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Null_Pointer Chapter 11

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 11

It was a short ride down Federal Way past the Boise Depot to Steve’s house. The heater in Joshua’s Porsche barely had time to get warmed up. Steve’s house was a three-story custom home that over looked the city and the surrounding foothills. It was built in the mid 70’s and updated through the years by his parents. When they wanted to retire and move to Arizona, they sold the house to their only son.
Steve moved into the basement and rented out the main two floors. He charged outrageous rent and people paid for the spectacular views and close proximity to the down town area. He could almost live off the rent, but chose instead to keep his System Administration job at a local business.
He usually worked the graveyard shift, which left his evenings off free to talk all night on his Ham radios. The best propagation occurred at night on most High Frequency or HF bands. His position along the Boise Bench also aided in getting his signal out to the world and in bringing in signals from all over the planet. He had made contacts with other Hams in all 50 states including Hawaii and Alaska and was starting to work other countries in Asia and Europe. There was something about talking to another human being who lived far away by bouncing your signal off the upper atmosphere that was both technically cool and fashionably quaint in the modern world of instant digital communication.
In the back yard he had raised a forty foot main tower with a rotating beam for 20, 40, 60 and 80 meters, letting him point the antenna he was using in any direction by remote control. The setup was not uncommon for Hams active in HF signal chasing. He was in the process of raising a second tower that would be for 6, and 10 meters. Right now he was using a simple inverted dipole wire antenna for those bands. The backyard of his house looked like a small antenna farm, with guide wires running all over the yard. It made mowing the grass a bit tricky, but his renters didn’t have to worry about that, because Steve gladly did the yard work so they didn’t have to. He preferred that the renters didn’t even go in the back yard. There was a large wooden deck on the main level of the house and a small deck on the top level, so they could get outside without going down to the backyard.
Joshua parked in the roundabout in the front yard, leaving the main driveway free. He and Dancia got out and walked to the side of the house down a narrow footpath to concrete steps that lead to the basement level door. Steve had turned on the porch light for them so they could see to walk down the stairs. Joshua rapped his knuckles on the door a few times and after a minute Steve opened the door to let them in.
Steve was in his late thirties and wore black-framed “geek” glasses. His hair was salt and pepper where it once had been black and was cut military short, he wore the fashionable goatee and side burns popular with younger men. He was slim and stood a few inches over six foot. His face had a ready smile as he recognized Dancia.
“Hey guys, come on in.”
“Hi Steve,” Dancia said, as she came inside before Joshua. She waltzed into the place like it was her own home, as she often did at Joshua’s place. “Hey pug,” Steve casually said as she passed.
“Hope we’re not intruding,” Joshua said, wondering what that exchange was all about.
“Oh no, I never turn down visitors on a Saturday night, or is it morning now?”
Steve’s basement was the ultimate nerd pad. There was a small kitchenette off to the right and a narrow home theater to the left of the entrance with a fireplace in the corner and a plasma screen tuned to a Right Wing news channel. They followed Dancia down the short hall that lead to the main room where he had all his radio and computer gear. Dancia glanced briefly across the hall where Steve’s bedroom was. The door to his Ham shack had a picture of a big red circle with a line through a Microsoft Windows logo on it. Steve was somewhat fanatical about his dislike for the software giant.
Steve called the room a “shop” as it was still unfinished and had thick throw rugs on top of the concrete floor. A space heater was running near his main workbench. The room had large picture windows that looked out over the city and the surrounding foothills. It was an impressive view during the daytime, but not at night. Only their own reflections looked back at them through the windows like a mirror.
The lighting was from over head fluorescent tubes of the kind most people used in their garages. He had one old black desk with a matching wooden chair with springs that let you lean back comfortably in it. He had two twenty one inch LCD monitors on swing out metal mounts and a wireless keyboard with a trackball mounted to the right arm of the chair. His computers all ran Linux, of course, and the monitors displayed custom programs that let him monitor his radios and his servers remotely.
Behind the monitors were several custom built black wooden shelves containing high-end Japanese amateur radio gear. He had the latest and most expensive gear money could buy; the kind of radios that most Hams only dreamed about owning. He had them hooked up to antenna switch boxes and rotators. A nice cordless headset rested next to the keyboard.
His workbench was about twelve feet long and ran along the same wall facing the city. It had all manner of electronic test equipment. Everything from simple meters to advanced waveform monitors and temperature controlled soldering irons. Much of his equipment was new but a good bit of it was old and probably no longer manufactured. He loved to recondition old tube radios and he had some ancient devices that looked like they came from an old black and white science fiction movie.
Every few feet along the bench there was another unfinished radio or electronics project of some kind. Miles of coax cables and hundreds of test leads and cables with different connectors on them lined the space under the bench hanging from nails. All along the length of the bench were miss matched drawers filled with little electronic bits and pieces, tiny plastic drawers that fishermen used to keep their lures in, Steve stored – ceramic insulators, resisters, capacitors and tiny knobs.
There was an entire corner dedicated to old antennas and the parts for fabricating antennas out of metal tubes and rolls of wires from heavy gauge electrical wire to thin electronics wiring. Several antennas lay unfinished and waiting for some attention.
The middle of the room was filled with metal racks full of old radios and miscellaneous electrical devices making the room look like either a radio repair shop or a swap meet for electronics geeks. Towards the far right there was a rudimentary machine shop where Steve was known to build his own radio cases and just about anything that he dreamed up that needed a box to live in.
The back of the room seemed to be dedicated to a completely different hobby – guns. Steve was a proud member of the NRA and owned a respectable little collection of firearms. He had a bench dedicated to cleaning and working on his guns. He even had a nice Dillon Progressive reloading press in the corner. There was an American flag pinned to the back wall, just in case anyone questioned his loyalties.
“So what can I do for you guys?” Steve asked. He was wearing jeans and a black T-shirt that had a penguin armed with a big machine gun from a video game.
“We need to listen to that frequency to see if we can hear anyone talking.”
Steve moved over to his Ham station and plopped down in the chair. Its springs creaked under his weight. He moved a monitor up out of his way and fiddled with a digital radio dial.
“I’ve been monitoring it ever since you asked about it, nothing going on. Tuning around, I found some chatter a few clicks up the dial but they were talking French or Spanish or something.”
Dancia and Joshua looked at each other and frowned. If they were referring to a Ham frequency there was no guarantee that it was somehow code for another band. They may have been intending to talk at a different time on the given frequency. There were just too many possibilities.
“Steve, do you need all this fancy gear to just listen to that band?”
“Heck no, you could listen to this on a commercial receiver with a simple wire antenna,” Steve replied, still tuning around the band.
Joshua looked around the room at the stacks of old radios, “Do you think we could borrow a radio to do some listening with? It would only be for a few days, maybe a week.”
Dancia started to wander around the room, her dark eyes washing over in all the details. Steve got up and headed for the racks. “Sure, I got plenty of old rigs that would work for you.”
He pulled an old brown radio with a big dial on its face off the rack and hauled it over to an empty spot on the long test bench. Moving around the bench like a surgeon around an operating table, he quickly assembled the parts and pieces for a complete radio.
“You can set this up just about anywhere and it should work with a simple dipole antenna. Hang on a few and I’ll make you one.”
Joshua nodded as he watched Steve pull some coax cable and start building the wire antenna. Joshua never really was into radio technology, it all seemed too old fashioned and low tech to him. But he loved to watch a skilled tech build something from nothing. He often spent many hours watching shows on TV that were about people making things like motorcycles or cars. It was a part of the unwritten Hacker ethos that fueled his curiosity for things mechanical as well as things digital. When he was a kid, he lived inside those books with detailed exploded views of everything from microwave ovens to aircraft carriers. If it were manmade, Joshua was always curious about how it was put together.
Dancia was over looking at the open gun locker. She noticed a few new additions to Steve’s collection. There was a nice new Ruger 10/22 with a black laminate stock sitting in a cleaning rack. She ran her fingers down the metal barrel and took in the smell of the laminate and the gun oil. It brought back very real experiences that she had tried unsuccessfully to lay to rest. She recalled the last time she and Steve were on the local outdoor range plinking with rifles. Steve loved guns and was very macho about his knowledge of them, but he was a lousy shot. He preferred making modifications and cleaning his pieces to actually putting rounds down range at a target. He didn’t even like to hunt.
That was fine by her, since shooting was more than enough to trigger uncomfortable memories from her time in the sand box.
She had first met Steve a few years ago when she was hired to assist him in the UNIX shop where he worked. She was the gofer and back up tape jockey, eager to learn UNIX and system administration. He was the wise, older guru who seemed to know all the obscure inside knowledge about computer systems. She was a quick apprentice and after about six months she had learned more than he knew and had bagged him in the process. Not only was he limited in his computer skills; he was not that interesting physically for her to bother with for too long. She realized he compensated for not knowing everything he claimed about computers, by dazzling people with his knowledge about radios and electronics. Whenever anyone got too deep in the details of something that he didn’t really know very well, Steve would somehow manage to steer the conversation back to radio theory, his comfort zone.
To Dancia, once she figured this out about Steve, she became less interested in him and soon broke off their relationship. She quickly got a better job and was making more than him even though her computer experience was about one quarter that of his. Guys like Steve found their little niche and then never cared to advance further, fearing the ranks of management or change in general. Steve was in charge of the UNIX group at his company and he had no ambitions to move up or move on. He was a big fish in a little pond and he liked it that way. Not two months after she had moved on, he had hired another newbie girl and was cheerfully passing on his wisdom to her.
Steve finished up the antenna and started going over how to tune the radio and set it up with Joshua. Joshua listened very astutely, making Dancia smile as she watched them. She knew enough about radios from working with Steve to have confidently set up the little Hallicrafters receiver by herself. But it was still cute the way Joshua soaked up new and interesting things. He was like a kid on Christmas day, waiting for his father to finish building a new toy, so he could play with it.
They were just finishing up as she came back to them. Joshua picked up the radio and Steve gathered up all the accessories.
“Looks like we’re set. Steve, thanks again for your help man.”
“No problem. If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to call.”
“Thanks Steve, it looks like we’ll be busy for a few days anyway,” Dancia commented as she held the door for them.
Joshua headed out the side door and up the stairs to the car, Steve and Dancia held back. He waited until Joshua was out of earshot before speaking.
“So, are you two seeing each other?” Steve said his tone smug.
“Maybe. It’s really not your business, Steve.”
“You’re right. Does he know about us?”
“No, and please keep it that way for now, okay?” She glanced at him over the top of her black rim glasses. He laughed and headed out the door first. “No problem, Pug.”
“Stop calling me that,” she said, hitting him in the back. Pug was his nickname for her when they were going out together. He thought she was a little firecracker, which reminded him of a fireplug and somehow he managed to get pug out of all that. She really didn’t like pet names and that one really annoyed her. It reminded her that she was short and possibly fat. He liked using it because it annoyed her. They made for a real dysfunctional couple, which had a lot to do with why they broke up.
Out at the car Joshua had tucked the radio into the back seat and covered it with a throw blanket that he kept in the trunk. Steve handed Joshua the antenna parts. “Give me a buzz if you have any troubles.”
“Will do. Thanks a bunch Steve.”
“No problem, just remember to tune around, you may get lucky, providing they stay on that band. Let me know how it goes, you got my curiosity up too.”
Joshua shook Steve’s hand as Dancia got into the Porsche.
“We will,” Joshua said, stepping into the driver’s seat.
Steve watched them pull out and then went back inside.

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