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.
The USB thumb drive slid into his MacBook. He opened the file manager and in seconds he had all the channels and all the logs from Glenn’s PC. He sat down on the floor in Dancia’s room with his back to the foot of her bed.
“It worked, I have his logs and settings,” Joshua said.
She was busy pouring over the IRC logs from Glenn’s work PC. They were simple text files and she skimmed them in her editor, looking for contacts. It was very boring work so she switched on iTunes and dialed up an Internet Jazz station. A Charles Mingus saxophone solo came screeching out from her speakers. She brushed back a loose strand of her black hair and bobbed her head to the hip tune. She got turned on to Jazz from her blue-collar father. He used to play in his high-school jazz band and he was always playing old Charlie Parker or Miles Davis records when she was growing up. One time he took her and her brother to a club downtown and they heard a live four piece jazz band play. Her brother was bored and complained the whole night about having to go, but Dancia was transfixed by the energy and the freedom the musicians expressed.
Ever since that night, she refused to listen to the sugary pop music that everyone her age gushed over. It was just another thing to set her apart from everyone and everything that was popular.
Joshua transferred all the files to his desktop. He could access them faster locally and run some parsing scripts he had for searching text files. He was glad they did not have to do much to Glenn’s PC, he didn’t want to mess it up for a possible criminal investigation.
I’m starting to think like a detective. The thought amused him, but he had to admit that it was how he had started to view things. Not so much like a crafty gumshoe from a pulp detective novel, but more like as a program that was riddled with annoying bugs and would not compile correctly. It took patience and a clever eye for detail to properly debug a program and that just happened to be one of his strong points as a programmer.
He could track down a memory leak or a find a bad reference in code faster than most people could write such troublesome code. He could see the path of execution that the code followed as he read it. He was like a writer who could keep multiple plot threads alive in his head and still manage to write a coherent novel. This ability to juggle multiple paths of logic in his head at the same time was the hallmark of a good programmer. It also demanded total concentration the likes of which most professions did not offer on a daily basis. The ability to focus on many levels of a program at the same time required an almost Zen-like ability to clear one’s mind of extraneous thought and meditate only on the task at hand.
It was tedious, demanding work that tired out a person just as much as menial labor – without the aching muscles. His brain needed a rest at the end of a long day of coding and sometimes, sitting in front of his big screen TV watching mindless entertainment was how he relaxed and other times, he just laid down and took a nap. He always wondered why his father came home after work and took a short nap before supper. Now he knew that the mental gymnastics of programming often required the brain to reset itself with a little down time.
Joshua logged into Glenn’s IRC channels that he regularly hung out in. They were very similar to the ones he had on his work PC. There was #sharp a C Sharp language channel, #coders a general programming channel and #winhack presumably for people who hacked into Windows boxes. Then there was a third channel that popped up, #0wn3d that Joshua had not seen before. He wrote down the server name for it on his scrap envelope. An idea formed in his mind.
Dancia had lit some candles. Her legs kicked up on the desk provided a surface for her keyboard
“I have an idea. I need you to log into this IRC channel and act like a curious newbie.”
She took the scrap of envelope and started to dial the address into her X-Chat Aqua program. “Can I be myself or someone else?”
“You’re a guy, in his early twenties, living with your parents and hacking on your Mac. I will be in there too, but I won’t say anything. Don’t log in for a few minutes, let me get in and just hang for a while. Then you can come in and ask a lame question.”
She looked over the black rims of her glasses at him.
“Like a Japanese master, putting the student first to distract the enemy?”
“I’ll be on my lappy, and we’ll talk in person. Sometimes I’ll make a comment and you can react to it. But mostly I will be listening and feeding you questions,” he said, as he opened his laptop and started a virtual machine with Ubuntu. “I’m going to be on Linux.” Ubuntu was a popular version of Linux and Joshua ran it on all his non-Mac computers.
A virtual machine was a program that could launch an operating system inside a container where it would think it was the only operating system around. You could access the Internet, and all your real world machine hardware, all while the main operating system lurked in the background. While she waited for him to boot up a Linux virtual machine, she sat up and returned her keyboard to her desk.
“You had better go through another router, so we don’t look like we are in the same place. There’s a wireless access point in the apartment next door, its wide open. I use it when I want to be anonymous.”
“Have you cracked it?”
She shook her head. “I’m not that kind of girl.”
He was soon online, surfing like a skate boarder hitching a ride on a car bumper. “I’m in as – bitbaker. Give me few minutes to loiter and see what’s going on.”
She got up and moved to where he was sitting on the floor by the bed. She pulled a tennis shoe out from under the pile of clothes that they were sitting on to get comfortable. This close to him she could smell a faint hint of his cologne, it was familiar and comforting. She rubbed her arms and sat with her feet pulled up and her chin on her knees.
There were about a half dozen people in the #0wn3d chat room with names like; losing, mostaban, bet-n-man, flynn, muse, slackjawd and shemp. There was one person designated as the moderator – phong. These were all “Hacker handles”, names that they used instead of their real names. You could sometimes look at their connection data and find out if they listed their real names, but most did not. Joshua was skeptical about these guys as they used what was called leet speak for their channel name. Leet or l33t was cracker slang for elite. Psycho had told him on many occasions that real Hackers didn’t use leet speak much anymore, except to ridicule crackers, gamers and hacker wannabes. The method of using numbers to replace text was originally used to speed up communication on modem connections to Bulletin Board Systems and later to thwart the use of regular expressions to search text in logs. Gamers now mostly used it to trash talk to each other.
What he did find interesting was the absence of leet speak in the aliases in use in the channel. That meant that they had already gotten over any fascination with talking in numbers and were perhaps thinking about other things besides computers. The people who hung out in the really good chat rooms could talk about more than just computer related topics. Sometimes the topics ranged from computer languages and politics to astronomy and back again.
As they watched the text scroll in the terminal window, Joshua noticed how clean and fresh Dancia’s hair smelled. She was not wearing any perfume so nothing had to compete with the fragrant candles in the room. He appreciated her lack of pretense when she was with him. It was like they never had to impress each other in that way. He didn’t have too many female friends and none of them were this way around him. He found it familiar and relaxing.
He didn’t think she was anything less than gorgeous, he just didn’t feel any sexual tension between them. She had her hair pulled back in a ponytail; it left her white neckline to contrast with the black velvet sweater she was wearing. She glanced at him and they locked eyes for a moment. Her smile was coy and innocent, but she looked away to break contact. His gaze returned to the screen where he noticed the conversation changing from the obtuse refinements of the Perl programming language to the latest Jet Li movie.
Flynn and Slackjawd were discussing who was the best the best martial arts expert in films. Mostaban interrupted with a rant about Chuck Norris being able to kick everyone’s butt and the conversation halted. Eventually, Mostaban bowed out and the channel went quiet for a while.
“Ok, now’s a good time to log on, nobody is chatting and they just shunned that Mostaban into submission with their silence.”
Dancia got up and sat in her chair with her back perfectly straight like a diagram in an ergonomics book. Her ponytail dangled as she typed. Joshua watched her for a moment and then returned his attentions to the terminal. Her user name – Nooblet, came on with a terse announcement.
<nooblet> Anyone here know how to cast in C++?
There was a few seconds of silence, as if the participants could not decide if she were for real.
<flynn> Use a ten pound line and toss the whole lot into the lake. Then jump in after it.
<nooblet> Funny. You guys real l33t in here?
She turned and winked flirtatiously with Joshua, who smiled back at her. She was sounding like a complete loser, but looking real cute doing it. Something about a girl wearing dark rim, nerdy glasses and typing on IRC, pretending to be a guy, was more attractive than it sounded.
<phong> *nooblet Nobody uses C++ in this room. Try another channel.
<nooblet> What do you guys use then?
<losing> The Force.
<nooblet> Right. Seriously.
<flynn> Perl, C and some of us use Ruby.
<losing> My vastly superior intellect can not be restricted to any one language.
<nooblet> * nooblet laughs snidely
<nooblet> I’m laughing at your “Superior Intellect”.
“I think you’re in, Kirk,” Joshua said. Dancia was not so easily convinced. “Everyone knows Star Trek lines.”
<losing> nooblet, what are you coding?
<nooblet> Nothing, just trying to learn a new language. I do that every couple of years, keeps the cobwebs out of the brain. I mostly use C, some Perl.
<muse> There is but one language – Perl.
<losing> Muse knows how to do _anything_ in Perl, about ten different ways.
<losing> *losing bows before the feet of muse.
<phong> Perl sucks.
<nooblet> I sleep with the Llama book under my pillow.
<muse> You should try reading it, books make lousy head rests.
<nooblet> I’ve read it so much, its pages are soft and more dog eared than a schnauzer.
“Perl mongers are easy to win over, as long as they think you love the language as much as they do,” she said, glancing back to Joshua over the rim of her glasses.
“Agreed, keep it up. He’s the ring leader of this group, I’m betting.”
She started typing while she was still looking at him.
“I like Losing better.”
<nooblet> muse, do any CGI hacking in Perl?
<muse> I’ve been coding Perl since before you were born, kid.
<nooblet> Shit, I’m barely out of high school, old timer.
<losing> That’s before my time too. Muse used to use Patch, back when the dinosaurs roamed the earth.
<muse> No, but you can believe that if you wish.
<nooblet> WTF is Patch?
<muse> look it up, nooblet.
“Damn, I knew he’d say that,” Dancia said. Joshua shrugged; he didn’t know Perl that well.
<nooblet> *nooblet google’s Patch Larry Wall
Dancia opened her browser and did the search. She found out in short order that Patch was a program Larry Wall, the creator of Perl, wrote to retrofit old source code with the latest changes to it. Some prominent hackers considered it the beginning of the open source culture. Despite the fact that few people knew about it anymore.
<nooblet> Larry Wall is a god.
<losing> Amen, broth-ar.
They chatted about Perl, Politics and to a lesser extent, women. Dancia made a surprisingly convincing sex-starved teenage boy. The hours whiled away, with some pauses here and there.
Dancia was getting tired of sitting. She stood up and stretched. “Let’s go for a walk and get some caffeine, I’ve got the munchies.”