code. He had somehow put a virus on an air-gapped server, one that was not directly connected to the Internet. Was he that good or was he bluffing?

As OutOfDate62 was contemplating these questions, the security cameras picked up movement at both the front and back doors of the abandoned bunker that used to be the basement and research facility below Kongo Fit. After the tech from that division of Kongo had gone haywire, the facility was gone over with a fine-toothed comb by the government and then left to rot. Much of the infrastructure, the wiring and security, had been left unpowered, but intact. Nothing a couple of high-powered generators couldn’t remedy.

Now, the perfect hideaway had apparently become a trap. Somehow Jones had used his hack to find the location. Of course, just because the location had been found didn’t mean that all was lost. It was time to switch to plan B.

********

“There’s definitely something going on down here, Mr. Jones,” Special Agent in Charge Hawthorn said as he spoke to Jonesy by phone. “There are monitors and servers along with security. Unfortunately, it looks like someone just left.”

Hawthorn had mobilized a team based on a call from Special Agent Bill O’Hearn in Syracuse, New York. Jonesy and his partner, Frank Rozzani, had worked on some high-profile cases with O’Hean and, as a result, his stock within the FBI had earned him some rapid promotions. THe rumor was that he was destined for Washington and he felt that, to some degree, he had Rozzani and Jones to thank. When Jones called him with a request to mobilize a team in Albuquerque, he made it happen without hesitation.

“Agent Hawthorne, it’s likely that our hacker has a go-tunnel somewhere in that bunker. Do you have a tablet or laptop with you?”

“Yes, we carry mini-tablets. What are you sending me?”

“I was able to get a blueprint of the lower levels of that place that Kongo had buried when the government raided the facility. It shows a level below where you are and there are two escape routes from that level to the tunnel below. It leads to a remote parking lot about 1,000 years southwest of the building.”

Jonesy sent the blueprints to the group email address that Hawthorn gave him.

“This is great Jones,” Hawthorn said after receiving the blueprint. “I’ll split up the team and send a group down each exit to the tunnel and have another head directly to the parking lot on the surface.”

“That sounds great, Agent Hawthorn. Good luck.”

“With the help you’ve provided, we don’t need much luck unless this hacker is good enough to turn invisible.’

********

OutOfDate62 was halfway down the tunnel to the parking lot. There was a fully-fueled van waiting that would provide transportation to an alternate site. The site had a backup to the algorithm and all of the data that had been collected up to a few days earlier. It would have to do. The light of day streamed through a small dirty glass square on the door that was at the end of the tunnel. The pitch of the tunnel had been steadily inclining toward the surface. It appeared that Jones would not end this quest and he would be deeply sorry. His friends and family would now be targets. The door hadn’t been opened in a while, but was responsive after a firm push on the handle. The daylight flooded the tunnel and temporarily blinded OutOfDate62. The van was just 50 yards away and as the master hacker closed in on it, two black sedans entered the far end of the parking lot. Thankfully, the remote start on the van worked and OutOfDate62 was behind the wheel and out of the parking lot before they could reach the van. A left turn put the van onto the access road and then on to I-25 North towards Santa Fe.

********

“The subject is making a run for it and headed up your way, Mr. Jones. Any ideas where?”

Jonesy looked at the information on the laptop.

“It looks like there was some kind of temporary Internet connection to the bunker under Kongo Fit, probably for backup purposes. I’ve almost found the location. Stand by.”

“Honestly, it might help, Mr. Jones, but I don’t think that van is going to outrun our vehicles. They have a little extra under the hood.”

********

The van strained a bit going up the foothills of the Sandia mountains. Unfortunately, the black sedans did not. They were gaining ground quickly. The turn was coming up soon and was on the downhill side of the peak. If a larger gap could be created from the pursuers, escape might be possible. The turn would have to be timed perfectly. As the van reached the apex of the peak and started down the other side, OutOfDate62 pressed the accelerator to the floor. All it took was one split second of diverted attention from the road to sneak a peak in the side view mirror to see if the gap had widened. The van drifted across the center lane going 95 miles per hour and caromed off the guardrail bouncing it back toward the other side of the highway, through the guardrail and over the 150 foot drop into the canyon below.

The van didn’t burst into flames like vehicles often due in the movies. It just ricocheted off the rocks destroying the vehicle’s integrity bit by bit with each bounce and killing the driver with a series of catastrophic injuries.

********

3 Days Later

“Mr. Jones, I’m not sure how to thank you,” Robert Johnston said as he sat in his office at Kongo Match.

“Well, I didn’t actually catch your hacker, but I guess the FBI helped end the hacking.”

“It was an unfortunate end, I agree. But it was an end, nonetheless.”

“So, tell me again, who was this hacker and how was she associated with Kongo?”

Johnston let out a sigh and leaned back in his chair.

“Her name was Marie Pinkerton. Her husband, Martin, worked for our Kongo AI division.”

“Ah, I’ve heard a lot about the work going on there. You said ‘worked’. DId he get fired?”

“Not exactly. He was killed in an accident.”

“What kind of accident?”

“One of our AI algorithms went haywire and saw him as a threat. He was electrocuted when power was maliciously diverted to the microwave he was using to heat up his lunch.”

“So this was revenge?”

“Yes. Marie Pinkerton was a system administrator at Kongo Match. She was a model employee on the surface, but behind the scenes she was apparently plotting to bring the company down to avenge her husband’s death.”

Jonesy pondered this for a minute.

“I can’t say I disagree with her point of view. Kongo was responsible for his death by not adequately controlling the technology it developed. Her methods though, were a bit over the top even if they were pretty brilliant.”

“That’s an interesting opinion, Mr. Jones.”

“It may not be what you expect, but it’s how I feel.”

“Well, thank you anyway. We were able to find out who was responsible.”

“Then I guess it’s mission accomplished,” Jonesy said as he rose to leave.

“I guess so,” Johnston said as he shook hands with Jonesy and watched him leave the building in his orange board shorts topped off with an Iron Man tee shirt.

********

Jonesy had summoned an Uber to take him back to the airport. He insisted on arranging his own transportation. He had seen and heard enough about Kongo’s technology to convince him to avoid it for a while. As he waited for the car, a familiar figure approached him.

“Mr. Jones.”

“Counselor Sturgis. What brings you here?”

“I heard you were leaving and I thought we should talk about a couple of things before you ride off into the sunset.”

“Ah yes, your Chicago caper. Consider it forgotten. I ran a little cleanup utility and not only wiped it from the hacker’s servers, but I traced it to everywhere it existed on the Internet and the dark web. All traces of it are destroyed.”

Sturgis was taken aback.

“Why would you do that?”

“I think everyone deserves a second chance. Even though your methods are a bit unsavory, you are truly trying to do well for your clients. My methods are unorthodox as well. We are both aiming for the same goal.”

“I don’t know what to say. If there is anything I can do for you, don’t hesitate to ask.”

“Oh, don’t worry. I might do that someday.”

“Well, I’ll let you go. I’m sure your clients in Florida will be glad to have you back.”

“I don’t know about that, but I’ll be glad to get in some surfing. The lack of water in the high desert of the southwest makes me a bit nervous.”

Sturgis started to walk away, but Jones called after him.

“One more thing, what about your Kongo Match plaintiffs?”

“Well, it appears that, now that Kongo has found out who the culprit is, they are willing to be more than generous in settling the class action suit. The last thing they want is a big court trial with a lot of publicity. My clients have to sign a non-disclosure agreement, but that’s not a problem with any of them. They’ve had enough public exposure, if you’ll pardon the pun. Oh, and I’m only taking 10% for my fee. It will still buy me a nice new car and maybe some nights when I can sleep without nightmares.”

Jonesy shook his head and laughed.

“Maybe there’s hope for you, Sturgis.”

Sturgis extended his hand and the two men engaged in a sincere handshake.

Jonesy’s Uber then arrived and he took the short trip to the Albuquerque airport and flew back home to his familiar surroundings and friends in Jacksonville with just a bit more in his private island fund. Not bad for a week’s work.

THE END

Short Story/Serial Monday – First Impressions – Part 11

The interaction between between Lou Sturgis and Jonesy has been fun to write. Jonesy proves his superior skills in this installment as we see him begin to zero in on the hacker..

I enjoyed writing this chapter and I hope you enjoy it as as well.

On a side note, I’ve updated my Author Directory and Serial pages. You can now find all  the authors I’ve interviewed over the past 3 years and the serials that I’ve written, two of which have become books this year.

Please enjoy this latest installment of First Impressions.


Couple Holding Hands at Sea Sunset

When Jonesy rejoined Sturgis, he was stone faced.

“What was that all about,” Sturgis asked, fearing the answer.

“That was Johnston,” Jonesy answered seeing no reason to hide the caller’s identity from Sturgis.

“So, you’re still working for him?” Sturgis asked.

“I never stopped. We lied to the hacker,” Jonesy said. “What about you?”

“What do you mean?”

“Who are you working for these days? The victims or the hacker?”

“Hey, that nut case has me over a barrel. Somehow information from my past got into that Mountain Dew swilling idiot’s hands and I’m being extorted.”

“Well, whatever you promised, I wouldn’t count on the deal being honored. Johnston was being extorted to. We did what was asked, or appeared to, and the information was leaked anyway. Whatever you did in Chicago, I would recommend going into damage control mode.

“Crap. That’s what I was afraid of,” Sturgis said before pausing for a beat. “Wait a minute, how do you know about Chicago?”

“Do you think OutOfDate62 is the only capable hacker, Mr. Sturgis? Knowing your adversary’s vulnerabilities is a basic move. I thought we would probably bump heads at some point.”

Sturgis was uncharacteristically silent as he pondered what Jones had just told him.

“What are you going to do with the information?” he finally asked in a voice that was just above a whisper.

“That depends.”

“On what? Based on that bank balance, you don’t need money.”

“We’ll talk about that in a minute. What I want is for you to help me catch this psycho.”

“That would be a conflict of interest. I’m representing clients against Kongo.”

Jonesy let out a short laugh.

“There’s no conflict except you potentially taking less of their settlement money. Kongo is still going to settle with your clients. If the hacker is caught, it might be less than you might have extorted from them, but it will still be enough to keep you in gaudy suits and an overpriced car for years to come. “

Sturgis knew that Jones was right. Kongo still allowed a serious security breach and would pay to have that go away quickly. Still, the hacker had the Chicago information on him and the bank account information on Jones.

“This seems risky. He’s got sensitive information on both of us. I don’t want to risk having my information exposed and I’m sure you don’t want to lose your life savings.”

Jonesy laughed again.

“If you work with me on this, I guarantee your information will not go public. In fact, I will help you wipe it out everywhere so that it never can be exposed in the future. As for my ‘life savings’, I intentionally let the hacker find what looks like a bank account number. If it gets hacked, it will actually unleash a nasty little surprise and will help us find out who is behind this nonsense.”

Sturgis started to relax a bit. Jones’s confidence and obvious intelligence was justification for all of the hype he had heard about him. Was it enough, however, to get him out of this jam?

********

Sturgis was at the Santa Fe lawyer’s house for over an hour and OutOfDate62 had not received an update. Was Jones still there? The waiting was agonizing. Perhaps Sturgis should have been given a deadline. Finally, the wait needed to end. It was time to call Sturgis and find out what was going on.

The phone rang five times before it was finally picked up.

“Sturgis,” the lawyer answered sounding a bit deflated.

“Mr. Sturgis, you are trying my patience. Did we get Mr. Jones to agree to the terms?”

“We are discussing that right now. I said I would call you when we were done.”

“It’s taking too long, Mr. Sturgis. I need to know if Jones is going to abandon this investigation. Remember the consequences.”

There was a noise as it sounded like the phone was being shuffled around. A new voice replaced Sturgis.

“Listen to me, I don’t take orders from two-bit hackers. Why don’t you turn yourself in so I don’t have to go through the trouble of finding you and sending in the FBI?”

“Ah, Mr. Jones, I presume,” OutOfDate62 answered feeling a mix of excitement and nervousness. “I’m assuming Mr. Sturgis delivered my message. What gives you the gumption to be so bold?”

“It’s only money. Go ahead and steal it. I’ll get it back when you’re in some deep, dark hole for the rest of your life after you get caught.”

“I don’t think you understand, Mr. Jones. The bank account is only the beginning. The funds from it will help me continue my work until I’m done.”

“What is your endgame, anyway?” Jones asked.

“The total destruction of Kongo.”

“Why? Did they screw up an order or something?”

“Ah, very good, Mr. Jones. You’re trying to get me to divulge information about myself. Nice try. Let me reiterate that time is up. If you don’t agree to my demands, I will take your money. I’ve already blocked you from wiring it to another account.”

“Actually, I’m tired of this conversation. Do your best and we’ll see who comes out on top.”

Jonesy ended the call and dropped the phone on the ground. He then stomped on the phone until it was in pieces.

“Hey, that thing cost me money. What are you doing?”

“Making the next move. Now let’s see if it worked,” Jonesy said as he sat down at his computer.

********

Jones had infuriated OutOfDate62. He was going to pay. First his account would be liquidated.Then, it would be an obsession to ruin his life along with all of the others. Humiliation would not be tolerated. After the bank utility was launched, OutOfDate62 watched the monitor as the transfer of funds progressed. The progress bar rose above 90% and then made it to nearly 100%, then the monitor went blank.

********

“The bait has been taken.”

“The bait?” Sturgis asked.

“The phony account has been accessed.”

“Phony account? You have a phony account that has now been hacked by this lunatic. That won’t piss them off too much.”

“It’s been my experience that, when people get pissed off, they get careless.”

“So what’s going to happen?”

“Oh, I’ve cooked up a good little predicament for our friend, OutOfDate62.”

“What is it, some kind of virus?” Sturgis asked.

“That’s how it will appear, but it’s something much more devious.”

********

The monitor stayed black for about 30 seconds and then it flickered back to life. An animated circle appeared and counted down 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 and then the image of Scooby Doo, the cartoon dog, appeared on the screen with the words “Ruh Roh” at the bottom of the screen in bold orange block letters.

“What the hell? What is going on?” OutOfDate62 said to the room.

After another two minutes, Scooby was replaced by the face of a red faced devil, complete with horns and a pointy black goatee. Then a message scrolled across the screen in the style of the opening credits of a Star Wars movie.


THANK YOU FOR HACKING THE BANK ACCOUNT OF CLIFFORD JONES, ESQUIRE.

AS A RESULT, YOU HAVE BEEN GIVEN A WONDERFUL GIFT.

YOU HAVE FIVE MINUTES TO GUESS THE SECRET CODE.

IF YOU DON”T GUESS IT CORRECTLY WITHIN FIVE MINUTES, YOUR COMPUTERS

WILL SELF-DESTRUCT AND YOU WILL LOSE ALL OF YOUR DATA,

INCLUDING YOUR ALGORITHM.

YOU HAVE FIVE TRIES TO ENTER THE CODE.

GOOD LUCK!


The screen briefly went black again and a four blank lines appeared with a cursor on the first one.

********

“Now we’ll wait and see what our hacker is made of,” Jonesy said as he watched the four blank lines on his screen. Once OutOfDate62 hacked into the phony account, the two computers became connected. What appeared to be a virus to the hacker was actually Jonesy taking control of the computer remotely. He controlled what was on the screen and, more importantly, the extraction of data in the background. He was secretly copying all of the data that OutOfDate62 had gathered on the Kongo Match customers, along with the algorithm components., If the hacker lost it and decided to destroy the equipment, Jonesy wanted insurance.

 

As he watched the screen, he saw the first combination of numbers being typed in. Predictably, ‘1111’ filled in the blank spaces. After a ten second delay, a message was returned.


INCORRECT CODE

TRY AGAIN…IF YOU DARE

YOU HAVE 3:28 REMAINING


In actuality, there was no right code. The phony virus was just a way to buy five minutes of time for Jonesy’s next phase of the plan.

********

Well, so much for the obvious choice. OutOfDate62 didn’t think ‘1111’ would work, but it was worth a try to see how the virus would react. It was a type of virus that was new to the experienced hacker. This Jones was a formidable adversary. It was not time to give up, however, The backups for everything on the system were self-contained. It wasn’t a good practice, but OutOfDate62 didn’t expect to be hacked. More thought would be put into the next code.

********

‘0713’

“Now that’s interesting,” Jonesy said.

“What?” Sturgis asked.

“The hacker knows my birthday or it’s a coincidence. It doesn’t matter, though, it’s still the wrong answer.”

Jonesy triggered the return message:


INCORRECT CODE

TRY AGAIN…ONLY THREE TRIES LEFT

WHY NOT JUST GIVE UP?

YOU HAVE 2:47 REMAINING


As the counter on Jonesy’s end reached two minutes, a message popped up on his cell phone.

IP ADDRESS LOCATED along with a street address on the outskirts of Albuquerque.

“Well that’s interesting,” he said to himself as much as Sturgis. “It looks like we’ve uncovered our cockroach. Time to call in the cavalry.”

Short Story/Serial Monday – First Impressions Part 10

The anticipated meeting between Lou Sturgis and Jonesy is in this installment. They are two sides of the same coin with both of them interested in helping underdog clients, but Jonesy takes the high road while Sturgis pushes the envelope in his legal dealings.

I liked writing the dialog between the two and I hope you enjoy it. I think we’re coming to the ultimate ending of this story, but I’m not sure how long it will take to develop.

On a side note, I’ve updated my Author Directory and Serial pages. You can now find all  the authors I’ve interviewed over the past 3 years and the serials that I’ve written, two of which have become books this year.

Please enjoy this latest installment of First Impressions.


Couple Holding Hands at Sea Sunset

OutOfDate62 was on edge. The outcome of the confrontation between Sturgis and Jones was an unknown. Sturgis had proven himself capable of talking nearly 100 plaintiffs into joining the class action lawsuit. He had also pulled out victories in many civil cases where the odds of coming away with a win were slim. Yet, Jones had a reputation that seemed to grow with every search that OutOfDate62 did. He appeared to be some kind of savant with a triple threat in the legal, financial and technology fields. Also, Sturgis was a wheeler-dealer. Could he be trusted to deliver the message to Jones without thinking of himself first? If he didn’t, of course, the consequences would be severe for his future and that of his career in law.

Jones was squeaky clean without so much as a parking ticket.  He took on down and out clients pro bono, rescued lost children, saved the world and probably retrieved lost kittens from trees. He had no discernible vices or proclivities. As a technology guru, he somehow lived completely off the grid without a social media profile or even an email address other than the general ‘Contact Us’ one for his investigative agency.

Reluctantly, because of Jones’s seemingly spotless life, OutOfDate62 had to bring Sturgis into the picture to confront Jones and make sure that he had backed down. It had been too easy and Johnston had agreed much too quickly. Of course, the doctored video had been sent to his wife and daughter. Johnston

needed to pay regardless of his response.  He was in this too deeply and needed to face the consequences. OutOfDate62 would unleash the rest of the ammunition stored against the Kongo Match customers and leadership, along with the leadership of the parent company in due time. One might think the customers were just innocent victims, but OutOfDate62 knew better. They had found love, or at least human companionship, this was something that would forever be out of reach and revenge had to be exacted.

********

Sturgis couldn’t believe who answered the door. Neither could Jack Horowitz, lawyer to the elitist art community of Santa Fe. Sturgis had never met him, but he felt that Horowitz was a kindred spirit in that he found business where other lawyers failed to tread and was successful.

“Lou Sturgis,” Horowitz said. “I thought there was a reason the birds stopped chirping in the neighborhood. Now I know what it is.”

Sturgis laughed uncomfortably.

“Jack Horowitz. Is that anyway to treat a fellow steward of the law?”

“Steward of the law? Is that what you consider yourself. I think you’re more of a steward of your wallet.”

“Well, as much as this repartee is stimulating, that’s not why I drove up to your little hippie town,” Sturgis said as the anger rose from his shoulders and through his neck.

“My apologies for my lack of hospitality, but I couldn’t help myself. Why are you here, anyway?”

“I came to visit your house guest. Mr. Jones is here, isn’t he?”

Horowitz didn’t miss a beat.

“Sure, he is in town. We are friends from college. What do you want with him and, more importantly, how do you know he’s here.”

Sturgis thought about lying, but he didn’t know how aware Horowitz was and didn’t feel like testing him. He just went with a version of the truth.

“I think he’ll want to talk with me. It’s about a business engagement he’s been involved in. I’m representing clients involved in the same case. We need to confer.”

“The way I heard it, you’re on the other side of that situation. Isn’t it a bit sketchy for you to be here?”

“Not really. Look, Jones is really going to want to hear what I have to say. Please, just tell him I’m here.”

As Horrowitz swung the door open, he could see Jones standing within earshot. He had likely heard most of the conversation.

“Well this should be good,” Jonesy said.

********

“I don’t know who to be more disgusted with,” Johnston’s daughter Cecilia said as she sobbed. “Julia is a little flighty and a bit wild, but you, Dad, how could you.”

“Now, just calm down, honey,” Johnston’s wife said. “It’s not what you think.”

“What? You saw the video too, Mom? How can you say it’s not what I think. It’s right there recorded for all to see.”

“The video is edited,” Johnston said. “I just shared the raw video with your mom.”

“How can it be different? Does it still show Julia taking off her top and you grabbling her?”

“Cecilia, your dad played the video with the audio track. You can hear him turning down Juila’s advances and it cuts off before he tries to cover her with a blanket.”

There was silence on the line as Cecilia tried to process what her parents had told her.

“So, you’re telling me my brest friend came on to Dad, he turned her down and you didn’t tell me.”

“I see now that keeping it from you and Mom was a mistake. I was trying to protect everyone. I thought it was just one of those bizarre one-time things.”

There was another 30 seconds of silence from Cecilia.

“That explains it,” she finally said. “Julia left abruptly that day and said she had some homework to do that she had forgotten about. It didn’t seem right. She never cared about homework before that.”

“I’m sorry you found out this way,” Johnston said.

“That’s okay Dad. I should have known better. I should have never doubted you.”

“It’s only natural,” Johnston said. “I’m going to let you talk to your mom. I need to call the person I have investigating this whole hacking case and tell him what happened. I love you sweetheart.”

“I love you too, Daddy. I’m sorry.”

“No problem. I understand.”

Johnston retreated to his office and took the encrypted cell phone that Jones had given him out of his bag. He dialed the number Jones had given him and heard it ring several times.

********

“Mr. Jones, I presume?” Lou Sturgis said as he could suddenly not think of anything more clever to say.

Jack Horowitz stepped aside and let Sturgis into the entryway. The two guests faced each other.

“Well, I’d respond with ‘who is asking’ but I’ve seen you plastered all over billboards from Albuquerque to Santa Fe,” Jonesy said. “That slogan sure is catchy. ‘Don’t cry boo hoo, call Lou and Sue. That really gets you clients?”

“It’s my reputation that gets me client.”

“If I had your reputation, I’d need penicillin,” Jonesy quipped.

“Are we just going to stand here and insult each other?” Sturgis asked.

“I don’t know,” Jonesy answered. “I’m kind of enjoying it. What do you think, Jack.”

“I’m not getting in the middle of this,” Jack Horowitz responded. “If you want this scumbag to leave you alone, I can call the local PD and have him run out of town.”

“Maybe later,” Jonesy said. “For now, I want to hear him out and find out why he’s here.”

“That’s very civil of you Mr. Jones,” Sturgis said. “May I call you Clifford or Cliff?”

“I don’t go by those names. My friends call me Jonesy. You can call me Mr. Jones.”

“Fine,” Sturgis said. “Trust me, I don’t want to here. My hand is being forced.”

“By whom?” Jonesy asked.

“That’s just it, I don’t really know,” Sturgis answered sounding sincere for the first time in the conversation.

“So, that hacker, OutOfMind62 go to you too?”

“Oh, I like that name better,” Sturgis said. “Yes, I was called on my special client phone and instructed to drive up to hippie town and remind you to back away from the case.”

“Or else?”

“Well, Mr. Jones, that’s the thing. The only information I was given to convince you was this.”

Sturgis pulled a slip of paper from his pocket and handed it to Jonesy. Jonesy looked at it briefly and smiled.

“Hmmm, this hacker is pretty good. No one has ever gotten this far before.”

“Are you going to share what that means?”

“Sure. This is the balance that I have in a very secret account. It appears our hacker has somehow tied it to me and has gained access to it.”

“You don’t seem to upset about it. He also told me that if you didn’t back off, he would turn that number to zero. I know that attorneys can make good money, but that is seven figures. Can you afford to lose that.”

“Oh, I’m not worried at all.”

“And why is that.”

“I’m not sure I want to share that information with you, Mr. Sturgis. Technically, you and I are on opposite sides of this case. Like the hacker, you want to hurt Kongo Match and Kongo.com. The hacker, however, is being much more elegant about it.”

“That’s not fair, Mr. Jones. Those people are victims. They deserve representation and fair compensation.”

“And you deserve 40% of that compensation, I suppose?”

“I’m only taking 35% and, yes, otherwise Kongo’s legal team will screw them over.”

“And your not?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Look, Johnston told the hacker I was off the case. I just came up here to visit my good friend, Jack. Nothing more.”

“You expect me to believe that, Mr. Jones?”

“I don’t care what you believe.”

“So, you’re going to make me tell this scumbag that you wouldn’t cooperate and then let him steal your life savings?”

“I’m not making you do anything. What kind of leverage does this person have over you, anyway?”

Sturgis turned a few shades paler.

“I’d rather not talk about that. Let’s just say, there is motivation for me to cooperate.”

“That’s one way to go, but what if you took the high road and helped me catch the scumbag?”

Sturgis went uncharacteristically silent.

“I’m not sure that would be fair to my clients. If we catch the hacker, he or she takes the fall for pranking my clients and the settlement from Kongo suddenly becomes smaller.”

“Look, you’re going to have to decide if your greed is worth hurting innocent people at Kongo. I’m sure there will still be a sizable settlement to keep this as quiet as possible and you’ll still get your chunk of that. How much money to you need to make?”

“As someone with a seven-figure bank balance, aren’t you being a bit hypocritical?”

“Let’s not turn things around. My money is clean. Can you say the same?”

Sturgis, once again, went silent.

“What exactly do you want me to do? I don’t trust this hacker. We could both end up getting screwed over in this deal.”

“Let’s go back to the guest house and talk it through,” Jonesy said. “I think you will be interested in what I’m proposing.”

Jonesy nodded to Jack Horowitz and led Sturgis through the house and to the guest house. Just as he opened the door, he heard his encrypted phone ringing. It was Johnston. As he answered it and stepped into the bedroom shutting the door behind him, he wondered what had happened now.

Short Story/Serial Monday – First Impressions – Part 9

This story is becoming more fun to write as I’m able to integrate places that I’ve traveled to, familiar characters and an underlying thread that ties it together with other stories. I’m also working on another related ‘Kongo’ story that won’t be shared until this story, No Pain-No Gain and Memories of Rachel are all compiled into a themed collection. I’m not sure what the readership will be, but it’s been a fun and useful exercise to write these tales.

On a side note, I’ve updated my Author Directory and Serial pages. You can now find all  the authors I’ve interviewed over the past 3 years and the serials that I’ve written, two of which have become books this year.

Now, please enjoy Part 9 of First Impressions.


Couple Holding Hands at Sea Sunset

Lou Sturgis was rudely awakened from his mediation/nap by the distinctive ring tone from his Bat Phone. This was the name he gave a special cell phone that he reserved only for emergencies. Very few people had the number and, once he reached a certain threshold of people that knew it, he replaced the phone with a new number. He purchased a new phone less than a week ago, so this had to be a wrong number.

He shook his head to clear the cobwebs of sleep and retrieved the phone from his leather bag.

“I think you have the wrong number,” Sturgis said trying to sound awake and authoritative.

“I don’t think so, Mr. Sturgis,” an obviously electronically enhanced voice answered.

“Who is this?”

“You know who it is. It’s your benefactor.”

“So, you’re the two-bit hacker that’s been making my clients’ lives hell?”

“Careful now, Mr. Sturgis. You don’t want me unearthing the skeletons in your closet, do you?”

“You’ve got nothing on me, pal.”

“Really Mr. Sturgis. Would you like to talk about that weekend in Chicago in February of 1997?”

That bit of information hit Sturgis like a punch in the stomach. It only took mere seconds for him to back down.

“Okay, okay. You made your point. What do you want?”

“First, I want you to keep up the good work with your clients. This lawsuit needs to happen. The settlement that Kongo ends up paying must be unprecedented and crippling.”

“I’m good with that,” Sturgis said.

“Second, I need you to venture up to Santa Fe for some investigative work. If my suspicions are correct, there may be some barriers that need to be overcome.”

“I have an investigator for that kind of stuff. I really can’t get…”

“You’ll find a way,” the synthesized voice said, cutting off Sturgis. “I need you to do this personally. If my suspicions are correct, I’m hoping you have the right people in place to clean up the situation.”

“What kind of people?”

“We’ll get to that. Now, here is what I need you to do.”

********

Robert Johnston pulled into his homes on the northern outskirts of Albuquerque. His wife’s car was in the driveway. He came home early hoping that she was home. He wanted to defuse the situation with the video. He didn’t trust OutOfDate62’s word on keeping the doctored video from being released. He wanted to share the situation with his wife before she found out through other means. Once he parked the car and entered the cavernous gourmet kitchen, he knew he was probably too late. His wife was sitting at the kitchen table with a nearly empty glass of wine and a half-empty bottle.

“Well, you’re home early,” she said without looking up.

“I suppose you’ve already received something based on your tone of voice and your early wine drinking.”

Johnston knew his wife only drank socially and never this early in the day. They had been married nearly 30 years and there was little they didn’t know about each other.”

“Now that you mention it, I did get a link to a lovely video from someone named OutOfDate62. It’s very entertaining.”

Johnston’s worst fears were confirmed, but he was prepared.

“Before we talk about it, let’s take a look at the original video with audio.”

“How can that possibly help?” she asked.

“Just watch it with me. then we’ll talk.”

He fished his laptop out of his backpack and logged into his home security server. His wife poured another glass of wine and tensed as he sat next to her so they could both view the screen.

********

Jonesy finished setting up his elaborate digital fortress of security. He had the keys to the store under the guise of Robert Johnston’s credentials. He also had a utility he called “Hansel and Gretel”. This referred to the event in the famous story where the brother and sister leave crumbs of bread to mark their trail in the woods. The idea fails because birds eat the crumbs leaving the trail unmarked. When one searched and navigated online, a digital trail was left behind and these were referred to as breadcrumbs. It was also the term for a common navigation technique on web sites that allowed users to retrace their steps without hitting the ‘back’ button on their browser.

Jonesy’s utility reenacted the actions of the birds. All traces of where he had been were wiped out milliseconds after he accessed the areas of Kongo Match’s file storage and servers. It also blocked logging programs from recording his navigation. In the wrong hands, this utility would be deadly to any company, individual or government. Hackers could come and go without detection. That was precisely what he hoped to achieve. OutOfDate62 was a proficient hacker based on what had taken place, but Jonesy was a man on a mission and he had been challenged by someone who was obviously intimidated by him.

As he began looking in logical places for the algorithm that was being used to pirate Kongo Match customer information, he began to see the level of skill of his adversary was very high. He hoped it was not so high that he would fail to find what he was looking for.

Just as he was pondering this thought, an alert popped up on his screen from his ‘unravel’ utility. He named it this, because it was a program that did lightning fast searches looking for key ‘threads’ that could be exploited and tugged on to make connections apparent and unravel complex algorithms.

A smile spread on his face as he read the log from his utility. Perhaps he had found a flaw in the armor that OutOfDate62 had crafted.

********

Sturgis piloted his Cadillac northward toward Santa Fe. The instructions from his mystery caller had been very clear. He was to deliver a message to this ‘Jones’ guy in Santa Fe and come back with the certainty that the message had been internalized and the instructions were adhered to. Apparently, this Jones was some kind of super hacker/lawyer/surfer. The quick search that Strugis had done on the Internet elicited little in the way of confirmed information on him, but the rumors that recurred were impressive. Apparently, he had stopped a massive attack on an international soccer match in Miami that resulted in corruption being unearthed on the former Secretary of State. He also was supposedly half of the brain-trust of a detective agency in Jacksonville, Florida.

Whoever he was, this computer whacko wanted him off the trail and wanted drastic action taken if Jones refused. He had experienced similar situations before, but never was his own reputation and livelihood threatened. If the events of that night in Chicago were revealed, disbarment would be the least of his problems.

As he neared the address in Santa Fe that he was given, Lou Sturgis went over what he was going to say to Jones in his mind. As he rang the doorbell and heard movement behind the door, he was surprised by the face that appeared when the door swung open.

********

Johnston clicked on the ‘play’ icon on his laptop and the raw video from his server came to life. He carefully monitored his wife’s reaction. Luckily, she went from tense to less tense to somewhat relaxed by the time it played out.

Just as he remembered, the video showed his daughter’s friend entering his office and removing the top of her bathing suit. The part that was left out was him grabbing a blanket and covering her up while he let her down gently. Also omitted from the pirated video was her apology and his words of comfort.

“Well, that does put a different spin on it,” his wife said as the video ended. “Why didn’t you tell me about it?”

“I thought about it, but then I didn’t see the upside of telling you or anyone. The girl was embarrassed. She is our daughter’s best friend and I didn’t want to ruin their friendship or your opinion of her. Young people do impulsive, sometimes reckless, things. Why ruin someone’s reputation from an incident like this. I’m glad it was me and not some man that would take advantage of the situation.”

Johnston’s wife, Emily, reached over and grasped his hand.

“Looks like I picked one of the good ones.”

“So, did I,” he said. “I just wish I had thought to erase that video.”

“Then, if there was a gap in the videos for that date, I would have been more suspicious, I suppose.”

“Very true,” Johnston admitted to his wife. “You’re also a smart one.”

“So, do you think this hacker is going to send this video to other people?”

Johnston recounted what had happened with the email and his interaction with Jones.

“You think this Jones guy can track this person down without getting caught?”

“I certainly hope so. This hacker is obviously someone with a serious axe to grind against Kongo and is now someone that doesn’t abide by their word. It looks like they want to damage the company and anyone associated with it.”

“You don’t have any clue who it might be?” Emily asked.

“I’ve racked my brain, Em. No one that is capable of this kind of malice stands out.”

“Well, let’s see what Jones comes up with, but I think we have to prepare for the worst. I’m glad we’re on the same page with this video. There isn’t anything else that could come back to bite us, is there?”

“I can’t think of anything. Let’s hope it stops with you.”

Just as they were finishing up their conversation, his wife’s cell phone chirped to life. It was their daughter, Denise. The Johnstons exchanged a look before his wife answered the phone and turned on the speaker.

“Hello, honey.”

“Mom, I just had something sent to me. I need to talk to you about it.”

“I’ve got your father here with me and we think we know what it is. Let’s talk about it.”