Never Look Back

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Chapter 59

Ten. Eleven. Twelve steps.

Turn.

The hotel room measured eight strides longer than my old prison cell. Pacing helped me to think, was symbolic of the generation of ideas and stopped my mind from bogging down or racing. I liked a rhythm. It added balance and fostered momentum. The second tumbler of ten-year-old Kentucky bourbon refused to go down any easier than the first had. One question sloshed back and forth. What had made Odera someone’s objective? When I worked that out, the ‘who’ would follow. Twenty-four hours later and TV news stations were still broadcasting my name and image every four hours. I had managed a fitful sleep as my mind raced and spun out of control replaying what I knew about Odera’s abduction.

Bunglers.

No thought given to her abduction meant equal thought given toward collecting a ransom. How did the ATCO trailer connect to Odera’s abduction? I refused to believe in coincidence. Square johns, law-abiding citizens unfamiliar with eddies of the criminal underworld, believed in coincidences. The kidnapping and the burglarised trailer were committed the same night. What was the link? I resisted the urge to call my sister. I took for granted that her telephone would be under surveillance. Could I use that to my advantage? Maybe, but not now. What did I know about kidnappers? They were cagey crooks who planned meticulously. Julia was a wildcard. Shooting her negated planning. Hasty and impulsive, then. In the background, the radio belted out a Melissa Etheridge tune.

“Come lay your body beside me.

“Your body, your power, can sanctify.

“Lay it down; the beast will die. You can question my heart once again.

“I will stand firm in the tempest. I will ride destiny’s trail.

“Come and be one in emotion. Desire they cannot comprehend.

“Never question again, for I am your passion, your promise, your end.”

Was Odera hurt?

Had they raped her?

Stop it!

Alcohol splashed the wall when the tumbler ricocheted off the flat-screen TV. Wild speculations about her well-being served no purpose except to distract me. Worry and a building sense of doom threatened to overwhelm my emotions. Pull it together, I told myself. Lock it down. Turn everything inward ― transform it. Return to the belly of the beast and be welcome. Breathe. Start at the beginning.

Computer.

We had attended the computer convention where Odera had had the demo computer shipped home. Somebody had burglarised the ATCO trailer. Eyes closed, I brought the image of the trailer to mind. Intruders had paid more attention to the computer alcove than to the main drafting portion of the trailer. All the computer software CDs and thumb drives were missing. Tables furthest from the computer had not been upset. Paper files were still intact. Fine. Computer confirmed.

This type of investigation was beyond my scope of expertise. Or was it? Who knew the criminal mind better? After twelve years of imprisonment, I knew how crooks thought. Society was denied this firsthand knowledge. That ray of light furnished a small beacon of hope to home in on. Kidnappers killed three out of ten victims when money was the goal. How many victims turned up dead if riches were not the motivator? Almost all of them. Let it be money, I prayed. I needed to speak with Julia. But not tonight. Not yet. Not until the cops had completed their interviews and deemed her not at risk for retaliation. Besides, the hospital would have her doped up on painkillers if the news reports about her surgery were to be believed.

No way could I expect Mansbridge to answer questions. Robert would sooner shoot me than hand me over to the cops. Police were probably crawling all over his house awaiting ransom demands ― awaiting my call, I thought savagely. As a matter of precaution, RCMP’s serious crimes section would have placed twenty-four-hour surveillance around his home. Police must be monitoring all personal telephones and company lines. Would he close the office for a few days? Seemed probable, what with the abduction and the break-in and no one to run day-to-day operations, which meant I was free to visit the ATCO trailer and Odera’s condominium, but only after nightfall. Only after I had given the police time to do their thing.

Given the break-in and the attention paid to the computer alcove, it was possible the police monitored Hidden Oak’s computer despite the temporary shutdown. Don had sold me a laptop and five sets of false identities to work with. I opened the laptop computer and logged onto Hackers.com. Hackers.com was designed exclusively by hackers, for hackers. The internet was comprised of two levels, a civilian level and a governmental level that had weirdly transmuted into being nicknamed the Dark Web. Television news stations and newspapers loved to call it the Dark Web, which sounded more dramatic than the second tier. Most people were unaware the second internet tier existed. Most of its websites had tight security protocols that reported site access, as well as unauthorized access. All second-tier sites were invisible to mainstream web browsers. Specially designed browser software called Tor was necessary for accessing second-tier sites. The military originally created the internet to facilitate information sharing in the scientific community. Access to the second tier was severely limited.

No Google allowed.

Hackers.com represented a puzzle that burned away two months of evenings at the halfway house when I was only permitted to leave the house for employment reasons. Sending the long HTML address produced an error message that told the user the website did not exist. To gain access, the user needed to input an ANSI escape sequence. I had always enjoyed the irony of the website’s location, next door, so to speak, to those who detest hackers most, the United States government.

Rummaging through sub-directories revealed code-breaking programs, nibblers that bypassed copyright protection and patches to bypass passwords when nibblers failed. After a forty-five-minute search, I found a tentative method of accessing Hidden Oak’s computer without leaving an electronic footprint. The instructions in the Readme file called for exotic hardware and software to spoof my footprint, which is computer-speak for hiding my computer’s electronic presence. Further investigation produced an alternative that fitted my needs.

If I used a second computer as a buffer and if I wrote a complicated program to exploit CRC checksums, it was possible to spoof my location. Each time a modem transmitted data, it sent a checksum: a parity check. If the checksum number that arrived at the destination was identical to the checksum sent, the next batch of data was processed. The procedure repeats itself until the last batch passed verification. If the destination sum failed to match the checksum, a parity error occurred and the modem retransmitted the same data until continuity was achieved. The process ensured data integrity. The program I was reviewing those exploited machine language bursts.

Hidden Oak’s computer ran twenty-four-seven ― providing that no one had shut it down. Beyond the CPU’s twin hard-drives, an old optical backup drive was stored in the administration building in case of a trailer fire. A TSR (Terminate & Stay Resident) program cloaked all trace of the drive’s existence. Each evening the computer backed itself up to the optical drive. Given time, a hacker would find it, but it would not appear on standard commercial diagnostic software packages.

I scanned the sophisticated code scrolling across my screen, elegant and succinct. Once the CRC program completed downloading, I logged onto a separate provider, dialled the University of Toronto and loaded the program. After a bit of searching, I found an unsecured node with modem clearance protocol. I dialled the University of British Columbia via satellite and repeated the process to Calgary University. Following a long, finger-drumming moment, Hidden Oak’s computer firmed its handshake and awaited my instructions.

When I attempted to log onto the data storage drive, a device failure message appeared. The same when I accessed the second hard drive. The program’s line-trace warning light started blinking. A trace had been initiated. When the light blinked fast enough to become a solid glow, they would have zeroed my physical position and obtained my computer’s unique footprint, which would enable the holder to locate me whenever my machine was online. There was time only for me to tap out a low-level command instructing the backup drive to perform a core dump, to send me everything, beginning with the latest files. No time to be selective. Optical drives were not known for blazing speed. Seconds before the light turned solid, I disconnected, thereby denying my computer’s unique footprint. One question remained.

Had I downloaded enough of the optical drive’s contents to answer my questions?

Odera’s email that I had asked her to send was among the first ten files. It contained the manufacturers’ number sets. Beyond an endearment, there was no other message. Just numbers to plug into the software fields and the raw materials chemical compositions beside a periodic table that Odera had included with her usual thoroughness. Chemical and mineral names filled the lines. Nothing exciting. With the advent of Green responsibility, more and more companies included material-chemical abstracts. Environment Canada demanded certain chemicals be reported and registered. Shipping safety protocols had to be instituted properly. Hazardous material handling procedures required increasing transparency. For me to discover that chemical compositions were listed was becoming commonplace. I knew that I would have reviewed the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Systems banned chemicals list to exclude certain products had Hidden Oaks landed a LEEDS’ contract. Except for the email with the attached number sets and chemical compositions, the other files were either uninteresting or old files.

When I typed in Odera’s home computer address and hit the send button, nothing happened. The error message indicated that her home computer was offline. If I could not bring that information to me, I would have to go to it. And then there was the convention’s demo computer. Odera had emailed Hidden Oaks from that machine, but when I attempted to access it, the same error message notified me that it was offline as well. It seemed curious to discover both machines offline. Perhaps the police had had a hand in their offline state. From that starting point, I planned retrace Odera’s footsteps. My watch showed after nine in the evening. While the lingering summer dusk faded, I needed to equip myself. Innocuous or not, Odera’s email was the only computer link to her disappearance and the break-in at work. It was the last word she had communicated to me. Nothing I had found explained why she had been taken. Something Earnest Hemmingway wrote echoed in my mind, ‘Not the why, but the what.’

What prompted Odera’s abduction?

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