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.
It was a little past noon when Joshua awoke. It was the first time he had slept for more than a few hours in as many days. He felt rested and refreshed. He was on his side and looking across the room when he felt the presence of someone else in bed. The steady rhythmic motion of someone breathing beside him caused him to open both eyes wide and slowly turn over.
It was Dancia. She was lying on her side facing away from him. Wearing only her underwear! Joshua’s mind raced. Did they hook up last night? He could not remember anything happening; surely he would have remembered something like that. He started thinking about what happened last night, going over everything in his mind. After a few minutes he realized that he was panicking for no reason. He had come to bed by himself.
Why was she in bed then? Perhaps she was tired and cold. He thought about that for a moment. Usually, when she spent the night at his apartment, she slept on his couch, like all his other friends did — his guy friends anyway. She had never done anything this brazen before. Perhaps she was trying to tell him something. Perhaps she was hoping that something would happen. His heart started racing again. He really liked Dancia as a friend and he wanted to keep her as his friend. If they slept with each other; they would be more than just friends, they would be lovers. He was not ready to be her lover. Not until he figured out who was trying to kill them.
It was kind of weird, but he felt as though he were on a mission to find the murderer and anything he did for himself, only got in the way of that mission. He never realized that he could be so committed to anything like that before; then again his life was never threatened like it was now. He felt like he was acting as some kind of Dudley Do Right. Not that he was ever more than a straight arrow kind guy before, it’s just that he never really cared that much about anyone other than himself. He did his own thing and if someone was into that, then he let them come along, otherwise, he didn’t care what they did as long as they didn’t get in his way. For now, a relationship with Dancia would be getting in his way.
She began to stir and rolled over on her side facing him, he rolled over on his back and watched her sleep. He used to watch his old girlfriend sleep all the time. Lindsey was not a morning person. She liked to sleep in as late as possible on weekends. He was a morning person and would always wake up before her and sometimes he would just lie in bed and watch her sleep. She was so peaceful and content when she slept. So was Dancia. Her breathing was calm and her black hair fell loosely across her face covering an eye and part of her mouth. Lindsey was a brunette and her hair was much longer and thinner than Dancia’s.
He had not thought about Lindsey in a few days, ever since Glenn had died. Which was a good thing, he reckoned. They had split several months ago under less than favorable circumstances and he had not even seen her in passing since that time. She was a career woman climbing the corporate ladder and she felt that he was holding her back. He was not ready to commit to marriage and she was not willing to ride along in a relationship with no clear purpose other than to just be together. She needed a husband to get to the next rung of the ladder and he was not the man for the job. She dumped him and he didn’t put up much of a fight.
But he continued to think about her off and on for weeks after they split. The fact that he had not thought about her in a few days was a good sign. It meant that he was starting to get over her and get on with his life. He always knew that she was not the one for him, but sometimes when you are with someone for a long time, you find it hard to let them out of your life. He often wondered where she was, what she was doing; who she was with, but it never gave him any satisfaction thinking about her. It was not worth his time and energy and he knew that eventually he would stop thinking about her and move on. In that respect, the time he spent figuring out who killed Glenn and Zemo was therapeutic for him.
Dancia’s eyes fluttered open and she looked up at Joshua, watching her. He smiled down at her and she pulled the covers up and managed an embarrassed grin.
“Good morning,” Joshua said.
“I’m sorry, I just didn’t feel like spending the night on your couch.”
“Not a problem.”
“Are you sure?” she asked, adjusting the covers and trying not to be exposed.
“You sleep like an angel; I didn’t realize you were there right away.”
She became defensive. “Nothing happened last night, I can assure you.”
“Too bad,” Joshua said, with a warm laugh.
Dancia looked at him oddly. Joshua saw the look and decided to get back to the business at hand. “Did you hear anything useful on the radio last night?”
She pushed the cover against her chest and sat up to face him. “Yes! I was listening to two guys talking French. They were having a very interesting conversation about Beatnik poetry. After they signed off, I found our man Shemp online in the chat room. I think he was one of the men I heard on the radio and he mentioned he was from Canada.”
Joshua sat up while she was talking and his dark eyes narrowed as he listened to her.
“Canada. Did you write down their call signs?”
She nodded. “They are on your lappy desktop. I didn’t think to look them up.”
Joshua flung back the comforter and slid out of bed. He was wearing boxers as he padded down the hall and snagged the laptop from the kitchen table. Unix was standing at his water bowl. Joshua reached down and pet the cat’s back and was rewarded with a quiet purr. He came back to bed with the laptop and slid under the warm blanket.
“Damn cold this morning.”
“You mean this afternoon,” she corrected him.
He opened the computer and added the first call sign, W5ZPGC, to the search box in his browser. Then he selected a browser search engine that Steve had written that let him search the FCC database for Amateur Radio call signs.
The results came back empty. He searched for inactive call signs only. Bingo. It was registered to a man in Florida who was listed as a silent key – meaning he had passed away. It was doubtful that Dancia was listening to a dead man talk last night. Something fishy was going on.
He entered the second license, which was the call sign – VE2SHM. It came back with Mike Metz, from Trois-Riviers Canada. Dancia glanced over his shoulder at the return.
“See, I bet that’s our man Shemp. He said he was from Canada last night on IRC.”
“Did you write down what band you heard them on?”
Dancia shook her head. “No, but the radio is still on frequency. It was a little lower than the number we got from IRC.”
“Must have been a code for another band or something, I guess we can just keep it there and listen again tonight.”
Dancia nodded. She lay back down and covered up. “I have to go back to work tonight. Are you staying up to listen? I heard them around three in the morning.”
Joshua nodded, laid back and pulled the covers up over his chest. “I wonder if they are both up that late on a work night. Maybe if I listen as late as I can, I’ll hear them earlier tonight. Heck, they may only talk on certain days of the week. It’s going to be hit and miss.”
Dancia sighed. “I’m not sure Shemp is capable of killing. He doesn’t strike me as someone who is psychopathic. Actually, neither man sounded crazy in any way to me.”
“I know what you mean. But maybe that’s why no one has suspected them. I’ve been thinking about a motive for the murders and try as I might, I can’t find anything about the two victims that someone would want to kill them over. They were programmers but aside from that, they had little in common, except being a member of our web project.
“One was a brilliant coder and the other one was not. One was a loved member of the community and the other was just a middle aged corporate hack. Neither one talked to the other on IRC that we know of. I could find no emails between them or even between Shemp and them.”
Dancia yawned. “Maybe the killer doesn’t want us to go public.”
Joshua had no idea how the mind of a crazy person worked. It may be that he didn’t have to have any connection to them, but somehow that did not feel right. Something inside Joshua was telling him it was another programmer. He was so convinced of it, he refused to even consider anyone else.
“I think he’s a programmer and I think he wants to kill us because we are programmers,” Joshua said.
“The killer needed someone to be at their computer in order to strike. Computer geeks are always at their computers. He also needed them to be online and using headphones. Again, what coder doesn’t have a broadband connection and listen to music?”
She stared at the ceiling and scrunched her face as she figured. “So we’re looking for a programmer who likes to kill other programmers?” There was a note of disbelief in her tone.
“It sounds weak, but that’s because we just don’t have a motive,” Joshua insisted.
They lay there in silence, both of them thinking.
“Maybe he’s trying to prove himself,” Joshua said, breaking the silence. “Like a hotshot kid who wants to show how l33t his skills are.”
Dancia looked at him, a sly grin spreading on her face. “Killing someone with code would be a pretty bold statement for a cocky young coder.”
Joshua agreed. “The ultimate hack.” They were both well steeped in Hacker lore and they knew how common it was for new Hackers to feel the need to prove themselves. Traditionally, it was pulling off a technically difficult prank on someone or some group, but lately it was more about writing an application that other Hackers used or admired for its technical excellence and its creative elegance.
This was not to be confused with writing programs that defaced web sites or that let script kiddies hack into school computers or data centers, that was cracking and most real Hackers were as far removed from that behavior as you could get. A Hacker was someone who was at a different level of skill and understanding.
Dancia winced. “How are we going to prove that to the police? They don’t know anything about Hacker culture.”
“We just have to find out more about how he managed to kill them and hope that we turn up something damning on Shemp. I still have issues with using Flash animation to hypnotize someone. Unless he was talking to his victim through the headsets they wore and was able to offer spoken suggestions.”
Dancia turned to face him. “Wouldn’t he have to know what the person was afraid of in order to use that to kill them?”
“Maybe we can look for something in the chat logs about fears or phobias? I still got a problem with the motivation thing. Proving yourself by killing seems very brutal even for a nut job programmer. There has to be some kind of a connection between our group and the killer.”
Dancia agreed with a nod. Joshua got out of the bed headed for his dresser. “Lets get clean and have some breakfast then we can get to work on finding a motive.”
After his shower Joshua headed to the kitchen to start the pancakes and more importantly, the coffee pot. As he waited for the griddle to warm up, he pushed the oil around making sure to cover the whole cooking surface. His mom had first taught him to make pancakes when he was six years old. He was too short to reach the stove, so she let him stand on a footstool. It was one of the first times he remembered cooking with his mother – something the two of them would do a lot of as he grew up. She was a fine cook and loved to improve her craft by watching cooking shows and making new dishes every once in a while. Joshua’s dad was always ready with a technical explanation of why things were done the way they were in the kitchen, but his mom tended to cook on instinct. She could make just about anything in the kitchen and her instincts were passed on to her son who found that cooking relaxed him and gave him a creative outlet that was outside the world of bits and bytes.
There was knocking at the door and Joshua knew by the sound that it was Tripp. He unlocked the door and Tripp entered, his nose immediately smelling the coffee and the heating oil. “Pancakes for lunch?” he asked.
“Yeah, well, it was a long night.”
Tripp came into the kitchen and noticed the big radio on the kitchen table. “What’s with the antique?”
“I was listening for someone to talk on the Ham bands last night. It’s a long story. What are you up to today?”
Tripp stood beside him at the stove, looking around at the two plates and two coffee cups set out. He looked at Joshua who seemed not to notice anything wrong.
“Were you expecting company?” he asked, nodding to the counter.
Joshua tried to come up with an explanation that would satisfy his curious friend.
“Sure smells good in here,” Dancia stated before she came into the kitchen and saw Tripp.
Tripp’s eyes bugged out as he immediately put the clues together. She was wearing a towel on her head and one of Joshua’s long sleeve T-shirts that read, “Code Monkey”.
“Oh, hi Tripp. Joshua, do you happen to have a hair dryer?”
“Sure, in the cabinet under the sink.”
“Thanks, tootles,” she teased as she headed back down the hall towards the master bedroom. Both men stared at her bare legs as she strode down the hall.
Tripp and Joshua exchanged looks. “You dog, you finally hooked up with her!”
“No, really. That’s not what happened.”
“Right, dude. She’s wearing your clothes and using your bathroom.” Tripp slapped his friend on the back and started to head for the door. “I’ll leave you love birds alone. Catch you later man.”
“Tripp, don’t go. It’s not what you think, really. I have plenty of pancakes. Please, stay.”
Tripp paused, the pancakes did smell pretty good and he hadn’t had any lunch yet. Joshua flipped the pancakes on the griddle. “Grab a plate and sit down.”
You didn’t have to bend his arm to get Tripp to eat. He turned around and came back to the kitchen.
“Alright, but I feel like a third wheel.”
“Don’t. Nothing happened, we were working late last night and I offered to let her use the shower.”
Tripp motioned to the radio. “What’s got you two so busy, not getting busy, anyway?”
Joshua poured four more pancakes on the griddle and handed Tripp a plate with the first batch on it. Tripp helped himself to a fork and brought the butter plate and syrup to the table.
Joshua poured Tripp and himself a cup of coffee. “Remember those programmers that died Friday?”
Tripp nodded as he stuffed a fork full of pancakes in his mouth. The sound of Joshua’s old hair dryer came from the back bathroom.
“They were murdered. I found evidence on Glenn’s computer that someone killed him. It’s a bit complicated, but it looks like the killer used a program to somehow hypnotize Glenn and then kill him at his computer.”
Tripp listened intently as he chewed. “Have you gone to the police yet?”
“No, I wanted to give myself the weekend to look through his computers and see if I could ascertain who might have gotten on his system. I don’t think the police have much of a computer crimes department. If I can get a suspect and or a good motive, I’ll go in and tell them what I know. Until then, we really don’t have much of a case.”
“Still, you better be careful, messing with evidence.”
“I have not modified his system, just copied some log files. Technically, it’s not a crime until the case is declared a murder. Either way, I think we are on the trail of someone, so it may not be too much longer before we find out who it was and inform the police. If I’m right, the killer may be wanted for both murders.
Tripp smiled. “Maybe you should be going to the CIA or Interpol or something. You could be on the trail of an international terrorist.”
Joshua slid the next batch on a plate and poured some more pancakes on the griddle. “Maybe, but until we catch our man in some incriminating way, we don’t have anything.”
“Who is your suspect?”
Dancia came back into the kitchen. “Some hacker named Shemp.” Her black hair was freshly styled and she smelled soapy clean.
Tripp looked at her and stopped chewing. “His name is Shemp?”
“No, that’s his alias, his real name is Mike Metz and he’s from Canada. Thanks,” she said, taking a plate full of pancakes from Joshua. She sat down at the table opposite Tripp.
“I don’t think he’s your man,” Tripp said.
Joshua turned around. “Why do you say that?”
“Shemp was one of the three stooges.”
Joshua and Dancia exchanged looks of astonishment. Dancia smiled, she knew Shemp was not the one. Joshua looked back at Tripp. “Curly, Moe and Larry. Who was Shemp?”
“He was one of the original stooges, but he left the group before they became famous. They replaced him with Curly.”
Joshua looked back at the griddle and watched as the tiny bubbles formed in the pancakes he just poured. If Shemp was a “Stooge” then who was controlling him? He tried to remember the conversation on IRC when they first started monitoring it late Saturday night. Who was the older guy that everyone considered a Perl guru? Muse.
“It’s Muse, he’s the killer. He’s using Shemp as his stooge.”
Tripp swallowed and brought his fork up to point at Joshua. “Who’s Muse?”
“Another participant in an IRC chat room we’ve been monitoring,” Dancia said. She had stopped eating and was thinking about that first night. “He was someone that the other guys all respected because he was a Perl guru.”
Tripp continued eating while he spoke. “Always there is an apprentice and a master. Sounds like you guys were going after the apprentice.”
Joshua grinned; Tripp was always ready with a nerdy Star Wars quote. Sometimes hanging out with him was like being in a Kevin Smith movie. You never knew when he would launch into a lengthy dissertation on why Han shot first. At least he didn’t try to sound like Yoda – this time.
Joshua turned off the stove and flipped his serving of pancakes onto a plate. He covered them with butter and then poured some maple syrup on them. He ate standing up, and facing his friends. He sipped his cup of coffee between bites.
He and Dancia exchanged glances, now they had to look for a connection between Zemo, Themis, Dancia, Joshua and Shemp.
Tripp finished eating. He stood up and brought his plate to the sink, letting Joshua sit down at the table. “Well kids, it’s been interesting, but I have to be going.”
“Where you off to?” Joshua asked.
“Gotta make a quick stop off at the Flying M to pick up Dave and then we’re off to a movie. I was going to see if you wanted to come with us, but you guys are busy playing Clue.”
“Can you drop off Dancia at her place? She doesn’t have her car.”
Dancia finished her last bite and brought her plate to the sink.
“Sure, no problem.”