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 red numerals on the clock in the kitchen read one forty-five in the morning, but the apartment was neither dark nor quiet. The back of the friendly brown receiver was a warm yellow color as the tubes heated up. The two large semi-circle dials on its front panel gave the faint impression of a barnyard owl. One was for band selection and the other for fine-tuning. The interface hearkened back to simpler days and consisted of two dials flanking a signal meter, a row of knobs and several switches extended across the bottom, each with clearly readable labels. The old Hallicrafters SX-100 was a legend in its day and still pulled in signals with a clarity and warmth that no modern transistor radio could ever hope to equal.
There was no sound coming from the external speaker. Joshua was still stringing up the simple wire dipole antenna and letting the radio’s tubes warm up. He taped the thin wires to the ceiling in a north-south direction, while standing on a kitchen chair. He was awake and full of enthusiasm. He had never listened to short wave radio growing up and had somehow felt like he had been deprived. He remembered his dad talking about listening to far away commercial stations when he was a kid in the sixties, but his dad didn’t keep his old radio and so Joshua never had the opportunity to be exposed to it. In an age when the personal computer was your conduit to the world over the Internet, the idea of pulling in signals out of a wavering atmosphere seemed hopelessly old fashioned and low tech.
Joshua had a thing for old tech; he drove a car and flew an airplane that were both from the fifties. His clothes reflected that time period in their simplicity and classic styling. This new toy was just as exciting to him as getting a new laptop. He also loved the romance of old tech. Something about consumer items from that decade left him feeling warm inside like eating fresh baked cookies or sipping warm peppermint tea on a cold winter night. Back then things had curves and class and warmth that the mass-produced, perfectly manufactured items of the today lack. There was no denying the simplicity and elegance of an iPod, but it could not hold a candle to a 1958 Corvette or a Western Cutlery sheath knife.
Dancia was on his laptop browsing for news on Zemo and monitoring the IRC chat room. She was not the least bit intrigued with the radio. Having dated Steve for several months, she had heard him waxing over and listening to his radios for long enough to learn to loath them. It was not that operating radios was something that only men did; there were plenty of women Ham operators. It just seemed to her that it was a technical hobby that still required you to know something about how your equipment worked and how signal propagation worked, which tended to be a major turn off for most females. Most of what the men talked about on the air was related to the technical nature of the hobby. It just was not that interesting to her. Sometimes they talked about politics and that usually led to rants that had a decidedly Right Wing slant, which made her gag. She never could figure out why more women didn’t become Hams and talk about womanly things. Even idle gossip would be more interesting than signal reports.
She let Joshua play with the radio and occasionally watched him fuss over it like it was some kind of new arrival. Mostly she just surfed and listened to some jazz on a radio station that simulcast on the web out of the San Francisco Bay area. Eventually, she turned on the big screen TV and found an old black and white movie. The cable guide said it was Rebecca, 1940, and stared Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine. After coming in near the beginning, she became engrossed in the story and soon abandoned the laptop for the easy chair. The black and white movie shined brilliantly on Joshua’s big plasma TV. She snuggled under the afghan and watched the show.
Joshua sat down at the Hallicrafters and switched the knob from Standby to Receive. A warm, soft sputtering static filled the air from the square speaker resting beside the radio. He adjusted the band dial and then started tuning around, looking for conversations. He didn’t have to go far before he found a Ham chatting away about his family ranch in Colorado. Joshua thought about the signal bouncing over the Rockies and traveling down the wires of his antenna and getting converted by the radio’s tubes into something that could be understood. The magic of radio.
He sat at the kitchen table and listened to the radio for another hour before becoming tired. He caught himself dosing off several times and finally decided around two forty-five in the morning that he had better go to bed. He dragged himself away from the warm, glowing radio and into the dark living room where Dancia was watching some old black and white movie.
“I’m going to bed. I left the radio on the frequency we got from Shemp. Feel free to listen, turn it off when you are done.”
She looked away from the picture and nodded. He looked really tired, his eyes baggy and his shoulders hunched. She didn’t expect him to have lasted this late into the night. Joshua turned and padded back down the hall to his bedroom. Dancia returned her attention to the troubles of the new Mrs. De-Winter.
An hour later, the movie was over and Dancia was bored. She opened the laptop and checked into the chat rooms she was monitoring. There was little activity so she went into her favorite Linux chat room where there were hundreds of users on and plenty of activity. She started to get the munchies and went into the kitchen to see what Joshua had to snack on. His refrigerator was nearly empty, so she poked around in the cupboards for some crackers or chips or maybe some cookies. She found a box of Ritz crackers that had an unopened sleeve in it. She took out the sleeve and put the box back. He had a wine rack on the counter and she really wanted to open a bottle.
Joshua’s taste in wine tended to lean toward local Idaho red wines. Red wine gave her a headache, she pulled out a light colored chardonnay from the Sawtooth Winery and decided that would do. She opened the drawer where she remembered his wine opener was and opened the bottle. She let it breathe while she searched for a wine glass. She found some in a top cabinet that she was too short to reach. Dragging a kitchen chair over, she grabbed a glass and set it beside the wine. Scooting the chair back, she noticed the orange glow of the radio on the table. It was casting interesting shadows on the dark kitchen walls from the fine mesh grill on the back of the radio.
She decided to sit down with her crackers and wine and give the radio a listen. She turned up the volume and turned the tuner knob slowly across the band. There was a signal that was weak and then as she turned the knob slowly, it came in stronger. It sounded like a large man’s voice and he was talking in French. Dancia took French in high school and her first two years in college. She was pretty good at it but she didn’t use her skill very often and was not very fluent. She did manage to follow along to what the man was talking about.
It was poetry. She caught references to Shakespeare and several modern American poets. Dancia wondered if the man was in France or Canada as she listened to the one sided conversation. Hams tended to ramble on for long periods of time on the HF bands before signing over to the other party. This was mostly do to the conditions but was also just a tradition. There was no timing out or other interruptions and it let the other party take a break and gather their thoughts for a rebuttal.
When it was finally time for the other Ham to talk, it was another man, younger and more hip in his phrasing. Dancia listened and became enthralled with the conversation. They were discussing poetry and reciting favorite passages back to each other. She wondered briefly if they were gay but she didn’t get that impression from their tone and inflection. They were just two fans of the medium talking about what they enjoyed most about their favorite poets. Dancia liked poetry, but she had not read much in quite some time. In high school she went through her Emily Dickinson phase and then moved on to the British poets and finally wound up appreciating Bob Dylan.
They started talking about a poem called “Howl” by Allen Ginsberg – a Beat Generation poet and friend of Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs. Dancia had read Kerouac’s On the Road back when she first heard the song “Hey, Jack Kerouac”, by the alternative band 10,000 Maniacs. It launched her on a cross-country trip to pick up the Karman Ghia with Melina, before Dancia went into the Marines. It was the best time she ever had and it was her last rudderless voyage before her life took a purposeful turn. The military matured her in ways that civilian life could not and going to college helped her make sense of the madness of war and the questions she had about her station in life.
She found the poem on line and started to read it as she listened to them talking about it. It was an epic poem, banned at one point for obscenity and admired by nearly everyone. She liked it immediately and wanted to talk about it, but could only listen to the two poetry fans on the brown receiver. The older Ham seemed to have lived during the fifties and had been turned on to the Beat Generation first hand. He was well versed in Jazz and Beatnik culture. The younger man was less impressed with the work and tried to insist that his generation had its own crazy time making sense of life. He quoted modern poets and writers like Neal Stephenson, Eliot Katz and Levi Asher. He mused on how the Internet has shaped his generation more than any other medium has changed a generation. The older man seemed to scoff at that notion, but he had to concede that the Internet revolution was only just beginning and that history will only record those alive at its birth that caused it to come into existence. Those early pioneers of the medium may be lost to the winds of time when they are quickly replaced by the generation that perfects the idioms used in the global voice.
Dancia found the conversation intellectually stimulating, like a good college lecture on philosophy. Just when she was beginning to enjoy herself the conversation ended and the foreign voices signed off with their call signs. She typed them down in her editor and saved them to the desktop. She would be listening for them again, regardless of whether they ever heard this Shemp guy talking again or not. She tuned around the band for a while, and then grew bored with the radio. She left it on the channel that Joshua was listening to and turned down the gain so she could surf and read some more poets of her generation.
She checked the IRC chat room and found it dead quiet. Shemp was in the chat room and so were a few others, but nobody had been talking.
<nooblet> Who speaks for our generation?
There was no reply. She had hoped that Shemp was around. It was nearly four in the morning; most people in North America were long in bed. She picked up her glass of wine and finished it in one drink. Maybe it was time to turn in. She checked the temperature on the weather widget. It was twenty-two degrees Fahrenheit. “Colder than flijigans,” she said out loud. She was wearing a sweater but it was not a tight weave and her arms were feeling chilled as she rubbed them with both hands.
She remembered a particularly cold night in the desert after seeing action along the road to Baghdad. She was in a ditch off the side of a road in the middle of nowhere with four other squad mates. Their HUMVEE was disabled and they were waiting for help from the convoy. That was the longest, coldest night of her life. The temperature dropped after sunset and the stars came out like jewels spread out over black velvet. All she had was a light poncho in addition to her BDU shirt and undershirt. The days were still in the low nineties and they were dressed for the heat of the day, not the cold of night. Once the shaking stopped, she felt at one with the cold. By morning, she had never been so glad to feel the warm sunlight on her face and hands.
The laptop bleeped and she was shaken out of her remembrance. Shemp had responded to her question.
<shemp> The poets.
She read it again; to be sure she had not imagined it. The poets. She felt a chill as she sat up in the kitchen chair. What were the odds that he would respond like that? She wanted to type her questions about the modern poets that were discussed on the radio, but she knew she could not give herself away.
<nooblet> I say the coders.
<shemp> Same difference. Some of the best programmers are not that different from poets.
<nooblet> Code poets. LOL
There was a popular T-shirt with that message printed on it. Dancia always wanted one, but never had actually purchased it yet.
<shemp> Yes, actually. There is a recognizable correlation between coding and writing poetry. Have you ever heard of Sun Microsystems Richard Gabriel?
<shemp> He’s a Distinguished Engineer who also writes a poem a day. He’s even got a Master of Fine Arts degree. Granted, he’s not from our generation, but he is a fine example of how the two skills are related.
Dancia thought about that for a moment. When she was in high school, she had written a few poems about her boyfriends and other typical teen angst. She had never tried to express herself in that way after graduation. Life in the military during a war did not afford her much free time for self-reflection.
<nooblet> I suppose the creativity is similar. The best coders have a flair for programming that you can’t get in school or from a book.
<shemp> Exactly. Well, I’m going to lie down for a while, before the sun comes up. Laters.
<nooblet> Where you at anyway?
<shemp> Canada. You?
Dancia smiled. “I bet you speak French Canadian too.” she said aloud to herself. She decided to be vague and give a trite answer.
<nooblet> The beautiful south.
<shemp> Ha! Good band. G’nite.
She closed the laptop and turned the radio off before getting up and turning off the lights. It felt to her as if the apartment was on the cold side. She checked the thermostat on the way back to Joshua’s room. It was set to sixty-five, no wonder she was chilled.
Unix was already snoring on the back of the couch and did not hear her flip the lights out when she left the room.
She came into his bedroom and watched him sleeping under a down comforter. He looked peaceful and warm. They hadn’t discussed sleeping arrangements when they came back to his place and she really didn’t care to stay on the couch. She peeled off her clothes and slid into the bed beside him. He didn’t even stir. She pulled the covers up over her shoulders and waited for the flannel sheets to warm her up. She fell asleep before she noticed that she was warm.