Null_Pointer Chapter 1

This is the serialization of my first mystery novel, Null_Pointer.  It will be released on this blog every work day until it is complete.  You may purchase the novel at Amazon, Kindle Store, Barnes and Noble, Smashwords or order it from any brick and mortar bookstore near you.  Thank you for reading it and I hope you enjoy this free look at the book.

You can find all the chapters of this book by searching for the Null_Pointer Novel tag.

Chapter 1

His mom’s piercing scream echoed in his ears as her arms stiffened against the padded dashboard. His dad’s eyes popped open wide as he turned back to desperately grab the wheel and regain control. Tree limbs brushed against the front window of the family car as it slid off the icy road. The car jolted hard as it tipped over and nosed into the river. Cold water shocked his system. Flailing arms thumped helplessly against the windows. Gurgling sounds. Then darkness.
Joshua Jones couldn’t sleep most nights. This one was particularly bad. Every time he tried to shut his eyes the images came back as if he were stuck in some kind of real life code loop. Listening to music, turning his damp pillow over, changing his position and even the couch could not ward off the suffocating feeling of guilt he felt for his parents death.
They were driving up to their cabin in McCall, Idaho and the roads were slick with ice and snow. Joshua was sixteen and just learning to find his way around a program compiler. His dad was answering a question that Joshua had asked about programming. John Jones loved to talk with his hands and in responding to his son’s question he let go of the wheel just as the car began to slip on the ice. It was only for a brief second. One careless move brought on by Joshua’s question.
For the past six years Joshua blamed himself for the accident. No amount of counseling or therapy could remove the guilt he felt for their deaths. Several times a year he suffered bouts of insomnia that lasted anywhere from a few days to a week. It was no way to live, but it was the only way he knew.
The lack of sleep and complete exhaustion usually caught up with him and he was able to resume his life afterward with some degree of normality. But for those nights when the dreams held him in their painful grip, he was helpless to stop them.
Around three in the morning he gave up on sleep and tried to watch TV. Staring at sitcoms that had run the night before did not help. He left the TV on and went into his den to try coding. Sometimes it was his only refuge from the feelings of guilt. He could lose himself in the deep meditation of programming and forget the disturbing images. Over time he would begin to release his guilt, but he was never fully free from it. If he had not asked his father that stupid question, his parents would still be alive and he would not be having these horrible nightmares. That simple fact was so desperately hard for him to let go of.
There was always someone on-line at all hours of the night. The coding chat rooms he frequented were alive with chatter about obscure code constructs and light hearted banter about favorite editors. He slowly pulled himself out of his depression and started focusing on the code. There was a particularly tricky algorithm he was wrestling with at work and the solution to it popped into his head unannounced like all bursts of inspiration and suddenly he felt the need to finish it.
/*————————————————–*/
A light snow was falling as Joshua flashed his ID card at the reader and entered building four of RegTech. It was a dark morning in November and he was sure that he was the only person crazy enough to be in this early on a Friday. The white ear buds of his iPod were pumping the staccato beats of his favorite rock band into his head as he strolled past the empty cubes carrying his laptop in a shoulder pack.
He had the kind of likable face that women called cute and immature men liked to beat up. He wore a brown jacket with a hooded dark blue sweatshirt underneath. The dress standard was pretty lax at the tech company and he wore the same faded blue jeans and black Cons that got him through his college years.
Joshua’s mind was not on the music. He was thinking about how to handle a tricky array construct and the music helped him to concentrate, and keep out the bad dreams. His father used to say he was part of Generation Multi-task, and always gave him a hard time about it. Joshua just shrugged it off, a body does what a body needs and his body needed music to concentrate.
As he strolled down the hall and turned down the rows of cubicles, the lights winked on a few rows ahead of him. Even a big multi-national company like RegTech had some energy conservation policies in effect. The lights may have been out from lack of movement, but the building was still a warm and cozy seventy-five degrees. Joshua started unzipping his coat before he made it to his row. He had three PC’s in his cube and two big screen monitors that radiated plenty of heat. A rotary fan in the back of his cube ran constantly, to keep him cool in both summer and winter.
As Joshua strolled, he noticed the distinct aroma of Flying Pie pizza. Someone had been burning the midnight oil. Glenn, the coder in the cube next to his, sat at his computer, motionless. The pizza box lay open on his desk with a few crusts scattered about. It looked to Joshua, as he silently slipped past, like he had consumed an entire large pizza.
Joshua back stepped, peering around the padded cube wall. Yes, it really was Glenn, slouching back in his chair, head turned away, fast asleep. Joshua grinned. He continued on to his cube, slipped off his shoulder bag and slid into his chair.
With a few quick keystrokes he was logged into his computer and started working on a piece of troublesome code. It took two days of pondering, but it worked. He made a fist and pumped it with enthusiasm. Then he got up and grabbed his coffee mug. It was time to make the first pot of coffee for the day. Thoughts of his parents demise and his nightmares faded from his head. Sometimes having an obsessively detailed job was a good thing. It freed his mind from the mundane regularities of life.
He strode past Glenn’s sleeping form and made his way down the hall, lights winking on as he walked. As he took out the coffee and dumped it into the filter he started to wonder why Glenn had pulled an all-nighter on a Thursday. There were no pressing deadlines and Glenn was not the type to come in off-hours and work for no reason, unlike other programmers Joshua knew at the company.
Glenn was strictly an eight to five kind of guy. And for most of the other employees in Joshua’s web group, that was fine with them. Glenn was not the most well liked individual. He was arrogant and loud and he always seemed to take the opposing viewpoint in any debate. Joshua figured he just liked to argue, but most people were put off by it. Glenn was always the first to point out the flaws in other people, but regarded himself as nearly perfect in everything he did.
The irony was not lost on Joshua that Glenn had been caught snoozing at his desk, even if it were not technically during working hours. People would be streaming in soon enough and someone would probably find him asleep and make a big scene about it. Joshua decided that it would not be in his best interest to bust him this time. Glenn’s cube was beside his own and that would mean undue noise and attention throughout the day. Better to wake him now and save himself and Glenn the grief.
Joshua left his mug at the coffee station as the fresh java brewed and headed back. Stepping inside the entrance to Glenn’s cube, he pulled out his headphones and touched the coder on the shoulders. The hairs on the back of Joshua’s neck jumped up. Glenn was dead.
A fact that was hard to deny when you considered how rotund the man was and how heavy people usually made a wheezing sound when they were sleeping. Glenn’s body was as still as a boulder, but his chubby fingers were still wrapped around his laser mouse and his ergonomic keyboard. It was as if he had died suddenly and without any kind of a struggle.
Joshua took a deep breath as he stepped back. The memory of his parents’ lifeless bodies on a slab in the morgue rushed back. Their loving faces, swollen and blue. Joshua forced the unpleasant memory from his mind and studied Glenn’s cube.
Open soda cans and candy wrappers littered the messy desk. Glenn was one of those brilliant minds that couldn’t be bothered with the mundane details in life, like decorating his personal space. There were no family pictures or plants on his desk other than a few old O’Reilly programming books on his shelf, technical specification papers and an industry magazine that was about two years old
Glenn’s monitor was in standby mode, which meant he might have passed on some time ago. Joshua hurried back to his cube and dialed the security hot line for the building. An alert sounding man answered the phone and immediately contacted Emergency Services. A security person was dispatched and a cryptic message was soon blaring from the building’s speaker system.
“Damn.”
As he stared at the dead man’s cube, he realized that his day was shot to hell.
/*————————————————–*/
Ten hours later, Joshua pulled his silver Porsche convertible into the parking garage of the apartment where he lived in downtown Boise. He was exhausted but glad to be home. Once inside he grabbed a beer and fell into his easy chair in front of his high definition TV.
Unix his cat was sitting contentedly on the back of the couch. His body was snug in the collapsed back cushion. He watched Joshua eat for a while before his eyes slowly closed. Joshua had picked up some Korean food on the way home and placed the bulgogi and kimche on his lap. He stared silently at the news and kicked off his shoes.
The consensus at work was that Glenn had suffered a massive and sudden heart attack. It was something anyone could have guessed, yet somehow it required two hours of his time at the police station and endless interruptions at work by people from all over the company who just had to stop by to get the details.
At one point Joshua was sure the police thought he was a suspect, just because he had come in early and no one else was in the building for most of the night. Nobody actually came out and suggested it, but it was just the impression he got. The cold stares from his co-workers unsettled him. Few liked Glenn that much, but he was not so bad a person as to be worth killing. He was always eating junk food and consuming Mountain Dew and energy drinks like an alcoholic who drank cheap beer. His lifestyle finally caught up with him. Joshua was no pillar of health himself, but he was a good deal younger than Glenn.
He shoved another beef strip in his mouth then followed it with a chaser of Grolsch. The Kimche was particularly hot and he guzzled down his second beer to squelch the spices. With a smile he realized he was buzzed. He stared at the life-like images on the huge TV hanging on his wall. Sometimes when he was relaxed and still he felt like it was a portal to another part of the world, like a bad sci-fi film. The picture clarity was phenomenal. He changed the channel to a nature program, transporting himself to Africa, sitting quietly in the tall grasses of the Serengeti with a den of lions.
But it didn’t last long. Joshua saw the back of Glenn’s head, the slightly balding scalp with thinning brown hair. Death unnerved him. Just yesterday Glenn bored him with his description about a World of Warcraft on-line gaming campaign he was leading. Try as he might, he could not remember anything that Glenn had said to him about the game, he only remembered Glenn’s excitement. He could picture Glenn’s face, pink skin wet with small beads of sweat and so completely full of life. But Glenn was dead. Incredibly unfair.
As tired as he was from being up the night before, the last thing he wanted to do was fall asleep and have Glenn’s demise spark the nightmare of his parents’ death. The TV had changed to an aquarium, showing an underwater documentary about tropical fish. He sat up and felt his beer buzz. He put the remains of his dinner aside and slowly stood. His cell phone went off in his pocket. He glanced at the phone’s clock; it was just after two in the morning.
“Hello?”
“Joshua, let me in,” his friend Dancia pleaded.
“Sure.”
He closed the phone and opened the door. She brushed past and handed him an empty coffee container.
“Have you heard the news? A hacker was killed today.”
Joshua padded along after her into the computer room.
“I know, but I wouldn’t say he was a hacker, more like a hack.”
She was already logged on to his main workstation and was opening an Internet Relay Chat session by the time he got to the den. She looked back at him through her black rim glasses.
“What?”
“It was Glenn from my work group. He must have had too many pizzas and Dews.”
She looked at him with a curled brow.
“Glenn died?”
“Yeah, I found him dead in his cube this morning. Didn’t you hear?”
She stared at him for a moment her eyes wide and then looked back to the dual plasma screens and opened a connection to her favorite server and coding channel.
“Holy shit, I didn’t know that. I’ve been off line until this evening. I was chatting with DrunkMonk in pound coders and he said that Zemo was found dead last night in Stuttgart.”
Joshua sat down on a beanbag near the workstation.
“Wait, our Zemo?”
Dancia nodded as she typed. “Our interface guru for MyMovies; he was found in his room by his parents. No official cause of death. He was only sixteen. I had no idea he was that young.”
It was strange that two coders that he knew had died on the same day. What were the odds of that happening? It never occurred to him that they had both died without apparent malfeasance.
“I wonder who will die next,” Dancia said. Her voice was solemn. She had dark black hair cut in a bob and deep brown eyes behind her glasses. Her skin tone was pale white; no self-respecting geek had tanned skin, even in Idaho. She was wearing a black T-shirt that read, “There’s no place like 127.0.0.1” under her black leather jacket. She wore no watch; nobody under the age of thirty did anymore. It had been replaced with the ubiquitous cell phone, hers was tucked into the front pocket of her tight low riding jeans.
Joshua shook his head and looked away. He didn’t believe in superstitions, like people you know dying in threes, but she did so he kept his skepticism to himself.
Her voice lowered a bit, morbid curiosity creeping in.
“What was Glenn’s body like?”
Joshua looked up. “Still,” he said, “very still.”
“You were his friend weren’t you? Didn’t you guys hang out together at work?”
“Yeah, I guess so. Listen, I’ve got to get some sleep. It’s been a long day for me. You staying?” he said standing up.
She looked back to the screens. “Do you mind if I work from here tonight? I don’t feel like being in my apartment alone.”
He rested a comforting hand on her shoulder. “Nope, see you later.”
She smiled up at him as he left and then returned her attention to the IRC chat. Dancia was always coming over and hacking on his machines at all hours of the night. She worked a night shift at the local microprocessor plant and the only time she could see her friends was when she had the day off which was usually during their night time hours.
Joshua didn’t mind, he let his friends use his place. It was not unusual on the weekends to find six people crashed on the floor from an all night LAN party. He preferred that they spend the night rather than risk driving home drunk or tired or both.
Joshua padded back to his bedroom and flopped down on his bed. But he did not sleep. He lay there trying not to think about his parents. Then he took out an old composition book he used for recording his dreams. Ever since the nightmares had started after his parents death, he had found it cathartic to write down his dreams.
He read through the familiar passages. Something was not right. He flipped back further going back in time three, four and five years. Skimming through the passages, he stopped when he found it. In his dreams he used to be playing Nintendo’s Game Boy before the accident, not talking about coding with his dad. Either his dreams had changed or his memory was becoming more challenged the older he got. He thought about the changes and tried to recall playing the game. Try as he might, he could not recall ever playing his Game Boy on that trip. He remembered the games he used to play, but that was all.
Finally, his weary body demanded that he sleep.

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