Null_Pointer Chapter 14

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 14

<shemp> No, I have never met Muse. Why do you ask?
<nooblet> I was just curious how old he was. He seems to come off as one of those longhaired, bearded types in tie died T-shirts and sandals.
<shemp> LOL
<mostaban> Yes, he lives in his cube at his office and showers in the men’s room.
<nooblet> Don’t laugh, I used to know a guy like that at my last job. He was a UNIX hippy. Not all there upstairs sometimes, but he sure as shit knew his way around the file system.
<shemp> Muse is not like that. He’s pretty much a normal guy like any of us.
Dancia smiled. What a stooge, he even protects his master. She was sitting on the floor in her room, still wearing Joshua’s T-shirt, with a hoodie over it to keep her arms warm. Her laptop was running Gentoo Linux. Gentoo was a custom Linux distribution that was favored by system administrators because it let you build nearly everything from scratch, thereby making the software conform to the hardware like a fitted T-shirt to a body.
It was getting close to the diner hour and she was starting to get hungry. She was due back on shift in a couple hours, but she really didn’t want to go in. She was having too much fun chatting with her new Perl buddies and trying to find a motive for which one was a killer. Muse was not in the chat room so they all felt comfortable with talking about him.
<nooblet> So just how good a coder is Muse anyway? What has he done that would garner the kind of loyalty you guys all have for him?
<mostaban> He’s never not had an answer for any problem we have had. You know he knows his shit. He’s a national treasure for what he knows.
<losing> The guy really knows programming. He’s an old school Hacker.
<shemp> He was in Nam, towards the end during the pull out. He has seen some bad shit. But he never talks about it, at least not to any of us. I found a post he wrote on a Veteran’s board once about living with the bad memories.
<mostaban> I didn’t know he was in Nam.
<shemp> Like I said, he never talks about it.
<nooblet> I was in the sandbox. I’ve seen some shit. Not something I talk about either.
<shemp> Really? Army or Marines?
<nooblet> Never mind.
<losing> Nooblet, you don’t have to talk about it man. Just know that we all appreciate what you did.
<mostaban> Not everyone has the balls to go fight for their country. Thanks man!
Dancia swallowed hard. She had never talked about her military career since getting out. In many ways it was like a bad dream but she did appreciate the kind sentiments of most people when they found out she had served in Iraq. The experience had hardened her to the dark side of human nature. It had forced her to see the good and the bad in herself and her fellow Marines. Her way of dealing with it was to try and forget it, even though she knew that those experiences would be forever with her and had changed her for better or worse. She knew that people were capable of doing some pretty horrific things and that kind of scared her sometimes.
Her own war experience had given her a new found respect for older war veterans. She no longer looked at them as freaks or as damaged goods for what they had been through. She didn’t want recognition in the form of medals or coverage in the press, she just wanted to live her life to it’s fullest and never have to be in a situation where she was forced to take life and to be staring at death’s face again until she was very old.
<shemp> None of us have even been in the military.
<nooblet> What else can you tell me about muse? Where does he live?
<mostaban> Montana or Colorado maybe. I heard him mention some mountains and sage brush around his place once.
<shemp> Somewhere in the American West. He’s pretty tight lipped about exactly where. Where do you live Nooblet?
Dancia hesitated; she didn’t want to let them know exactly where she was either. She tried to think of someplace that she knew well enough to lie convincingly about. She had never lived anywhere but Idaho and a few Marine bases. She decided to be evasive.
<nooblet> Western US. I’m trying not to let the world know how cool my home town is, so that nobody will want to come here. Know what I mean?
<mostaban> Ha. I know what you mean.
<shemp> You Yanks can come up to the Great White North.
<nooblet> Where are you at in Canada, Shemp?
<shemp> Central Canada, Tri-Rivers area. It’s an old town with lots of history and beautiful buildings. We get plenty of tourists, especially for the festival.
<mostaban> Don’t even get him started on poetry. Hey Nooblet, heard any news on that German kid who died?
Dancia took her fingers off the keyboard and stared at the chat window. Nobody had talked about that before in this channel, at least not when she was on. She wondered if Mostaban was a stooge too or maybe he was actually Muse. Maybe they were all in on it and she was the stooge. No way, she was letting her imagination get the best of her. She put her hands back on the keyboard and started to type.
<nooblet> What German kid?
<mostaban> Are you kidding me? Everyone knows about Zemo getting murdered at his computer last week.
<nooblet> Oh yeah, I think I saw something on Digg about that.
<mostaban> The police think he was murdered, but they can’t find any suspect and they don’t have a clue how it was done.
<nooblet> Sounds fishy to me.
<mostaban> I think he was killed by a Hacker; someone who can kill with code, like some kind of mutant from the X-Men or something.
<shemp> Mostaban, you’re a nerd. You can’t kill someone with code; this is reality here. Put away the comic books.
<nooblet> What kind of dork are you anyway?
<mostaban> Whatever, but I can’t see any other way to reach through someone’s computer and kill them.
<nooblet> I’m sure the police will find something. No crime goes unpunished.
<shemp> Eventually the grim reaper gets all.
There he goes, evading the topic and adding a dramatic flare. She slid the laptop to the floor and stretched her arms. Her cell phone started playing a jazzy tune from her pocket.
“Hello.”
“Dancia, you going into work tonight?”
It was Joshua. She loved the sound of his voice.
“Yeah.”
“Me too, in the morning. I’m going to listen to the short wave as late as I can, see if I can catch them chatting again.”
“But they talk in French, how are you going to know what they are talking about?”
“I won’t. I’ll record them and let you listen to it later and translate it.”
Oh, well there’s a thought. She wanted to come over to his place and hang out until she had to go in. But she was having trouble thinking up a good excuse to come over.
“Have you been monitoring IRC?”
“No, been doing laundry and listening to the radio.”
“Have you had diner yet?” It was just after seven in the evening.
“No, you?”
“No. I’m coming over.” She decided to just be forward and not explain anything.
“Okay.”
She packed a book bag with a change of clothes and some makeup and her toothbrush and threw it in her KG before leaving. She didn’t want to be caught without it again. On the short drive over, she stopped at the pizzeria behind the Flying M coffee house and got a medium pie to go.
They ate the pizza at the kitchen table, while they listened to the radio and talked. Joshua opened some beers for them.
“I learned that Muse is a Vietnam veteran. Shemp offered that tidbit this afternoon,” Dancia offered.
“Really? I suppose we should be putting together a psychological work-up on the guy to try and find out what would make him a murderer. I never took any psychology classes in college.”
“I did. Not that that makes me any kind of expert. Let’s see, we know he’s in his fifties, possibly early sixties to have been in that conflict. Everyone in that room thinks very highly of him and his hacker skills. So he’s probably been in the IT field since its origins.”
Joshua finished chewing. “So he prolly started on main frames. Man, I can’t even imagine living in those days.”
Dancia smiled, she couldn’t either. They thought they had it bad on a 486-based chip in the early nineties. “Neither can I. I tried to paint a portrait of him as some kind of Berkley hippie, but Shemp shot me down. He insists that Muse is a normal guy like any of them. But still, how would he know for sure, he’s never met Muse?”
Joshua thought about that for a moment. If they have been chatting on Ham radio, and in a chat room, they may indeed know each other pretty well and still never have met in person. Like two people who meet online and get to know each other with intentions of meeting in person and getting married. Many times they think they really know the person and then when they finally meet, the other person has an annoying personal habit that never came out in correspondence and the marriage is called off.
“I don’t know, maybe Shemp is lying. Maybe they have met and he’s trying not to let anyone know.”
Dancia remembered something “Oh, Shemp said he was from the Tri-Rivers area of Canada. Let’s look that up and see what we can find. Nobody seemed to know exactly where Muse lived, other than out West.”
“Did you tell them where you lived?”
“Nope.”
Joshua wiped his hands on a napkin and left the table to get his MacBook. When he returned, she had made a space for him to set it down next to her. He moved his chair around and sat down, opening the laptop. He opened Firefox and typed the Canadian city into the Wikipedia search box. She helped him spell it, as it was a French word. Trois-Riviers sits at the confluence of the three prongs of the Saint Maurice and the Saint Lawrence Rivers in Quebec. They both read the Wikipedia article in silence, neither one of them had been to Canada.
“International Poetry Capital of the World?” Joshua intoned. They both looked at each other. Shemp was talking about poetry to the other guy on the radio.
“Perhaps our Muse is really a muse,” Dancia stated. “I would have to say there is a strong possibility that they have met at this festival on at least one occasion.”
Joshua nodded in thought. “We should see what we can find about a poet that goes by the name Muse.”
Dancia glanced at the kitchen clock and then back to Joshua. “I have to get to work. You going to google Muse then?”
“Go ahead. If you get bored tonight, you can monitor the IRC and do some searches.”
She helped him clean up the pizza and beer before she left. Joshua appreciated her help and he told her to stop by when she got off work, he would be going in a little later this week so they could compare notes. After she left, he sat down at the radio and tuned around for a while. He didn’t hear anything so he retired to his computer room for a few hours of googling.
The first thing he did was write a program. A small Ruby script that parsed a Wikipedia page for words that were links and then searched Wikipedia for all the definitions found on the single page. The program kicked out a simple text file with all the definitions found on a single Wikipedia page. The file was updated whenever the Wikipedia page was altered. It actively polled the live page and adjusted its results in real time. It didn’t have to be that elaborate, but once he started writing the script, he could not finish until it was the best he could make it.
Two hours later, he hit the Muse article on Wikipedia and within seconds had a text file with all the many definitions of Muse found on the page. Then he set about doing searches on each word that interested him. He briefly thought about adding a search engine parser to the script, but realized that he would be programming more than actually trying to find what he was looking for – a connection behind any of the names of the Muses with a programmer whose hacker handle was Muse.
He took a break and went back into the kitchen for a drink of water. While he was filling his glass, he heard the radio come alive with conversation. It was Shemp and Muse; he knew it because they were speaking French. Following Amateur Radio protocol, they said their call signs in English.
Joshua scrambled to get his digital tape player and started recording as he sat down and listened. He had very little clue as to what they were saying, but he could tell that Muse was coming in much louder. He wondered if Muse was closer to him. She did say that he lived out West; maybe he was real close. That thought was not too comforting.
Joshua turned the fine tuner knob to see if he could bring in the signals better. He was having trouble hearing Shemp due to a wavering signal that seemed to fade in and out. An idea occurred to him as he found a cleaner signal. He wondered if Steve could some how locate Muse’s signal. Steve used to talk about doing something called Fox Hunts using his Ham radio gear. A bunch of guys with special antennas would drive around town looking for a hidden transmitter using triangulation and signal strength meters. Could something like that be done with High Frequency signals?
He pulled out his cell phone and dialed Steve’s number.
“Hello.”
“Steve, this is Joshua. Is it possible to locate a HF signal? You know like when you do those Fox Hunts?”
“Well, those are done using VHF or UHF signals, much closer to home. I suppose one could do something similar on HF, but you would need to have many Hams located all around the country or the world to isolate the signal. Even then you would most likely just be able to get the general area down to a few states.”
Joshua dropped his shoulders. “Oh.”
“Are you listening to your suspect?”
“Yeah right on the same frequency.”
“Is one of them coming in more powerful than the other for you?”
Steve was silent for a moment as he dialed in the frequency on his fancy modern rig. “Yep, but sometimes when conditions are bad, like right now, signal strength is not a reliable indicator of how close a signal is to you. Radio is kind of fickle in that way. He is coming in a solid S9. He could be local.”
“Do you mean local as in state or city?”
“Either.”
Joshua sighed. “He’s using a bogus call sign. I looked it up and it’s from a silent key.”
“Really? We could turn him in to the FCC, but it would be difficult to find out whom he really is. That whole process could take a while to resolve. His voice sounds funny to me. Like he’s talking through some kind of…”
“What?” Joshua asked.
“I think he’s masking his voice through a filter of some kind. Notice how he sounds like a really fat robot?”
Joshua was not sure if it were normal behavior for HF signals or not. “I did notice that.”
“I bet he’s using some kind of electronic voice scrambler, like they use on TV when a victim does not want to be identified.”
“That would fit. He’s using multiple methods to mask his identity.”
Steve sighed. “Damn idiot. People like him give Ham Radio a bad name.”
“Yeah well, he’s done more than break a few radio rules. He’s also a killer.”
“Right. You going to the police in the morning?”
“Yes. I just hope I can give them enough information to find this slime ball.”
“Good luck man. I gotta get to bed.”
“Me too, thanks Steve.”
“No problem, later.”
Joshua put the phone down and continued to listen to the radio. They talked for another ten minutes before signing off. Joshua turned off the recorder and then shut down the radio. He padded back to his room and went to bed. It was a little past midnight when he dozed off. Within an hour he was awake again tormented by the car accident. He lay in his bed and tried to forget the terrible images by reading Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother.

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