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.
Joshua’s father had been a life long Porsche aficionado and had owned half dozen different types for as far back as Joshua could remember. Before the accident that took his life, John Jones had owned a sterling silver 1958 Porsche 356 Convertible D. He doted over it more than anything else he owned. Joshua associated the friendly, round head lamps with his father’s warm personality, and could not bring himself to sell the little convertible. The elegant sports car turned heads all the time despite being old enough for classic car plates.
Joshua drove the convertible until the bitter cold of winter completely froze him out. Then he had it cleaned up, tuned and put back into the garage. He didn’t care so much about the elements but he was careful to keep the car clean and in good running order. He was not mechanically inclined himself but he was well off enough to make sure that only confident and certified Porsche mechanics ever touched his baby. In that respect he was very much like his father. He even attended road rallies and Porsche drive-ins across the western states where the same car nuts that knew his father got together to talk sports cars and drink German beer. None of that could stop the feelings of guilt from creeping up on him, but it did give Joshua some solace.
Joshua noticed several cars in the parking lot; not everyone took the weekend off. He pulled the Porsche into an empty spot near the closest entrance and got out. Reaching into what constituted a back seat he pulled out the cloth satchel containing his laptop and headed for the entrance. There was no sign of anyone in building four. The lights were again in energy saver mode and flickered on as he headed for Glenn’s cube.
Joshua sat down at Glenn’s PC. He needed to be logged on as Glenn or administrator for what he wanted to do. He knew Glenn hated having to log into his computer so he somehow doubted that the programmer wasted much time remembering a new password every ninety days. He pulled out the ergonomic keyboard and looked underneath it for a password written on the bottom. It was blank. He looked around carefully at the sparse furnishings. Just a coaster made from some kind of rock and a few pages of program specs. There was a black stapler and a plastic cup penholder with one cheap pen and a well-chewed pencil. Some paper clips lay at the bottom of the cup. The garbage and wrappers from all of his junk food were gone.
Joshua pulled open a desk drawer and found it filled with unopened candy bars and bags of chips. It looked like Glenn did his shopping at one of those cost savings warehouses and bought it in bulk. Smart, considering how often he ate the stuff. Joshua often had to scrounge around pretty hard to come up with sixty-five cents for a Coke at his desk. Something caused him to reach down under the low-slung Herman Miller chair where he found a sticky note taped to the chair’s frame. Bingo. His password was nothing unusual, just a random string of characters auto generated by the IT department. They gave up running password breaking software just to find simple passwords like dog’s names or movie star names in favor of generating their own passwords and making the user remember whatever crazy combination they drew by chance. Joshua figured they had several dozen calls a day for resetting passwords.
He typed in the random characters and waited for the operating system to boot up. He started Outlook and checked to see if Glenn had received any postmortem emails. He had but they were mostly internal company group mailings reaching hundreds of employees. The list barely changed when people left the group or the company. There was nothing suspicious in the email. He closed the email program and checked the Start menu for mIRC.
After the IRC client auto-logged into several channels Joshua took note of them in a small tablet he kept in his coat pocket. He loitered for a few minutes. There didn’t seem to be anything unusual going on. Joshua took the time to write down all the user names in the smaller channels. Some of them had hundreds of members on-line and he didn’t bother with them.
Next came the inventory of all the programs Glenn had added since his machine’s last re-imaging. A re-image occurred when the operating system was installed again to get a clean new system. There were surprisingly few shareware or open source programs on his system. Glenn really wasn’t a slacker when at work. He spent most of his time programming. There were things like Google Earth and some Free Software for network packet sniffing, nothing too unusual. Joshua recognized the media player he used as being written by a programmer in another building – GAmp. It had an extensive playlist when Joshua brought it up. He saved the information to a pen drive that he had in his coat pocket. Most of the songs on the playlist were not on his work computer. There was a SSH tunnel that Joshua remembered Glenn had mentioned. As Joshua poked around he found a Visual Basic Script that launched the connection. Glenn sure hadn’t made it hard to find that one.
Joshua thought about playing some of the music and then he looked at Glenn’s padded Sony headphones and realized that the last person to wear them was a corpse. Perhaps not.
Finding the program’s process was going to take a while so he decided to go get some coffee. He snagged his cup from his cube and headed off down the hall towards the coffee station. He had the distinct feeling of dÈj‡-vu as he started making a fresh pot of coffee. He slowly walked back to Glenn’s cube thinking about Friday and how Glenn and Zemo’s deaths had given him a new mission in life and a new respect for how fragile life can be.
Some movement caught his eye and he noticed another programmer was present. Peering over the cubicles he saw Lawrence Taggert coming in and entering his cubical. Larry was the only UNIX programmer in the web group. He did the administration of the Linux boxes they used as file servers and any scripting that was needed. He was an old school programmer, had been coding longer than anyone else on the team. Joshua remembered that Larry used to work with his father back in the seventies. The guy hardly ever talked to anyone. Joshua didn’t really know much about him personally but he knew he didn’t use Windows and he ran his Linux box in terminal mode. Which was pretty hard core. Whenever Joshua had a question about Linux he would ask Larry and always got a concise and short answer with little or no commentary. Larry was all business and kept to himself any details of his private life. Joshua could respect that about him and never tried to be his buddy. Even now when they were the only two people in the building Joshua would not think to bother him.
Joshua sat down at Glenn’s PC and got to work. A couple of hour’s worth of investigating further and he was sure that he had accounted for all the processes running on Glenn’s computer. He did a reboot into safe mode like Sikes had suggested and looked for anything out of place. It looked clean. Either the root kit was harder to find or it was removed. Somehow he felt like he was missing something. Then it dawned on him – the music hack. Could the bad guy have come in through that connection from Glenn’s home computer? If so then his work PC was just a conduit. Sneaky, very sneaky. He looked around at Glenn’s cube and realized there was nothing more to do. He logged off and went back to his cube. He propped up his feet on his desk and slowly finished his cup of coffee.
A picture began to form in his mind about what had happened to Glenn. His home PC was hacked into and the killer used the SSH connection to the work PC to somehow get to Glenn. How exactly he was able to kill Glenn was still not clear. Joshua wondered if Zemo was compromised in a similar fashion. He briefly pondered if there was a friend in Stuttgart who was trying to work out who killed Zemo. More likely it was a computer crimes expert at the local police station or whatever they had in Germany. Too bad they didn’t publish what they knew about the Zemo case. He dropped his feet from the desk and sat up. Maybe they didn’t, but the city had a newspaper and he might be able to glean some details about the investigation by reading what they had published about the case.
He quickly logged onto his PC and googled for newspapers in Stuttgart Germany. He found three web sites for newspapers in the city and ran them through a web-based translator. One of them, Stuttgarter Zeitung, had a local Police report section and he found a fairly detailed account of Zemo’s murder investigation. The translation was not perfect but good enough to get the gist of it.
Police had originally thought the death was of natural causes there were no signs of malice and no obvious motive. A friend of Zemo’s from the local Stuttgart University had come by to pay his respects to the kid’s family and wound up carting off all his computer gear. The parents never really approved of their son’s hacking and they were happy to give away his gear not a day after his death. While that sounded cold, Joshua knew the parents were acting in emotional self-defense. Little did they know the move was going to take a bizarre twist. It was this college friend who had found the message in Zemo’s code and alerted police. At that point a murder investigation was launched, and all of the computers used by Zemo were confiscated by the police as evidence.
Joshua realized that crucial evidence was out of his reach and that if he went to the local police about what he found on Glenn’s PC he might very well lose what access he had to Glenn’s computers. There was no guarantee that the Boise Police Department would ever be able to find out what he could simply by poking around. He knew that the best chance of finding out what happened to Glenn and possibly to Zemo lay with his own investigation. It was a challenge that he accepted without further thought or deliberation. He had too. It could mean his own life or even, God forbid, Dancia’s life.
Joshua sent an email to the IT person he knew and requested that Glenn’s computers be left untouched for at least a week while they made sure all the code he was working on was cleaned off. It was a legitimate request and he knew that Todd, the IT guy, would honor it. It would take management several weeks to hire a replacement or they could decide to distribute his work to the remaining programmers. That would be typical for clueless managers.
He glanced down and realized that it was getting late, which could have explained the growing hunger in his stomach. He logged off and gathered up his satchel. Chinese sounded good to him tonight and he knew that Dancia and her roommate, Trish, both loved Yen Ching’s Chinese restaurant. He wondered briefly how Dancia would react when he told her what he had found.