Zeus and Io - Books 1 and 2
Copyright 2012,2013 by Harry Carton
I squatted in the bushes for several moments. No sense getting caught now. I waited while I watched the WalMart lot for hostiles. Time to review the situation: Who were these amateur guys? Unknown. How did Io get my phone number? Unknown. How did she find out about the attempted snatch – or maybe it was more than a snatch? Unknown. I didn't like 'unknown' answers.
After seventeen minutes, I came out of the tall grass and crossed the parking lot to my truck. No sign of anything. I retrieved my regular shoes from the duffel, tossed it in the back of the truck and got in the cab. First thing to do was get the hell out of Dodge. A quick look around and I started the truck, exited the parking lot at a sedate speed – even though I felt like flooring it – and got to the Interstate safely. If 'they' were following me, it must be by helicopter, 'cause the road behind and in front was deserted; I didn't hear any chopper.
It was after 2 a.m. by now – nothing would be open except the truck stops and the casinos. No casino in its right mind would blink twice at a cash customer arriving in the night. I exited the highway and made my way toward the money. I'd have to use my backup ID: Jefferson Thomas was now an obvious liability. In the parking lot of a casino I wasn't going to play in, I retrieved Harrison Benjamin of Oklahoma City's driver's license from under the front seat, tucking ol' J.T. into the hidden pocket. I'd dispose of him later.
I pushed the magnum up under the drivers seat, and hid the K-bar combat knife in the back of the truck. The casinos could be a bit sensitive about bringing in weapons and anyway I still had the ceramic knife sewed into the duffel; it should sail past the metal detectors. I strolled past the waiting arms of the slots and toward the reception desk as if I didn't have a care in the world. This looked like it could be a fun place: lots of slots, sports bar/betting in the side room, I could see the casino floor – busy as usual – and the drinks were available from scantily dressed hostesses. Unfortunately, I wasn't much interested in having fun.
"Honey," I said to the receptionist, "I'm plum wore out. It's almost too far from OKC to git here in one evenin'. Just set me up for the night. It'll be cash." I slapped my driver's license on the faux granite counter. I didn't have to fake looking tired. "Lucky third floor if you got it." In a pinch, I could get out the window and to the ground from the third floor without killing myself.
She put me in 324 – near the stairs as it turned out, which was OK with me. I checked the hallway, made sure the access doors to both sets of stairs would open, and went into the room – low crouch, just in case. Checking under the bed and behind every door, I pushed the wedges between the room door and the jamb. I unplugged the handset from the phone and took it apart just in case it was bugged. It wasn't, and I put it back together. I repeated the routine from earlier tonight: Velcro type sneakers by the bed, I was still in my "sleep" sweats. I went in the bathroom, splashed water on my face, and looked at myself in the mirror.
Slowly, I reached up to the titanium plate in my skull, fingering it along the edge. The hair had long since grown out so that it wasn't visible, but I knew exactly where it was. My gaze blurred out for a moment.
After a few days in Walter Reed, I began to believe that these were just doctors and nurses, as they said they were. I wasn't really hurt any more. I had a 4" x 6" irregularly shaped titanium plate where a piece of my skull used to be, but I wasn't in any pain and I wasn't physically disabled. The scabbing was already falling off at the edges of the plate, my salvaged scalp over it already growing stubble. I also knew that I was psychologically fucked up: I kept up a silent conversation with the Master Chief, I wasn't really comfortable with the lights off, and sudden noises made me jump. And that's only the things I noticed, who knew what the docs would find.
The 'regular' doc said she'd be around only once in a while, and the head shrinker started coming more often. We had some nice talks where I'd tell her what I thought she wanted to hear, or what the Chief suggested. I said nothing about the talks with the Chief, of course, or I'd have found myself in a locked ward on the far side of never. She kind of reminded me of my mother: taking no guff, telling me when she thought I was hiding something, and being totally empathetic, most of the time. I liked her. Poor ol' mom was in an alzheimer's nursing home; she was sorta losing it before dad died, but she really shut down looking at him in a coffin. I didn't expect she could ever reconnect with me.
After a month or so – I learned to tell time, no more 'whiles' – the mail caught up with me. I opened the latest letter from Carolyn first. We'd married in my junior year in college, her senior year, and we had a hot time for more than a year, before I enlisted. She thought I was nuts for joining, and more nuts when I made the SEALs. I had wondered why she hadn't shown up at the hospital – South East Pennsylvania isn't that far from Washington, D.C. The letter was dated the same day that we got ambushed.
It wasn't a long letter, thank God. She'd 'met' someone. He was on a temporary assignment, teaching at Temple, and was from Wyoming. It was over between us. She was with him now. Blah blah blah. She was sorry and divorce papers would be coming soon. Blah blah blah.
So Master Chief Martinez was right about her too. Back in Germany, while I was still confused about everything, he told me to rely on myself. Not to think that I would ever get support from my wife. At the time, I didn't even remember I HAD a wife.
I tapped the plate – tink tink tink – "Well, Chief," I said silently to the man who lived in my head, "whaddya know about that. I got blown up and dumped on the same day. Shit."
The only answer I got from Chief Martinez was to play 4,17,10,22,6,12 in the Maryland lotto for the next week. My birthday, hers and our wedding day.
I didn't feel like eating for two days, but at least I had something to talk about with Dr. Wagner, the head shrink. She commiserated for several sessions and eventually got me talking to other wounded vets. I guess she figured that we'd be good for each other. That was more or less true. Wagner was a nice looking brunette about my age. Both she and the 'regular' doc wore wedding rings – not that I was particularly prowling for women, but you just always notice certain things, you know? I was a bit sensitive to wedding rings.
I was able to walk around and had no restrictions – thanks to the truth I'd withheld from Wagner. The nurse at the end of the hall pointed me at the newsstand in the hotel entrance, and I played those numbers. Got me $4500 too, which I shared with the nurses who'd been good to me, when I left Walter Reed just before Christmas.
My eyes shifted and I snapped back to the here-and-now, my fingers still on the metal plate. I tapped it, as was my habit – tink tink tink – "Chief, I think it's time we got some answers."
I crawled onto the bed, stuffed a couple of pillows at my back, and opened my mobile, half expecting messages from Io. But there was nothing. Well, the only way I could get in touch with her was at DCQ. I logged into Dungeon ConQuest, and went to a chat room we'd often used. Setting it for 'no graphics' and 'private chat, ' I began to type out a message on the phone's tiny keyboard.
I was interrupted by an incoming message from her: "Were they after you? Are you all right?"
I finished typing my message: "Who are you?"
There was a pause. "I am the same Io you've known for months. I am your friend. I'm sorry to break protocol and text you on the phone."
Me: "I'll repeat: WHO ARE YOU? Why do you have my phone number?"
Her: "I am Io. There's no other name to use. I got your phone number when you signed into this chat room from your phone – as you did tonight – that was several months back."
Me: "I don't care what name you use. Who are you? Who do you work for? Obviously you are a skilled hacker. Are you a fed?"
Her: "I do not work for anybody. I do not share or sell information with anybody. There is no reason for you to believe me, but please DO believe me. I am on your side, Zeus."
Master Chief Martinez' voice was in the back of my head. "I believe her. You could use a friend, you know."
I growled in reply to the voice. Me: "Why should I believe you?"
Her: "You escaped from a trap. I calculate a 78% likelihood that you would not have known about it without my warning and nearly 98% that you would have been caught in the web. I am trying to get further information on the person or persons who ordered it. I have not found very much yet."
Well, she was right about that, she did provide very useful intel, at a crucial time. I thought hard about things for a few 'whiles.'
Her: "You still there?"
Me: "I was thinking. OK. I'll accept that you are tactically on 'my side, ' at least for now. How can you be so organized that you could trap my phone number from a single login months ago?"
Her: "I like collecting data – especially about people that I'm communicating with on a regular basis. You can't be just 'Zeus' forever."
Me: "But you're just Io."
Her: "That is my real name. You're welcome to anything you find out about me. I know you're quite a talented hacker yourself. I traced your regular laptop – or desktop – through all the cutouts around the world, back to your home base in Throckmorton, Texas. Although sometimes you login from Comanche, Texas. Only somebody with real skills could lay a trail like that."
Me: "I didn't think anybody could do that – unravel everything."
Her: "I'm not just anybody. There's another thing – your phone has a GPS. I can track that too, but now nobody else can. I've interrupted the automatic FBI trace."
Me: "Wow. Either you are full of shit or you're Steven Hawking."
Her: "It's Stephen. With a 'ph'."
Her again: "Sorry. Sometimes I'm a bit compulsive about details. I'm working on it though."
Me: "That's OK. Me too – compulsive, I mean."
Her: "I know. You're worried about 'them' coming to get you. For once, it seems you are correct."
Me: "How do you know that about me? I never said anything. Are you working for the VA maybe? Or some secret organization?"
Her: "First of all: you know you won't get any real information by asking those kinds of questions. If I am not, I'll answer 'no' honestly. If I am working for someone else, I will answer 'no' to hide the truth. Either way it's 'no.' The only way to get information you can rely on is to dig it up yourself – or just believe me. If you are going to dig, I will tell you now that I am currently operating out of London, but in about three days, I am going to be operating from Minneapolis. I move around a bit."
Her again: "And secondly, there are plenty of clues to your compulsion in your chat. You are not in a League with other players. You are rarely in a cooperative group. And we have chatted about other things – things in your real life, outside the game – for months. You will not talk about your past life. I simply put the clues together and formed a conclusion. Like Sherlock Holmes."
I was still pondering how she could have known about my paranoia. I had thought I'd hidden that from the shrinks, and nobody else would care. Or maybe they would. I wondered if my paranoia – and all the precautions I took – would mark me and make me easier to find. But if I didn't take all those precautions, I'd go nuts. If I wasn't already nuts. My hand wandered by itself to the metal plate, and I began to tap it again – tink, tink, tink.
Her: "Thinking again?"
Me: "Yes. Thinking about how can I trust you. How can you know about whether I'm worried about 'them getting me, ' or not. Do you have access to my VA records?"
Her: "I have never needed to see them, so I do not have them. They are confidential, but I doubt the VA has real security. Would you like me to get them? It could take a little while."
Me: "Uh ... Yes, I would. But not now."
Her: "I shall put it on my 'to do' list. No problem. It might even be interesting to do it."
Me: "You're weird, you know that?"
Her: "I will admit to being different. LOL"
In for a penny, in for a pound, I guess. I was fighting hard to put aside the feeling that somebody knew this much about me. It was either that, or I'd be forever alone.
The Chief's voice again. "You're not actually alone. I'm here. But you're right to trust her. You can afford to take a little step away from paranoia. And she DID save your ass back at the motel. Don't forget that." I didn't think I'd ever forget that.
Me: "You're some kind of super hacker, right?"
Her: "You could say that."
Me: "Could you get me fake ID's?"
Her: "As long as you are willing to use the same photo as on your current driver's license. I mean, you ARE Harvey Middleman, right? That is not another name like you used to register the phone?"
Her: "Then I can get you false IDs. Do you want a complete identity or just a fake driver's license? I mean, I can plant data that would give you a birth certificate, social security number, past years tax records, I think a military record or some sort of industrial accident to explain the metal plate, that sort of thing."
Me: "But you couldn't possibly do anything – say in next ten hours or so. I plan on acquiring some cash, and I don't really want to let the IRS in with my real name."
Her: "I could start to set up the identity, but I couldn't get you any papers or SSN, in that time."
I took it as a good sign that she didn't even ask how I was going to acquire the cash. Maybe this could work.
Me: "How about if I give you a false name that's never been used. That way I'd already have the papers. Could you set up a solid SSN that I could give to someone? They'll probably check it."
Her: "In ten hours? That would be easy. But I doubt if the fake driver's license you have would stand up for very long. I'd estimate 90% likelihood it will pass an initial check – with a social security number that I provide perhaps as high as 94%. But if you start to use it again, with no other supporting documents, probability will fall rapidly. Maybe 30% or 40% if you try to use it long term."
Me: "Let's do that then. I don't need it for long term. Not if you can get me something – someone – else."
Her: "Do not say anymore in this chat room. Wait one."
There was a pause. I liked that caution. Didn't know what she had in mind, but I liked it.
Her: "Check your email. You will know what to do, with what I have sent."
Me: "Wait. Don't sign off yet."
Her: "I was not going to."
Me: "Tell me about the people who sent that team after me."
Her: "I do not have much – yet. They have to have a greater electronic footprint than what I have found so far. But I think it's better not to talk about that here."