The Lafayette Project, a Tale of Deception and Elections is now available at Amazon!
Tap, Tap, Tap
Endless lines of code scrolling through the text editor …
No. Farther down
Here? Check the cheat sheet to be sure
Type the new section of code in now
… Looks good
Now send it to the code compiler
Wait for the next signal to come back
Is that the right address?
Good again … and done
Hard to believe such a small piece of code is about to change the world
* * *
Hi Ho Adversego!
A broad, Nevada valley stretched before Frank Adversego – stretched as far as he could see. Something about the vista pricked at his memory. Something about the way the mountains converged in the hazy perspective of the far distance.
Ah – that was it. This was the stretch of road he’d traveled in ghostly moonlight a year ago, facing the uncertainties of the future and wrestling with the demons of his past. Against all odds, the events that followed had laid most of them to rest.
This time his attitude towards the unknowns that lay before him was positive, expectant even. Ahead lay Silverlode, Nevada, with a population of 600 − as isolated an oasis of wandered-off souls as you could find in the lower forty-eight states. It would be a good place to try and write a book. Perhaps it would even be a best seller. Given his recent brush with fame, that wasn’t impossible.
The music on radio gave way to the news. He turned up the volume.
… brings the Republican field up to five candidates.
That’s a lot this early in the game, isn’t it?
Twelve years ago I would have said yes. But since then, campaign costs have skyrocketed – a candidate who waits too long to declare won’t be able to raise enough cash to make it through the first primaries.
Sad but true. We’ve entered the age of the billion dollar campaign. And the costs keep rising.
He turned the radio off. Heaven help us all, the election cycle was gearing up again, and just like last time, a bunch of improbable candidates had come yammering out of the woodwork. Anyone would think the doors of some political Bedlam had been thrown open, letting a mob of raving lunatics loose onto the primary trail. Incredibly, one after another had risen in the polls, too.
He realized he was driving over 80 miles an hour again, and took his foot off the gas. It was hard not to daydream on endless, straight as arrow roads like this. Braking, he noticed someone standing beside the road up ahead with his thumb extended.
Damn. City boy that he was, Frank was conditioned to regard all hitchhikers as presumptive murderers, hell bent on luring hapless good Samaritans to their doom. But the guy must have seen that he was slowing down, and it might be hours before another car ventured down this deserted stretch of road. Damn again. He really ought to do the right thing and stop. He kept his foot on the brake and the slim young man bent over to pick up his bag. The camper rolled to a stop just beyond him.
Frank looked warily into his side view mirror. The hitchhiker had his back to Frank and was now picking up a bike with a front wheel that suggested a Mobius strip having a bad hair day: bent spokes bristled out at every angle.
Well, he didn’t look too threatening, and it was clear why he was thumbing a ride. That was reassuring. But Frank was still annoyed at the prospect of straining to make small talk for the next few hours. He readily admitted to being a computer geek, and figured he must be at least fifteen years older than the hitchhiker. What the hell could they have in common?
He got out of the camper to help the cyclist strap his bike next to his own on the rack on the back of the camper.
“Here, let me show you how that works.”
The hitchhiker turned around. “Thank you for stopping. It is my lucky day. I have been standing here only one hour.”
Frank stopped in his tracks: he was staring at a short-haired, slim – and very attractive – young woman. And with a French accent to boot.
“Good. I mean, good I came along. Why don’t you go settle in? I’ll take care of your bike.”
He took his time doing that while she climbed into the passenger seat, her bicycle pannier bags slung over one sun-tanned shoulder. Now what?
Once more behind the wheel, he eased the camper into gear. Wondering what to say, he settled for the obvious.
“Where you headed?”
“It is north of Reno. And you?”
“Ah! So perfect! I can fix much on my bike on my own, but I cannot straighten a wheel rim. And I have not enough extra spokes. But I can have a new wheel sent to me there, I think.”
She gave him a bright smile, and then turned to look out the window.
They drove on in silence, Frank’s hopes for a pleasant spell of daydreaming now dashed. Instead, he was painfully conscious of his young passenger as he drove on, eyes on the road but distracted by the image of her dark, long-lashed, glittering eyes. He also recalled short, black, wind-blown hair, warm, sun-tanned skin, and cheekbones that inspired him to wax metaphorical – cheekbones like . . . like the vaults of a gothic cathedral! He felt briefly pleased with that, and then foolish. He wondered how old she was.
He kept his now-gloomy eyes on the road. Long divorced and solitary by nature, it had been ages since he had found himself in close proximity to such an exotic creature. He wondered what her story could be, traveling alone in this empty part of the country. Eventually, his curiosity got the better of his awkwardness.
“What’s in Gerlach?”
“The Burning Man festival. Perhaps you have heard of it?”
“Yes, I have.”
Which was true. But he hadn’t heard much. All he knew was that every year tens of thousands of latter-day hippies and countercultural types descended for some unimaginable reason on a sun-blasted salt flat in Nevada to build a temporary, psychedelic city dominated by an enormous, vaguely humanoid statue. A week later, they would torch the statue as the climax of the event, and the city would disappear as quickly as it had materialized out of the shimmering heat of the desert. Frank was even more uncomfortable around flamboyant people than he was around mainstream types. He was about as likely to attend a Burning Man festival as he was a debutante ball.
Silence again. It bothered Frank that he had found this young woman on a deserted road. He had a daughter back east who was only a little younger, and he’d be furious to find her hitchhiking anywhere, let alone in the middle of an almost uninhabited desert. To the extent anyone lived here, Frank was disposed to assume the worst. How strange would you have to be to live in a place like this, anyhow?
It was clearly none of his business, but finally he asked, “Don’t you think it’s dangerous for a young woman to be hitchhiking in such a deserted area?”
“Oh no,” she said, still looking out the window.
No? Clearly, this young French woman didn’t understand America and Americans. “Well, you’re wrong, let me assure you!”
“I think not. But in any case, I do not worry,” she said, fumbling for something in the pannier bags at her feet.
Surprised, Frank stumbled over how to explain something he thought was obvious to an attractive young woman he did not know who was not a native English speaker.
“Well, what would you do if someone picked you up and tried to, tried to, well … force his attentions on you?”
She laughed. “Shoot him!”
Frank turned to her in surprise. Arms crossed, she had a playful smile on her face and a small gun in her hand. The gun was pointed at his head. She waggled its barrel back and forth and silently mouthed the word “Bang!”
He jerked his head back to the road, eyes wide as saucers.
For a minute there was silence again. Then she giggled. “Probably I would not really have to shoot him. But one must be prepared to, no?” She slipped the gun into a pocket and returned to looking out the window.
Frank decided that he had exhausted his conversational skills as well as his need to know anything more. He wondered how much longer it would take to get to Silverlode.
A half hour later, his passenger abruptly became talkative.
“My name is Josette,” she said. “And what is yours?”
“Frank,” he offered after a pause.
“You are on vacation, yes?”
“Not really. I’m writing a book.” Frank tried to sound nonchalant, the way he imagined a famous author might.
“A book! But that is so interesting.” She looked around the inside of the camper. “This is a very impressive vehicle. If I may ask, what are all those controls?”
This was a topic he could handle. “Electronics mostly, all satellite based and with service available anywhere: telephone, GPS, Internet, seven bands of radio, you name it.”
“I see. With so many instruments, I suppose you must have a generator, too?”
He shook his head, feeling a bit smug. “No. The top of the camper is covered with solar panels. I could run everything day and night, and never run the batteries all the way down. At least not in a place like this.”
“Ah! Very good thinking.” She pulled an ultra-light laptop out of her pannier bags. “So I may perhaps use my computer to check my email, yes?”
“Yes, with a password. Would you like it?”
“Would you mind?”
He paused; he wasn’t used to sharing a password with anyone. But his router was set to prevent anyone but him from archiving a password, and good luck to her if she could remember his.
“Not at all. N!t2T3f$a5G ^m7T.”
Once again they drove in silence, broken only by staccato bursts of typing and his passenger’s occasional, musical laughter. For his part, he brooded unhappily over the fact that he was an out of shape, socially inept, middle-aged man sitting next to an attractive young woman who was as unmindful of his presence as he was acutely aware of hers.
With the sun going down, the road turned uphill, aiming for a pass in the ridge. After they passed through, a modest town appeared not half a mile ahead, snug in a fold of the mountain and illuminated by the brilliant rays of the setting sun.
“That will be Silverlode,” he said.
His passenger looked up. “Ah! That is very good. You will please let me off here?”
Frank was surprised once again. But he obediently slowed the camper to a stop, scanning the roadside and wondering why his passenger wanted to disembark just there. They both got out.
“Thank you for the ride,” she said as he unfastened her bike.
“Don’t you want a lift into town? I think there’s a motel there.”
“No. I have everything I need to camp.” She patted the heavy pannier bags slung over her slight shoulder. Then, half wheeling and half carrying the bike, she disappeared into the junipers that flanked the road.
He felt hollow and at loose ends as he motored slowly up Silverlode’s main street, passing a gas station, a motel, a fire station, a few shops and cross streets, and finally a small supermarket. He pulled in and hunted for the shopping list he’d shoved into the glove box that morning.
It was dark by the time he’d stowed away everything he would need for the next few weeks. It was time to find a place outside of town to park for the night. Ghostly, back-lit clouds scudded across the sky, intermittently obscuring and exposing the moon as gusts of wind rocked the camper. The temperature had dropped dramatically with the setting of the sun; the readout on his dashboard told him it was 38 degrees.
He wondered how Josette was faring, alone in the blustery darkness.
* * *
Fancy Meeting you Here
Frank was frustrated. He’d spent the last two days on his laptop and had nothing to show for it except make-work outlines and false starts. Lots of false starts. He ruefully admitted that he had not the slightest idea how to go about writing a book.
He stared at his latest lame attempt at an opening:
Never in the history of this great nation have we faced such a horde of vicious, invisible, insidious, and downright evil enemies. Each is more dangerous than the last, and the last cares as much for your welfare as Adolph Hitler. They must be stopped, and stopped now!
He wished he had brought a printer along so he could crumple that up and toss it in the trash.
After eight straight hours of failure near Silverlode, he’d driven off to the same mountain pass where he had spent weeks of difficult but exhilarating cybersleuthing work the year before. He parked just where he had then − even set up his folding chair in the same place, where he could once again ignore the fantastic scenery that spread before him as he focused on the challenge at hand.
But no luck here, either. After another day’s clumsy effort he still hadn’t written anything worth saving. One sentence – couldn’t he write even the first sentence better than a seventh grader?
He snapped his laptop shut and stomped from his chair to the camper. After exchanging his laptop for a beer, he stomped back.
Now what? He’d quit his job in the information technology department of the Library of Congress and ordered a MountainTamer expedition vehicle − the same kind of rig he’d rented the year before, but this time customized to his own requirements. It had cost a small fortune. He’d had this idyllic notion that he could just head back west and pick up where he had left off, substituting writing a book for solving the mystery that had taken over his life the last time around. After that he’d live off the royalties for a while and figure out what to do next.
But there was no urgency driving him this time. No CIA and FBI scouring the country for him, and no evil genius to ferret out and foil. Just this stupid book idea taunting him with his inadequacies. He threw the still-full can of beer at a Ponderosa pine twenty feet away and missed it by five.
He started pacing back and forth, pulling up the mental list of past failures he kept at the ready for purposes of self-flagellation. Kicking pinecones out of his way, he luxuriated in the warm bath of self-loathing that best suited him in his blackest moods.
Ten minutes later he became dimly aware of a sound that had been building at the edge of his consciousness. Still only half aware, he stopped and turned to look out over the valley floor that lay thousands of feet below. To his astonishment, he saw a helicopter heading straight at him. It was only a quarter of a mile away, and closing fast.
He backed up and craned his neck upward as the roaring aircraft reached, hovered over, and then descended at the edge of his clearing, kicking up a cloud of dust and pine needles that nearly blinded him.
Eyes watering, he wondered what new strangeness was afoot, feeling like an awestruck earthling awaiting his first sight of whatever bizarre creatures might emerge from a UFO. Then one man, followed by another, jumped out of the helicopter and walked towards him, crouching under the still-spinning blades. To his relief, he recognized one of them.
“What the hell are you doing here?” he yelled over the descending register of the engine’s whine, reaching out to shake hands with his former boss. Publicly, George Marchand was the Chief Technology Officer of the Library of Congress. But Frank had learned in the course of his recent adventures that this was the cover for one of the CIA’s top cybersecurity strategists.
“I want to introduce you to someone,” Marchand yelled back, gesturing to his companion. “This is Len Butcher.”
Frank took his visitor in as he accepted his limp handshake. The man’s profile ran in a nearly straight line from the tip of his long, bony nose to the margin of an almost white buzz cut. The overall effect was rather weasely. Frank decided the guy was probably some variety of creep, exact type yet to be determined.
He turned to George, “How did you know where to find me?”
“It’s our business to know where people like you are,” Butcher interjected. His adenoidal voice slipped neatly into the negative profile Frank was assembling for him.
“Oh, really? And who might ‘we’ be, not to mention, ‘people like me?’”
George cut Butcher off before he could answer. “How about we go inside?”
Frank shrugged and led the way. Behind them, the helicopter pilot strolled around the clearing, checking out the view and looking with curiosity at the field of charred and twisted metal wreckage strewn below him. Flowers and grass were only just beginning to reclaim what must have been a pleasant mountain meadow before some unknown, violent event had burst upon the bucolic scene.
Once they were seated inside his camper, Frank leaned back and crossed his arms. “So what gives?”
“Frank, Len works with another government agency. They’re aware of the essential role that you played in cracking the Alexandria Project, and they’re hoping they can recruit you to help track down a new group that’s also proving tough to find.”
“Thanks for the vote of confidence, but that’s not what I’m up to these days.”
“That’s what I told Len. But this is pretty important, so here I am. That, and the fact that the Director of the CIA promised the head of the other agency that we would do whatever we could to help persuade you.”
“What’s the other agency?”
“That’s not important, Frank. As a matter of fact, you wouldn’t recognize the name of the agency if I told you, which I’m not at liberty to do. As you know, things have changed a lot since 9/11. There are more than a hundred U.S. intelligence units now, within existing agencies as well as stand-alone outfits. None of the new independent units have been publicly disclosed, and this is one of them.”
Frank turned to Butcher, “So what does it say on your identification?”
“When I’m working on this project, it says I’m an executive of a computerized voting machine service company,” Butcher said, taking a plastic card out of his wallet and handing it to Frank.
“Anyway, Frank, that’s why I’m along for the ride, to credential Len for you. Now how about we tell you what this is all about?”
“Okay, sure. I can at least listen.”
Butcher leaned forward.
“So tell me, Frank. Been paying any attention to the upcoming presidential election?”
“Some. The President’s going to run again, so no drama there. The Tea Party conservatives keep standing up one crazy whack job of a candidate after another. I can’t believe any of them stands a chance of taking a primary, let alone the Oval Office – or at least I hope not. And the mainstream Republicans don’t seem to have any candidates that people are very enthusiastic about.” He hoped Butcher was a staunch conservative.
“It is an interesting cast of characters, isn’t it? Have you heard any of the poll results, though? What people are saying about them?”
“No. Why bother? The primaries don’t start until January.”
“Because those ‘whack jobs,’ as you call them, are out-polling the credible candidates by double digits.”
“So what? That’s not unusual. It’s mostly just name recognition at this point.”
“Usually, yes. So how do you explain the fact that Julian Johnson and Roxanne Rollins are way out in front of Vance Cabot and Hollis Davenport?”
“Precisely. Makes you wonder, doesn’t it?”
“Maybe they’re just badly conducted polls. Or maybe they were taken in those candidates’ home states.”
“No and no. The polls were conducted in major cities across the country by top professionals.”
“Then their data’s flawed.”
“Indeed. So what does that suggest to you?”
“Somebody’s tampering with the poll numbers.”
Butcher turned to Marchand. “Your boy’s just as quick as you said he was, George.”
Marchand gave him a dirty look and jumped in. “At this point, we don’t have a clue who’s behind this, but we do believe someone is altering the data on the pollsters’ systems.”
“Fine. But these are just pollsters – so why does Butcher’s agency, whatever it is, care?”
“Well, as you may or may not know, the next election will be the first one where just about everyone will be voting on electronic rather than mechanical balloting equipment. In most states, they’ll even be able to vote using their smart phones. People will fill in their ballots in advance, and then just download them at the voting booth. So that makes it pretty alarming that someone’s tampering with poll data. For all we know, if they’re hacking polling systems now, they may try to hack voting systems later.”
“Okay, I’ll buy that.” Frank turned to Butcher. “But if you’ve got a hundred intelligence agencies plus the FBI to work on it, what do you need me for?”
“Here’s the thing. We haven’t figured out yet how they’ve penetrated the polling systems, let alone how they’re changing the data. Until we do that, it’s almost impossible to figure out who they are.”
“Maybe no one has. Maybe it’s employees with security privileges that are changing the data.”
“It’s not that, either. We had one of our own people input new data, and then read the results. Guess what? They don’t match − what came out is different than what we put in.”
“So? That just means someone got to the system before you used it. It’s already programmed to change the results.”
“Sorry. We used a brand new system, straight from the factory.”
“Then they paid a guy that works for the vendor to change the polling software.”
“No again. We’ve scanned the code against an earlier version – which does work fine − and they seem to match identically except for legitimate bug fixes.”
“Then the malware feature was just lying dormant in the older copy, waiting to be triggered by something. Did you check that out? No? Doesn’t your no-name agency have anybody working on this that knows what they’re doing?”
“Of course they do,” George said. “And so does the FBI. But so far, no luck. There are over two hundred thousand lines of code in the original software, and a lot of bug fixes and updates besides.”
Sure, Frank thought. And there were also computer chips and firmware that could have been replaced in the servers the polling software ran on. Not to mention software modules that could be reprogrammed remotely, and an Internet connection that would allow the software to call on external databases for information not found in the system’s memory. Any of those vulnerabilities could be the source of the problem. You’d have to check all of those meticulously, one by one. He began to think what tests he’d run in what order to find where the rat was hiding in the maze. It was an interesting problem.
“So what do you say, Frank?” Butcher said. “Want to show us how much smarter you are than our boys?”
Marchand watched the interplay between the two men. Butcher might not be a charmer, but he’d figured out mighty quickly which of Frank’s buttons to push to get him to sign on. Or maybe he’d read the file the FBI had put together on Frank a year ago. Of course – that was the explanation.
Frank frowned. He had to admit he was intrigued by what he’d heard. It sounded like a pretty good hack. It would be interesting to devise a plan to get to the bottom of it, and then see whether it worked.
But that wasn’t what he was here for. He’d been looking forward to getting away, making a clean break and getting a fresh start. After the revelation of his role in averting the crisis with North Korea, everyone at work thought he walked on water – at least for a while. But his old job was still painfully dull. Just a lot of ho-hum tasks, just like before. It wasn’t long before he felt bored and ignored again.
The call from a publisher therefore came at exactly the right time. Would he be interested in writing a book about how he had cracked the Alexandria Project? He decided on the spot that he would. The next day he handed in his resignation and put in his order for the customized MountainTamer expedition vehicle – something he could live in off the road for a month at a time. Then he headed out to Nevada to spend some time with his father while he waited for its delivery.
Becoming a best-selling author wasn’t looking so easy now. And he’d spent all of the publisher’s advance and most of his savings on the MountainTamer and the equipment he’d loaded it up with. Maybe he should be taking this new cybersecurity opportunity seriously?
“Let’s say I did. What happens next? I just paid a pile of money for this rig and was looking forward to doing some extended touring. And I’ve got this book I’m working on. I don’t want to set that aside.”
“No worries.” Butcher said. “We know you’ve got this camper set up to let you do whatever you want wherever you want to do it. In fact, we’d like it to look like you’re keeping to your original plans, so as not to attract attention. But we’ll give you up to the minute, unrestricted access to whatever information and resources you need. We’ll even give you a nice business card, just like mine.”
Butcher slid another card across the table. At the top was the service company’s name and logo, and below it were Frank’s name, a hologram, and an ID number.
“Big deal. What am I going to do with that?”
“That’s up to you. It may come in handy doing whatever you decide to do to get to the bottom of things. It’s even programmable – you can be whoever you want, when you want, and your name on the website will automatically update at the same time.”
“Do I get to wear a funny hat, too?”
Butcher frowned. “Whatever floats your boat.”
Frank was pleased that he’d finally gotten under Butcher’s skin. He stood up, took a beer out of the refrigerator and set it in front of Butcher.
“Have one on me. George, feel like taking the grand tour of my clearing?”
The two men stepped out and walked a dozen paces away from the camper. Across the valley to the west, angry thunderclouds were building above the purple silhouette of the mountains.
“So what do you think, Frank?”
“I don’t know. My last experience with the intelligence establishment wasn’t what you’d call a love fest. And those were public agencies with Congressional oversight, not ones that most legislators don’t even know exist. What would I be getting myself into?”
“I think everything would work out fine this time, Frank. You’d still have complete independence – no one expects you to become an integrated part of Butcher’s team. Last time around showed that’s how you work best. If you’re successful, that’s great. If you’re not, that’s the government’s problem. Any time you felt like it, you could simply walk away. I don’t know whether you’re still making a killing in the online game space, but if not, the money would be really good. Consultants to non-existent agencies aren’t tied to government pay grades or procurement rules, and that service company on the business card has a real office – even a receptionist. Not much else, but I can guarantee you their checks will clear.”
As a matter of fact, Frank’s second game idea had been a flop, and he hadn’t yet had a third. With his book prospects in doubt, his economic future was looking murky at best.
“Would I have to report to this guy Butcher? He wouldn’t be my pick for a detailer.”
“Not a problem. He’s a desk jockey, not a field manager. I can do a little interfering and be sure that you end up with someone you can work with. And you can contact me any time.”
George waited while Frank brooded, hands in his pockets and staring out across the valley. Intermittent flashes of silent lightning were now illuminating the angry interiors of the thunderheads massing in the distance. Overhead, skittering silhouettes of bats sketched erratic paths across the fading sky as a freshening breeze enveloped him in the exotic smell of dust and sagebrush from the valley below. Wasn’t just experiencing a place like this enough?
He kicked a pinecone. Well, no. He’d need something to focus on besides the scenery or he’d be climbing the camper’s walls in two days. And it didn’t look like writing a book was going to provide that focus – or an income.
He looked back at his camper, its windows aglow in the gathering darkness. In what way was this unexpected invitation not a gift? It seemed to be tailor-made to fill the inconvenient void created by his lack of writing success.
“Okay. I’ll do it.”
George clapped him on the back. “That’s great. I’ll go tell Len. Judging by those thunderheads, we’d better beat it back to home base unless you want company for the night.”
Five minutes later, the whine of the helicopter’s engine was receding in the distance. Frank felt his spirits lift as he watched the blinking navigation lights fade. To his surprise, he was happy to be back in the game.
* * *