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First the engine of the minibus died, and then the lights. In the sudden darkness, Frank’s light-bedazzled eyes could see nothing, leaving him temporarily immobilized. He heard the door to the VW open and close quietly. And then, a quiet voice from a shadowy figure by his side.
“Hello, Frank. How have you been?”
“Fine. And you?”
He heard a familiar, musical laugh. “I suppose I have some explaining to do, yes?”
“Yes, Josette, I suppose you do.”
As his eyes readjusted to the darkness, he noticed for the first time that it was a moonlit night. A single brilliant star – no, it must be a planet to shine so brightly – gleamed bravely through the pale white wash of moonlight that brightened half of the night sky. The air was cold and clean, with just a whisper of a wind. He was having trouble collecting his thoughts. Should he be angry? Happy? Suspicious? He needed a few moments to collect his thoughts.
“Let’s go to my camper. I can make you something to drink, and you can tell me what’s going on here.”
“No, Frank, not there. Get in my bus, please. We will find somewhere else to go and talk.”
Frank felt angry and hurt. Josette had been happy enough to climb into his camper when he had found her beside an endless desert road. But now that he had caught her hacking into his system she wanted to keep to neutral ground. What gives? But she was already climbing into her car, so he followed her lead, annoyed.
He was about to vent his displeasure when he saw that she had her finger to her lips. He stopped, thought better of it, and was about to begin again when she held her finger to his lips instead. Flustered at her touch, he turned and stared out the window of the vehicle, feeling simultaneously hurt, annoyed and helpless. It was not an emotional cocktail he found pleasant.
The unmistakable sound of a VW’s air-cooled engine coming to life filled the night. Josette let out the clutch pedal and eased the bus into gear. She drove quickly out of the lot, past the pool and the front office of the motel, and turned onto the brightly lit strip of motels, fast food restaurants, and gas stations that clustered around the highway intersection. A few hundred yards later, she turned into a nearly deserted burger chain restaurant and hopped out of the car. By now, Frank was seething. He intercepted her before she could go inside.
“Alright, I want to know right now why you hacked into my system, and what you were uploading? And what’s wrong with my camper, anyway? You were pretty grateful to hang out there before!”
Once again, she held her finger up to his lips. With her other hand, she reached up and pulled his head down to hers, until their eyes were only a few inches a part.
“Your camper - it is bugged,” she whispered. “Perhaps mine as well.”
She took her hands away and he slowly straightened up. Slipping her arm through one of his, she led him obediently into the restaurant.
A few minutes later, they were sitting across from each other in a brightly colored, uncomfortable booth, the only patrons in the dining room. Josette reached across the table and took one of his hands in both of hers. She looked up at him with concern.
“Frank, you must forgive me, please, for my rude behavior. I wanted to say hello to you when I saw you in the bar, but was not at liberty to do so.” Then she perked up, and gave him a coquettish smile before which he tried not to melt, at least visibly. “But now that you have caught me, what can I do?” She gave her musical laugh and looked at him over her coffee cup.
Frank tried to think objectively. Was she manipulating him? If so, who was she working for? More than that, the last thing he wanted was to be played for a fool by someone who must know how easily she could push his buttons. He tried to look stern. Pulling his hand away, he leaned back.
“You can start by answering my questions. What are you up to? And how did you hack your way into my system without a password?”
She looked genuinely surprised. “But Frank – you gave me the password!” He stared at her blankly, and then slumped down a little in his seat. Of course he had. The day he picked her up by the roadside she had asked for it, and he had given it to her without a thought, imagining that he would never see her again. Damn it! It seemed that every five minutes since he had met this beguiling French scamp she had managed to take him aback. How had she gotten so good at that?
“But still, it was wrong, and I am sorry. Let me start at the beginning, Frank. I will tell you everything, and perhaps you will forgive me, yes?”
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Isn't it time you read:
The Alexandria Project?
a Tale of Treachery and Technology
Remarkably accurate while consistently spellbinding: I ran across a reference to this book at a blog unrelated to the author, and after reading one chapter, bought the book
Great thriller: In the spirit of Vincent Flynn and Tom Clancy, this cyber-security thriller is a great read. Compelling characters, great detail and an an unsettlingly plausible scenario add up to a real page-turner.
Delightfully unpredictable! Updegrove has managed what many attempt but few can execute: a plot that is both credible and surprising....A great read - I can't wait for the next one!
Strong characters and compelling plot: I read a lot of novels and this is a very good one. The characters are believable and engaging and the plot is compelling with several clever twists along the way....Highly recommended
Excellent and accessible techno-thriller: Updegrove...clearly knows the subject matter inside and out, but is too self-assured and smooth a writer to hide behind that insider's knowledge....I look forward to Updegrove's next book with great anticipation.
Great Read: This is a very well written, highly engaging story. The scary thing about it is that the entire plot is far too possible to come to life.
Fantastic! The Alexandria Project is a gripping novel of intrigue and suspense. The characters may be fictional, but we all know their real-life equivalents. The storyline may be fiction - but maybe not.
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Len Butcher was sweating heavily. He had been doing well at the blackjack table for most of the evening, but then his luck had changed. Across the table, a wiry, middle-aged Anglo rancher with thinning hair and sun bronzed skin was making no effort to conceal his satisfaction at the turn in Butcher’s luck. Not half an hour ago, their roles had been reversed, and Butcher was the one who had been smirking as the pile of chips before him grew and grew.
The dealer swept the last of Len’s chips over to the rancher, who called across the table. “What’s the problem, cowboy? Somebody hustle the last of your herd?”
The other gamblers, mostly local Indians and ranch hands, laughed and waited to see how Butcher would react. His ears burning, Butcher was about to say something which he probably would have regretted, when someone materialized at his elbow.
It was a good-looking Native American in his thirties, wearing jeans, a dark shirt with mother of pearl snaps and hand-tooled boots. When the others saw him, their laughter suddenly stopped.
“I’ll spot him $500,” he said to the dealer. “That is, if you wish to play again, my friend.”
Butcher was torn. He was down almost $2,000. This wasn’t how he wanted to get back on his feet, but he couldn’t afford right now to let that much money go.
“Sure,” he said, “I could play a few more.”
The young man turned to the rancher. “How about you Bart - you in?”
“Yeah, Zee, I’m in,” the rancher said, his face looking sour. He glanced down at the large pile of chips in front of him with regret.
Zee gave the dealer a look and a nod, and the dealer added a new deck of cards to the shoe. After he laid the cards out around the table, Butcher tilted up the face down card in front of him: it was an ace, and he had a ten showing. This was going to be almost too easy.
Five minutes later, the rancher was looking crapulous. He knew what was going on, but now he was trapped, because the others around the table knew as well, and it was him the others were laughing at now. He couldn’t turn tail or he’d be a laughing stock.
Butcher would have liked to wipe the rancher out, but when their piles of chips were even, Zee put a hand on his shoulder.
“It looks like luck has come back, my friend. Come into my office for a drink, and you can tell me your secret.” He reached past Len and slid a half dozen of his chips across to the dealer with a wink.
Butcher followed the young man through a familiar door to the right of the bar and up a few stairs. In the dimly room beyond were an expansive desk, leather couch and a large glass coffee table. A window filled most of one wall; viewed from the other side, it was the mirror above the bar. A small but amply stocked bar filled one corner of the room.
“So, my friend. It is good to see you. How long has it been? Three weeks? Four?”
Butcher expected that Ohanzee White Crow, the manager of the Casino, knew exactly how long it had been. There wasn’t much that escaped his attention. In any event, it had been years since Butcher had gone as long as a month without setting foot in a casino, and at least a year since he had played the tables anywhere but here. Butcher well knew that you couldn’t be in his line of work and have a habit like this. If they ever found out back in Washington that he was a hard-core gambler, he’d be out on his ass without before night fell.
“Too long. And too bad our election game is all over. Somebody at another agency, maybe the FBI, must have figured out what was going on and fixed the software. But hey, what a ride while it lasted, right? You must’ve a bundle betting on the polls while it lasted! Must be one of the best hustles you’ve ever pulled off, I’ll bet.”
Zee had indeed done very well, but he wasn’t about to share that information. Butcher watched him closely. He was desperate to get out of the corner he had allowed himself to be painted into. As it happened, he had a drinking gambling problem, not to mention the fact that he grew arrogant and talkative when he was on a bender. He should have known better than to get into this mess. For that matter, the government should have known better than to hire him for a job in national security. But the background checks had been perfunctory when they stood up Butcher’s department, and scores more like it, in the wake of 9/11.
After all, terrorists could be anywhere, so there was no time to lose; the recruiters were much more interested in technical abilities, and there weren’t a lot of people anywhere with the kinds of skills they were looking for; allowances would just have to be made. And anyway, geeks like these would be invisible, working behind computers in offices, not doing work in the field. There shouldn’t be any opportunity for them to be turned or compromised.
Nor was Butcher’s agency supervised in the traditional way. By design, the hierarchy of these new departments was established using a “cabinet” metaphor. Each department was analogous to locked drawer, and no communication was allowed with any other locked drawer. Each cabinet in turn was like a drawer in yet another, larger cabinet, and so on up to the top.
It was all rather comical, really. After 911, the administration had created the Department of Homeland Security to unify the already vast and chaotic security apparatus that had evolved over the decades, so that the data sharing failures that had made 911 possible could not happen again. But that was for public consumption. Behind the scenes, the compartmentalization process was also being carried out, guaranteeing that any progress that might be made with data sharing on the one hand would immediately be cancelled out on the other.
As a result, no one, even those at the top, had direct visibility more than one level down into this vast and growing labyrinth of data eavesdroppers, aggregators and analysts. To be sure, no terrorist would be likely to succeed in penetrating very far into this system. But neither would any Cabinet officer, General or Admiral that was ultimately, if nominally, in charge of any “cabinet,” let alone the whole virtual filing room.
Paradoxically, this was the same concept upon which terrorist cells had been based – someone can’t disclose what they don’t know exists. In the case of the new US security infrastructure, the information discovered by one department couldn’t be leaked to another, so if any single department was compromised, only so much information could be put at risk. It could, and often was, however, endlessly duplicated by other departments at great expense. Indeed, thousands upon thousands of information technology and data analysis recruits were beavering away behind the doors of hundreds of fictitious companies, filling millions of square feet of anonymous office space inside the Beltway and beyond, often analyzing the very same data. Not only was much of their output of low value, but little was ever put to any real use.
All of this burgeoning, redundant and vastly expensive security infrastructure was largely invisible and unknown to the public. Only a few determined journalists had dug deeply enough into curious references in appropriation bills, opaque office lease information and other scattered clues to be able to connect the dots. Sometimes they were able to reach people on a confidential basis who were in the know, and also concerned about the enormous proliferation and cost of intelligence activities that even Congress knew little about.
All of which meant that no one was doing a very good job of keeping an eye on someone like Len Butcher. Still, he wasn’t taking that for granted. No Vegas Strip casinos for him; just two-bit casinos on out of the way Indian reservations from south central Florida to North Dakota to the southwest where he couldn’t possibly be recognized by anyone he knew. He could gamble all night in places like these without concern.
The problem was, Butcher stood out like a snowman in a cactus patch when he would show up alone, in a rental car, at a small, west of nowhere tribal casino at a time of year when no tourists should be around. Zee could smell a mark while he was still in the parking lot, and besides, Butcher had been careless. It hadn’t taken many drinks before he started to let it be known that he was some kind of big shot. And it hadn’t taken many more drinks before he was deeper in the hole at the tables than he wanted to be. Zee played Butcher perfectly, making him feel like the kind of high-roller that a casino treats like royalty, and discretely pulling out more details on who he really was.
Once Zee started extending him credit, Butcher was in trouble. It always seemed that his evenings started well, but ended terribly. He was a babe in the woods when it came to the tricks a good dealer could play, and by the time he began to figure it out, he didn’t care, because Zee was always there to extend his credit a little more. And what was a little more?
That is, until earlier that year, when suddenly Zee suddenly announced that it was time for Butcher to pay up. By then, Butcher was in the hole by more than $200,000, and with the housing crash, he was upside down on his mortgage, to boot. With two kids getting close to college age, what the hell was he going to do?
Zee was ready with the answer. Butcher had let slip the fact that he knew there was something going on with the poll numbers, and that he could predict what the next polls would show. When Zee seemed indifferent, Butcher was annoyed, and bet him $100 he could prove it. Zee was happy to take the bet, and when Butcher’s prediction came true, Zee sprung his trap. Before he realized what had happened, Butcher found himself faced with the choice of either paying up, or clandestinely feeding data to the casino manager. Zee even gave him a Lakota code name – Teetonkah – although he didn’t tell Butcher what it meant: “talks too much.”
In the beginning, Butcher had not been too concerned. Surely the hack would be discovered quickly, and he could report to Zee that the game was over. Instead, Butcher found himself sweating his way through the pre-primary season, supporting Zee’s bets with an ongoing flow of predictions based on the analysis performed by Butchers’ colleagues as one candidate more unhinged than the next entered the race and the polls continued to swing wildly. He had no idea how heavily or openly Zee might be betting – what if those who were looking for the hacker noticed? He had no doubt that Zee would turn him over in a heartbeat to protect himself.
By the time fall arrived, Butcher was desperate. That’s when he thought to enlist Frank. And now, finally, the nightmare was at an end.
Butcher gave Zee a confident look. “I must have quite a credit with you by now. But, you know, I’ve decided to take a vacation from gambling for awhile – quit while I’m ahead for once. Spend more time with the wife and kids – it kind of sits on your conscience after awhile, you know. Anyway, I was pretty deep in the hole at one point and you let me run, so why don’t we just call it even? Clear out my account and we’ll just shake hands and call it even.”
Zee gave a pleasant smile. “You have done very well, my friend, and yes, it was a good run. Here – let me make you a drink to celebrate.”
He poured Butcher a heavy drink and handed it to him.
“Here’s to the next president of the United States!” Butcher said with a laugh, a wave of relief washing over him. He was overjoyed that this dangerous episode was really over. He felt almost giddy.
“Say, don’t you want to join me in a drink? Make an exception just this once? Come on – let me pour you a stiff one!”
Zee gave him a taut smile this time. “Let me pour you a stiff one; where have I heard that before? It sounds so familiar. Tell me my friend, in all these times that you have gambled at Native American casinos, have you ever taken the time to drive around one?”
“Drive around one? Well, I don’t know.” He took an appreciative sip of his drink. “I mean, there’s not usually a whole lot to see, is there? All of the little houses tend to look the same – I guess the government gives these pre-fab houses to you, right?”
“Is that all you’ve seen?”
“Oh, I dunno. I guess a school – store – couple gas stations. I mean, there really isn’t a whole lot out here, is there? It’s mostly wide open country with some cows on it, right?”
“Actually, they’re referred to as ‘cattle.’ You’re correct, though, in observing that there isn’t much to see on a reservation. No water, for example. And certainly no natural resources – your people kept that land, didn’t they? No jobs, for sure. Or hospitals. You didn’t see a movie theatre, did you? Or a library? Why do you suppose that is?”
Butcher was feeling uncomfortable. He’d never thought about it, and didn’t have the vaguest idea. “I guess maybe there just aren’t a lot of people living on reservations, and they’re all kind of spread out. Just like the old days, I guess.”
“Ah, but you’re wrong about that, Mr. Butcher. In the old days, we had much more land – much better land – land that gave us everything we needed. Before the white man came, we were self-sufficient. Healthy, too, and strong. Now we are weak, and we are sick. Today the average Indian only lives to his mid-40s. Did you know that, Mr. Butcher?”
Butcher put his glass down. This wasn’t going where he wanted it to. “Gee, I’m sorry, I didn’t know that. I know your people got a really raw deal a long time ago – everybody knows that. But it’s better now, right? I mean, Washington gives you money, and you’ve got your own government and, I guess, police and everything? I learned that, for sure, first time I came out here! Don’t speed through the ‘ole Rez in a car with out of state plates!” Butcher forced a laugh and raised his glass in a mock toast.
“As a matter of fact, no, it’s not better now. In fact, it may be worse. Our unemployment is over 40%. The cattle you see are all owned by Anglo ranchers. The alfalfa you see is grown by Anglos on land they rent from us for a pittance, because what else can we do with it? The banks won’t lend to us to buy equipment to farm it ourselves. Half the people have diabetes. More abuse alcohol. Do you recall where the alcohol originally came from, Mr. Butcher?”
“Well, I guess your people must have made some yourself, didn’t you?”
“No, Mr. Butcher, we didn’t. When the white men came, they brought alcohol with them. When an Indian came to town, it was great fun to get him drunk - watch him stagger, maybe even fall down. And it was very profitable to take all he owned in exchange for alcohol, once he became addicted to whisky. You see, Mr. Butcher, Indians had never come in contact with alcohol before, and they become addicted to it far more easily than your people do. When you have no job, no money, no horse, no pride and no future, it is very easy to drink.”
“Did I ever tell you that my father died an alcoholic, Mr. Butcher? And my uncle Peter? My cousin Yiskah? No? Will you have another drink, Mr. Butcher?”
Butcher put his glass down carefully. How was he going to salvage this? He thought carefully and then spoke slowly.
“I’m sorry. It’s obvious I’ve really touched a nerve here. But you’ve done well for yourself, and I thought you had left all that stuff behind you.”
Butcher knew immediately that he’d stepped in it once again, and continued more quickly. “But anyway, I know that what my people have done to your people is shameful and terrible, and I guess I never realized that things were still so bad. I don’t know what I can do, but if it helps to say I’m sorry, well, I really and truly am sorry.” He paused, and then continued. “Anyway, I’m glad that I helped you make a lot of money, so let’s just clear out my account now, and I’ll let you get back to running your business.”
Butcher stopped and tried to look confident.
Zee gave a wide smile this time. “Ah yes! Your account! Unfortunately, I’m afraid that we are not quite even yet. There were expenses, you see. Middle men – many, many Dine’ middle men – brothers, cousins, nephews, second cousins – so many good people on the Rez placing the bets so that they could not be traced. Each must have their fair share, yes?”
Suddenly, Butcher flushed hot. He wasn’t used to getting jerked around this way, and he wasn’t going to take it from some tin pot casino manager surrounded by tumbleweeds.
“Don’t pull that old line on me, Zee! You know damn well you’ve made a good bit on this scam. How stupid to you think I am? We had a deal, and I’m not going to stand for you reneging on it. How stupid do you think I am?”
“How stupid, my friend? You mean, do I think you’re as stupid as some drunken Indian? Stupid enough to sign a treaty with the white man, and then another treaty when the White man reneges on the first one, and then yet another one, each time leaving him with less and less land, until the stupid Indian has nothing left but a God-forsaken salt flat? Do you think the Indian was that stupid, or did it ever occur to you that he had no choice?”
By now, Butcher would have none of it. “I’ve said I’m sorry about that, but that’s history, and I had nothing to do with it. I’ve kept my word, now you keep yours.”
Zee rapped twice on the bar, and doors opened at either end of the bar. Butcher immediately recognized the two burly Indian bouncers that normally stood by the doors of the casino, making sure that everyone who entered knew that muscle was on hand.
“Let me give you one final history lesson, Mr. Butcher. What I have learned here on the reservation is that the only man who must keep his word is the one with another’s foot on his throat. At the moment, Mr. Butcher, my foot is on your throat. Hopefully you have enjoyed our hospitality when you have stayed with us. As the manager of this establishment, I especially hope that you have found the Internet and telephone services we provide to your liking, as I personally monitor their performance. Once again, it seems, you have not been very careful. I, on the other hand, have been quite diligent and thorough. For example, I know who you report to. And I also know how to reach him.”
“So listen to me carefully. I will let you know when I am willing to raise my foot from your throat. Until then, you will do as I say. Now get out of my casino and await instructions.”
Butcher started to speak, but when the two bouncers took a step forward, he retreated towards the door that led to the bar instead. As he was opening it, Zee spoke for the last time.
“A last word of advice, my friend. Don’t make any travel plans until after November. You can expect to have a very busy election season.”
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