Null_Pointer Chapter 23

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 23

The uninterruptible power supply for the computer came on with a loud wail. Dancia let out a startled cry. After a second or two the power came back on again. Joshua and Dancia stood there looking at each other for a few moments.
“I guess it was just a flutter,” Joshua said, looking around the cabin.
“Scared the hell out of me,” Dancia admitted.
She picked up her backpack off the counter and headed for the stairs with it. “I’m going to put some clothes on. Be right back.”
Joshua found his clothes on the couch and put them on. He glanced out the windows and got an eerie feeling that someone was watching him. He couldn’t see far in the snowstorm so he dismissed it.
/*————————————————–*/
As Dancia walked up the stairs to the second floor she looked up at all the family pictures on display. There were pictures of Joshua as a little boy and then a young man. She figured he had a pretty awesome childhood.
The master bedroom was most of the top floor over the living room and the kitchen. It had a solid wall of windows that faced the river and huge dark wooden beams that angled down sharply from the steep A-frame roof.
Dancia flipped on the light switch and set the backpack down on the bed. Unzipping the pack, she pulled out a blouse and some jeans and underwear.
Taking off her robe she stepped into her underpants. As she was about to put on her blouse something bit her in the side. She absently swiped at the sting. She expected to remove some kind of a bug. Her hand came up with blood on it. She had been shot. In that fleeting moment she had just enough awareness and training to throw herself to the floor.
A second shot pierced the glass windows. It impacted the bedpost. Wood shattered. Dancia dragged herself behind the bed for cover.
“Joshua, shots fired!”
No response. The power went out again. The battery backup screamed like a siren. She lay there for a few moments, holding her side to stop the bleeding.
All the time she was in Iraq she had never been shot. Friends of hers had been shot, blown up and captured by insurgents but she had escaped injury. Until now. She had always been afraid that she would be shot and not killed. She didn’t think that she had the guts to stay alert and alive after getting grievously wounded. Despite her tough girl persona, she was a real wimp when it came to pain.
Lying on her left side, she was already getting light headed. The bullet passed clean through her. The exit wound was little more than the size of her pinky finger. Her adrenaline was pumping. Her head was surprisingly clear and calm. She knew she had to apply pressure to the wound. She started looking around for something to plug the hole and let her blood clot.
“Shit, it hurts,” she mumbled.
There were no more shots coming at her but she feared that Joshua would be next. She lay on her back and shouted down the hall. “Joshua, I’m shot!”
/*————————————————–*/
Joshua wanted to respond to Dancia’s plea, but the dark figure at the back door was holding a pistol and looking right at him. The man opened the glass door and stepped inside. Damn, I forgot to lock the stupid door! Joshua felt stupid for letting his guard down. Sweat started to bead on his forehead. The man seemed completely relaxed, as if he had just come in from a walk.
“Smells good, just the way your mother used to make it,” Taggert said.
/*————————————————–*/
Dancia had her ear to the floor and she heard someone talking. It was not Joshua, so she decided to be quiet.
She found her shirt on the bed and used it to stuff into the hole in her side. Her hands were bloody and there was a small pool of red on the green shag carpet. The pain came and went in relation to how much she moved. She got still again, listening to the floor.
/*————————————————–*/
Joshua could see Taggert’s lean face lit from a sudden flare up in the fireplace. The last log he put on finally caught fire and lit the room well enough to see what Taggert was wearing. He had a black watch cap on and a solid green guide parka, black ski pants and black GORE-TEX boots. There was a hunting rifle with a scope strapped to his shoulder. Snow was melting fast off his parka and cap as he faced Joshua in a relaxed stance.
Taggert noticed Joshua’s nervous glance upwards. “Don’t worry, I only grazed her. She’ll be alright,” he said without concern.
“How many people are you going to kill Larry?” Joshua asked.
“Oh, just about one more, I reckon.”
Taggert walked over towards Joshua, who slowly backed off towards the kitchen. There was a chef’s knife still on the island cutting board. Joshua tried not to look at it. Taggert picked up a fork and motioned to the spaghetti. Joshua nodded consent. Taggert took a large bite of the still warm spaghetti and chewed it slowly.
“Good, very tasty. A tad too much oregano for my taste, but not bad.”
“Finish it, if you want,” Joshua said.
Taggert put the fork down and turned to Joshua. “I didn’t come here to eat. I came hear to kill you.”
Joshua moved slowly behind the counter, keeping something solid between him and Taggert. He tried to remain calm, which was damn near impossible after what Taggert had just said.
“But first things first. Just how exactly did you figure out it was me who killed Zemo and Glenn?” Taggert patiently waited for an answer. He gave no inclination that he was ready to shoot Joshua. Joshua stammered through his explanation, using his hands to nervously punctuate what he said.
“Ah, well. We originally had thought you were Shemp. But, I heard you two talking on the radio about making another hit and then you attacked Dancia.”
Taggert held up a hand to stop him. “Wait, how did you know I was using the radio to communicate with Shemp?”
“One of you let the frequency slip in the chat room.”
Taggert looked thoughtful. “It was just a number, how did you deduce that it was a frequency?”
“I have a friend who is a Ham and he told me it could be a forty meter frequency. After that we just listened every night until we heard you talking.” Joshua didn’t want to divulge too much about what they had done. He didn’t want to put his friends in jeopardy too.
“I see. How did you discover the methodology I used? I assume you examined Glenn’s computer closely.”
Joshua was starting to get concerned for Dancia. She had not made any noise since she had called down to him and he wondered if she was still alive up stairs.
“Yes. I found your calling card in the code. Why did you do that?”
Taggert moved slowly back towards the couch and the fireplace. Joshua watched him and didn’t move, waiting for the right moment to grab the knife on the chopping block.
“I had to convince you that Glenn was murdered and that you might be next, so that you would begin your search for his killer. You see it was you that I wanted all along. Killing Glenn and that other kid was just to get you involved. I must say, you did a bang up job. Tell me something though, how did you discover that I was using an iTunes exploit to get your girlfriend?”
Joshua shrugged. “Oldest trick in the book, buffer overflow to a null pointer. Take down the application and replace it with a compromised version. What had me confused was how you got them hypnotized. I thought you were using Flash animation. But that was not your style. You’re a Perl guy, Larry. Like so many other masters of a single language, you tend to use it to solve every problem.” He was taking a risk in angering Taggert with that remark.
Taggert shrugged. “I actually used a good bit of C on this exploit. Perl is divine but even it has limitations.”
Joshua nodded. He looked down at the knife and wanted so badly to sneak it off the table somehow. He forced himself to remain calm and patient.
“I suppose you are wondering why I have gone to such extremes just to kill you?” Taggert turned to look at Joshua again, the light from the fire giving a warm glow to his harsh face.
“The thought had crossed my mind.”
Taggert walked slowly over to the island, he still held the pistol relaxed in his hand. “Did your parents ever tell you anything about me while you were growing up?”
“No. I think I always knew that you guys used to know each other, but that’s about it.”
Taggert smiled. “Interesting. Let me tell you a story about a boy, a girl and another boy.”
Joshua was listening, but he was not sure whether to believe what he was hearing. “Your father and I went to school together in Florida. We both got into computers and programming before Gates and Jobs were out of diapers. We saw where things were headed even if nobody else seemed to realize it. Your father had a good eye for coding. Did you know he created his own language while in school?”
Joshua shook his head.
“It was crude and not very flexible but I built him a compiler for it and we soon became rather close friends. He was dating your mother back then, the two were inseparable. He had to go off for an internship one semester and while the cat was away, your mom and I played.”
Joshua could not believe he was hearing this crap about his parents. But he pretended to be interested to buy himself time to think of something. Taggert went on about how he and Joshua’s mother had screwed around and when his father got back in town the truth got out.
“Your father was not a very forgiving man. He told me one night that if I ever tried to make a move on his girl again, he would flat out kill me.”
“You’re crazy! My father would never threaten anyone like that. He was the kindest person I’ve ever known,” Joshua said defiantly.
Taggert was taking particular pleasure in revealing the story to Joshua. He started strolling around the cabin, looking at things as he told his tale. “If any of us knew our parents as they were before we were born, I’m sure it would give us all a chill. He was in love and he was young. I knew when I was not wanted and I stopped seeing both of them. Besides, I knew your mother didn’t really like me like she loved your father. We eventually graduated and got jobs out in the real world. I thought I had seen the last of both of them, until they got engaged.
“Your father invited me to their wedding in Idaho. He had his bachelor party right here in this very cabin. We fished the river. Back then there actually were fish in it and we even went hunting.” He stopped next to a wall of pictures. Looked closely at one and then took it off the wall and tossed it like a Frisbee to Joshua.
“Here we are on the back porch with the buck that your father shot.”
Joshua looked closely at the picture. Five men were standing in front of a fallen buck. Joshua had seen the picture on that wall all his life but he never knew who some of the men were until now. One was Taggert. He was even holding the same hunting riffle that he now had on him.
Taggert pulled off his watch cap and set it down on the computer desk. He touched the computer keyboard with his fingers, ever so gently. “This is an old UNIX keyboard. Your dad always preferred the positive feedback and the no arrow keys layout.” Taggert seemed lost in thought looking at the gray and white keys.
Joshua eyed the knife again, moving closer to it, trying to think of a way to use it to defend him. If he were a hero in a movie, he would just pick it up and throw it into Taggert and kill him. But he was not an action hero; he was just a geek. It was not in his nature or his realm of experience to attack and kill anyone.
Taggert turned back to face Joshua. “Your father used to be a very smart and gifted programmer. But after the wedding, he seemed to become more involved in management and spent less time actually coding. He rose quickly in the ranks at RegTech, moving from one division to another, gaining more responsibilities, earning more and growing in popularity within the company.
“Eventually, he never came around slumming with us grunts in the trenches anymore. It wasn’t expected of him by upper management I’m sure. But before long the company started to make business decisions that were more based on profit than technological know-how. They started to take away benefits and even retirement plans. RegTech grew into the faceless, international company that it is now.”
Taggert began to walk around the room again, his back to Joshua for a brief time. In that moment, Joshua grabbed the knife with his right hand and held it behind the island. Joshua’s palms were wet with sweat as he held the handle of the chef’s knife firmly. It was his father’s favorite kitchen knife. It had a heavy blade and a thick handle for big hands to easily grip.
Taggert moved in front of the fireplace and turned to face Joshua. He shifted the pistol in his hands as if it were getting heavy.
“This is all very interesting Larry, but it doesn’t explain why you want to kill me.”
Taggert grinned wryly. “My pension was just dropped. They are making me retire early by offering me a buy-out. It’s cheaper for them to send me packing with some cash than to provide for me in retirement. I got nothing left. No job, no retirement and no respect from punk coders like yourself.
“Your father was a brilliant programmer. But I was better than him, more intelligent, more insightful and more creative. Your father’s analytical skills were impressive but he let them wither on the vine when he went into management. We used to play chess with each other, even after he left our engineering team. We used to tie each other more often then not. After he got married and we drifted apart, his game became less precise, more distracted. He no longer coded at all and before long, I was beating him nearly every time we played chess.”
Joshua was becoming distracted from what Taggert was saying by thoughts of what had happened to Dancia. Was she still alive? Was she waiting for some opportune time to come down stairs? Could she even walk? He told himself to calm down and stay focused on what Taggert was saying. He squeezed the knife in his hand and tried to think of a way to disarm Taggert. Joshua was a pacifist by nature. He was not interested in killing Taggert, only disarming him and letting the police do the dangerous stuff. But the police were not here and he was bringing a knife to a gunfight. Not the smartest thing he had ever done.
“What are you getting at Larry?”
Taggert’s eyes narrowed as he stopped talking for a moment. “You are smarter than your father ever was. I’ve seen your code; it’s not brilliant. But you have very keen powers of observation and an intuition for things that make you a formidable opponent. Not everyone would have figured out that Shemp and I were communicating via Ham Radio or that he was my Stooge, as you said.
“I have very much enjoyed our little cat and mouse game and I suspect that deep down inside, you have enjoyed it too.” Taggert’s lips curled into a twisted grin that made him look truly disturbed.
Joshua had to admit to himself that the past few days had been exciting in an intellectual kind of way. But he was not getting off on it in the same way that Taggert apparently was. For Joshua, he was avenging the death of a coworker and trying to protect his own butt. For Taggert it was some kind of a game that stimulated his ego more than anything.
“You’re a sick man Larry. But I’m not as smart as you thought. I let you trap me here in the middle of a storm with no way to defend myself. Sorry I was not a better opponent for you.”
“You were good enough, son. Good enough to keep me amused for some time. That’s about all I can expect out of anyone.”
Joshua couldn’t believe how egotistical that sounded, like he was so superior to everyone else on the planet. It made him want to defeat Taggert just to bring him down a notch. But it did not make him want to kill the man. Despite what he had done to Zemo and Glenn. Despite what he had done to Dancia.
Taggert knew this. He knew that he could not get Joshua to hate him by killing his coworker or wounding his girlfriend or even by insulting his father and slandering his mother. He knew that there was only one thing that would push Joshua Jones over the edge and make him go on the offensive. He was saving it for his final play, his check move that would force his opponent into action.
“Your parents did not die by accident on that mountain road. The brakes on their car were rigged to fail when they needed them,” Taggert said.
“I killed your parents, Joshua Jones.”
Joshua’s anger clouded his face.
“John turned away from the code and became just another cog in the wheel of a big, heartless machine that is RegTech. I saved him from himself.”
“You are one twisted son-of-a-bitch, Taggert.”

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