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 slapped the snooze bar three times then noticed he was late and rushed into the shower. He could shave, brush teeth, relieve himself, shower and dress in under 30 minutes. This morning Nix had pooped all over the floor in the hallway, so he lost some time cleaning that mess. The thought occurred to him again to get rid of the poor old animal, but he knew he could not do it. He usually didn’t bother eating breakfast just grabbed a coffee at a drive through place on his way into work.
It was a Monday and it was his first day back at work after Glenn’s death. The traffic was light to moderate heading West through Garden City. He was lucky to live down town because it meant he was commuting against the flow of traffic into Boise. He had enough time to guzzle most of his coffee before cruising into the main gate at RegTech. It was just after eight and the parking lot was full. He had to park farther out from his building, which made for a cold walk on a crisp, sunny morning. The wind was blowing harder than usual from the West, which meant a front was moving in from the Pacific coast. He noticed the high stratus clouds and understood that rain or snow was less than forty-eight hours away.
He thought about heading out to the airport after work and messing around with his dad’s Cessna 120. He liked to work on it whenever he needed to think something through. Cleaning the grease and bugs off the classic plane seemed to relax his mind and let him think without any distractions. There was no Internet, no friends popping by and no phones, provided he turned his cell off, which he frequently did while he was in the hangar. He pushed thoughts about the airplane from his head, hard as that was. He had to get back into the swing of things and focus on his work. There would be many distractions today and he knew it would be tough to concentrate.
Walking up to the outside door of building four he swiped his security badge and opened the glass door. He felt like everyone in the building was looking at him even though hardly anyone paid him any attention at all. When he got to his row, he slowed down as he passed Glenn’s cube. There it was, empty and clean. Just two days before it had been the home of someone who worked here, now it was just another empty cube, soon to be occupied by another person. Any evidence of who used to work in the space would be gone forever. He thought about the transitory nature of work cubes and how many different people had lived in each cube over the years. There was really very little of Glenn left behind in his cube. His spirit survived in the code that he had written, but even that would no doubt change over time and at some point be completely thrown out for the latest technology.
Information workers rarely had anything substantial or real that you could hold in your hands and say, ‘I worked on this item and a little bit of my soul is inside of it.’ More often then not, there were only temporary bits and bytes of information that could be lost forever with a stroke of a key or a random hardware failure. At least an Architect could point to a building and say that he designed it. Although, time and nature could render that building a pile of rubble just as easily as any careless user could destroy a code file. That thought made Joshua realize that what he did was not always as fleeting as it seemed.
He put his book bag down in his cube, sat down and turned on his PC. While he waited for it to boot up, he picked up his phone and listened to a couple voice mail messages waiting for him. One was from RegTech Security, reminding him to come down and sign something; he didn’t really care about the details. Two more were from coworkers expressing their sorrow for Glenn’s untimely passing. The phone messages got him in a down mood, so he dug his iPod out and dialed up some happy tunes. He sat and listened to “In the Garage” by Weezer, as he read through his emails and opened the programs he always used. By the time he finished getting organized he was ready for a break and a fresh cup of coffee. He locked his PC and picked up his cup that still had old coffee from Friday in it. On his way to the coffee station, he stepped into the men’s room to wash it out.
As he was rinsing the cup, someone came out of the stall and nodded to him. It was Larry Taggert, the UNIX guy from a few rows over. Taggert never said much to anyone and Joshua didn’t expect him to say anything now. Joshua wiped out the cup with a brown paper towel as Taggert washed his hands.
“Didn’t your supervisor give you some time off?”
Joshua looked up. “Huh? Oh, yeah, but I’m all right. Besides, I’ve got some work to keep me busy.”
Taggert looked at him with a concerned eye.
“You look tired. Have you been getting enough sleep?”
Taggert nodded and managed a thin smile. “Take it easy then.”
“Thanks,” Joshua said. He ducked out of the room and headed down the hall. That was weird. Guy never speaks a word to him in years and then out of the blue is all concerned for him. Maybe he felt he should look after Joshua having been a friend of Joshua’s father years before. Joshua figured the whole day was going to be like that, uncomfortable encounters with coworkers until everyone had said their condolences.
He filled up his cup with fresh java and dumped a couple packs of sugar and a creamer in it. While he was stirring his coffee another coworker came up and offered her condolences. It was Stacy Grimes, the Copywriter on the web team. She was a bit mousy and wore wire-rimmed glasses. She hid behind straight brown hair that dropped in front of her eyes when she looked down, which see seemed to always be doing. She was painfully shy, but she knew grammar rules better than anyone he had ever known.
“Sorry about Glenn. You doing okay Joshua?”
“I’m okay. You?”
She looked up at him briefly, as if nobody ever asked her how she felt about anything. She nodded, and then quickly went back to her cube. Joshua walked back to his cube and avoided eye contact with anyone. He turned his music on again and sipped his coffee. His mind wandered as he looked over the code he had been writing on Friday, before the interruption.
He thought about how someone would write a Flash program that could hypnotize a viewer. Technically, the mechanics of Flash allowed for just about any moving image to be manipulated with underlying code. But you would have to be familiar with the technique of hypnotizing before you could design such a program. That got him thinking about what qualified someone to be a hypnotist. Did you take classes? Learn at someone’s side, like an apprentice? He did not know. Obviously, if the killer used that technique, he not only knew how to code Flash but also how to hypnotize someone.
Joshua opened a browser and started searching for anything on Flash and hypnosis. While exploring, he found that virtually anyone can learn to hypnotize themselves or others. Experts recommended that you learn from certified individuals and that you only use the condition to help improve yourself or others. He wondered what damage could be done to someone under hypnosis if your intent was to harm instead of to help. He searched for examples of people dying as a result of being hypnotized and came up empty. Either it was not easy to do, or people did not want to admit that it was possible to avoid further injuries.
His search stretched out for hours and he realized that he was getting very little work done. Then he came across a reference for something called Binaural Beat music. When the brain is presented with two beats that were below 1000 Hz and they differed no more than 30 Hz, the two beats combined and became a binaural beat that could put the brain into an altered state. This altered state, can then be used to hypnotize someone. Joshua slowly began to make connections about how Glenn and Zemo could have become hypnotized. Both of them were wearing earmuff style headphones that had the added ability to isolate them from back ground noise. If they were subjected to this binaural beat music they could have been slowly hypnotized without even realizing it. They may not have even needed a visual stimulus.
If that were the case, then Muse would not have to be a Flash programmer at all. Either that, or if he did use Flash in the seduction, it may have only helped to move the victim into a more suggestive state quicker than with only the music. He thought about that for a while. Muse would have to have possessed detailed knowledge of music and electronics to create the binaural beats. They already know that Muse was into Ham radio, which still required its participants to understand at least basic circuitry if not advanced theories about sound wave propagation and creation. So theoretically Muse would have enough know how to pull off hypnotizing someone. The only thing missing was just exactly how he was able to kill them.
Joshua could not even imagine how hypnotized people could allow themselves to die. Everything he had read suggested that the patients being hypnotized would never allow themselves to do anything that they were morally averse to doing while conscious.
Joshua googled some more for possible deadly side effects of hypnotizing a person, sifting through the returns with care and found another interesting tidbit. But it had nothing to do with hypnosis. He came across a study about death from fright. Apparently, Air Force test pilots are routinely monitored for vital signs while they put new aircraft designs through their paces. Many pilots, while trapped in fatal dives were found to have their hearts stop beating moments before impact. They were literally scared to death before they died. Rapid amounts of endorphins pumped into the body during such traumatic events could cause heart failure.
Joshua stopped reading and sat back in his chair. What if Muse was able to convince his victims that they were about to die? Could they have been frightened to death? A cold chill ran through Joshua, causing goose flesh on his bare arms. In order to pull that off Muse must have known what each person was most afraid of in such detail that he could suggest to them that their fears were real. It still sounded far-fetched to Joshua, but he knew he was on to something.
Someone stood before the entrance to Joshua’s cube, breaking him out of his thoughts. It was Nik Dean, a coder from the test team that played in a local metal band. Nik was a lean, longhaired guy dressed in torn jeans and a T-shirt that read “Me worry?”. He also wore an old leather jacket that had seen better days. He was a drummer for the band and he always seemed to be moving, keeping time to life.
“What’s sup?” Rik asked.
“Hey Nik, not much. You?”
Nik came inside Joshua’s cube and plopped down in the guest chair. He seemed to occupy the chair like a spider would – all spread out with limbs bent over it.
“I guess our little break club just got smaller.”
Joshua nodded. “You need a fix?”
“Yes, let’s go.”
They got up and headed down the rows of cubicles to the back entrance of the building. There was a designated smoking area tucked under the eve of an adjacent building. As soon as they were outside, Nik had lit up a cigarette and was puffing it as they walked over to the picnic table. Joshua stood upwind to avoid the smoke.
“I never figured anyone would die before me. You know, due to my insane lifestyle and all.”
Joshua grinned. Nik was either drunk or high depending on what time of day it was. He was real good at keeping it clean at work, but the guy could party with the best rockers. Joshua had been to several of his gigs at local clubs and took an interest in what Nik had to say about his music and life in general. For a metal head, he was pretty deep at times. Joshua liked that about Nik. To look at him you would immediately label him a loser, but he was actually a centered individual who knew where he came from and where he wanted to go. Joshua respected that about him. He also loved the band’s crazy fast drum solos that Nik pounded out with ease.
“Don’t say anything to anyone, but I don’t think Glenn died of a heart attack. I mean, he prolly died of heart failure, but I think it was induced by someone,” Joshua said, after making sure nobody was around to hear them.
Nik got a serious look on his face as he took a drag.
“You think he was murdered?”
“Yup. You hear about that coder in Germany who died?”
Joshua could not believe someone did not know about that, but then Nik was only into coding at work. He was real good at it, but he never hung out in chat rooms or visited geek sites like Slashdot or Digg. He was more often playing games on his home PC or hanging out on his MySpace page, mixing it up with groupies of his band.
“This coder kid was found dead and the police ruled it murder because they found a calling card in his source code. It’s all over the internet man.”
Nik thought about it for a minute. “So, like you think Glenn was killed by the same guy?”
“I know it. I found the same message in the code he was working on the day he died.”
Nik shook his head in disbelief. “Man that’s messed up. You tell the cops yet?”
“No, I’m actually trying to figure out who did it first. I’m real close to figuring out how it was done and who did it. As soon as I know for sure, I’m going to the cops.”
Nik walked around, tapping his foot to some unheard beat. He smashed his cigarette in the table and took out his pack to knock out another one. After tapping on the pack a few times he took a fresh one out and lit it with a Bic lighter.
“So, how do you think he was killed then?”
Joshua sat down on the table and put his feet on the seat. “I think they were hypnotized and then while they were under a trance, the killer convinced them that they were going to die. Maybe took advantage of some fear they each had. Made them think that they could not survive something. There is some evidence that fear will send large amounts of adrenaline to the heart, enough to stop it.”
Nik started pointing for emphasis as he spoke. “I’ve heard of that man. You know what else it could have been?”
Joshua shook his head.
“Arrhythmia, the irregular heart beat. Certain snare drum rhythms have been know to cause people’s hearts to get messed up. Some have died from it.”
Joshua’s face clearly displayed his disbelief. “That’s an urban myth, has to be.”
Nik shrugged. “I’ve heard it from many musicians.”
Joshua grinned. “Whatever. Have you ever felt it?”
“No, but that’s because I’m causing it. I’ve heard bassists and leads say they can feel it if they are near the bass speakers at a concert.”
Joshua was not convinced, but he let it slide. Nik finished up his cancer stick and they walked back inside. Nik went back to his cube and Joshua loitered around the main hallway. Should I go out somewhere or just settle for a cheeseburger at the campus choke and puke? Neither sounded appetizing to him.
He strolled past Lawrence Taggert’s cube and looked at the poster of the moon on his outer cube wall. There was something familiar about that moon poster. Then it hit him. It was the same poster that was behind Ed Asner’s desk in that seventies sitcom Mary Tyler Moore. He forgot that Taggert was that old. Joshua’s parents used to watch that show and he remembered seeing it on Cable TV not too long ago. As he was standing there lost in thought, Taggert came out of his cube.
“Hey man, what’s up?”
Joshua stuttered. “Ah, I was just looking at this cool poster.”
Taggert looked at the poster and then back to Joshua. “Your dad gave me that years ago. I think I must have said something about it one night when we were watching TV. A few weeks later he came in and handed it to me in a cardboard tube.”
“Mary Tyler Moore. That was the TV show,” Joshua offered.
Taggert squinted as if he were trying to recall the show. Then he lit up. “That was it. Ed Asner had it behind his desk.”
They both nodded in agreement before falling into an awkward silence. Finally Taggert shook his head. “I used to think NASA stuff was pretty far out. Your dad did too. You know he even worked for NASA once?”
Far out. You don’t hear that phrase much anymore.
“I remember him talking about it.”
“He was too good for them. They knew it too. That’s why he came here in the seventies and helped build RegTech. I followed him out here to the middle of nowhere. I should have stayed in the Sunshine state.”
Joshua didn’t really feel like traveling down memory lane. “Well, I have to go get some lunch. See you around, Larry.”
Taggert nodded and started walking towards the cafeteria. Joshua went back to his cube and plopped down in his chair. He didn’t feel like coding. He didn’t feel like doing anything. He logged on and did some searches for snare drums causing arrhythmia. Nothing turned up, just like he figured. He probably should not have told Nik about the murder plot. He hoped his friend kept his mouth shut, at least for another day or so.
Joshua considered going to the police after lunch, but he just couldn’t bring himself to do it until he knew who Muse was. It was starting to bother him more and more.