Paradigms Lost — Chapter 24

Chapter 24: Gone and Dead

I logged on and checked; I had a secured e-mail waiting. I pulled it up onscreen.

The message decoded just as though Manuel had sent it… but it wasn’t from Mannie at all. That was so close to impossible that for a moment I couldn’t do anything except gape. Then I reread the signature at the bottom, and understood.

* * *

Mentor (or should I say, Jason?): I’m sorry to tell you that Manuel has gotten himself into a bit of trouble by poking his nose into this. He doesn’t have nearly the clearance necessary. He’s being debriefed right now, but I’d suggest you not contact him for a while; not only is he more than slightly peeved at you, but any more contact from the outside might be taken seriously amiss by his superiors.

Since he emphatically assured me that you’re too stubborn to be frightened off, and because we happen to be kindred spirits in a way, I’ll give you what information I can. But let me warn you: this is dangerous. You and everyone you know could get killed if you play these games. So give serious consideration to just dropping it.

“Vlad Dracul” is apparently another alias being used by an independent operator called “Gorthaur.” Gorthaur plays no favorites; he’s been bypassing security and penetrating installations on five continents. Very rarely does he take direct credit for his actions except for those which he perpetrates on the Net — that’s where he gets his name.

What tells us that Gorthaur’s involved is the sheer perfection of his work. In every case, Gorthaur penetrates the installation in the guise of a high-clearance individual who is well known to the personnel. Fingerprints, retinals, passwords, everything checks out perfectly. These individuals vary in age, height, weight, and even sex to such a degree that we are utterly unable to imagine how one person can be doing all of these impersonations. Yet other subtle indicators tell us that it is just one person.

So far, three agents have been killed in particularly savage ways while trying to locate Gorthaur. The one found in Morgantown thought he had found a hot trail. Apparently he had. Gorthaur exhibits psychopathic strength and savagery, and has killed several other people who apparently offended him at one point or another. Our best psych profile makes him out to be a complete sociopath with a megalomanic complex, but there are enough anomalies that we can’t even begin to classify him. He’s unique.

Watch your back. If he can disguise himself this well, he could be anyone.


* * *

The Jammer; hacker legend, thief, one of the few completely nonviolent criminals to make the ten-most-wanted list, and probably the only one who never had a picture to go with the wanted poster. No one knew anything about him — even the “him” was in question. He’d disappeared a couple of years ago, and everyone had thought he’d retired, having made far more money than he’d ever need. Now it was clear that he’d been caught and recruited. But someone with his talents couldn’t be forced to work, so they must have shown him something so important that he chose to work for them rather than against them.

I erased the message and sat back, sweating. Who knew what this werewolf wanted, really? Vengeance against Verne Domingo I knew about, but that would hardly drive him to go breaking into top secret vaults here and in other countries. He had to have some other, larger agenda. And how in the name of God could you catch something that could change sex, fingerprints, and genetics at will?

There wasn’t any way, I realized. The only chance to catch Gorthaur was to get him to come to us, and only one thing was keeping him here: Verne Domingo. Once he settled with Verne, he’d vanish forever.

I logged off that system, got on to the Demon’s board. He didn’t respond to my query; probably at dinner, which was where I should be. Then I noticed one of my status tags:

Email: Waiting: 0 Old: 3

The last time I’d been on, there’d only been two old messages. I called up the last one:

* * *

>>From System Operator DEMON<<

Okay, if it’s that important we can meet in person. Be here at six; we’ll have dinner. I don’t like it, Mentor; this had better be worth it.



\* */


* * *

What the hell? I hadn’t written him in mail at all lately! Who… ?

Suddenly it hit me. If even the Jammer couldn’t catch this guy… I shut the computer off and sprinted for Mjölnir.

I had a sickening feeling I was too late.

I’d been there once before, but that had been important enough that I remembered every turn; the lights were with me, and it was only fourteen minutes before I slammed the brakes on and skidded into place in front of the Demon’s house. I was out the door before the engine finished dying out, my S&W 10mm out and ready. I rang the bell. No answer. I tried the door.

The door swung open quietly at my touch; it was already unlatched. The hallway was dim and silent. “Yo! Demon!” I called.

No answer.

My heart was hammering too damn fast; I’d swear it was audible a hundred feet away. I stepped slowly into the house. In the faint light I could see the hallway and the stairs going to the second floor, and two entryways; I knew that one led to his living room, the one on the left, and past that was the den where his computer was. I took my coat off slowly and threw it through the entry. It hit the rug; nothing else moved. I dove into the living room, rolled as I hit, came up with my back to the far corner, gun up.

Nothing. Just furniture.

A faint creaking noise came from ahead of me. I stood stock- still, listening. The wind outside moaned. The creak came again. It was emanating from the den. The den door was ajar; I could see the white glow of his monitor screen leaking from the room.

I went forward one step at a time, trying to watch all directions at once; my ears would have pricked up if they could. The only sounds I heard were the whistle of the wind and that faint, periodic creaking.

I reached the door. Taking a deep, shaky breath, I flung the door wide.

A horrid red-splotched face swung toward me; I almost fired, then stopped and lowered the gun. “Jesus Christ …” I muttered.

Jerome Sumner, aka the Demon, hung head-down from one of the big beams of his old house. The rope that was tied around his ankles creaked as he swung slowly in the wind from the open window. His eyes stared blankly at me; his mouth was jammed open with a crumpled floppy disk. The place was filled with the faint metallic scent of the blood on his face, his clothes, the floor. I glanced away, saw his computer.

It was covered with spatters of blood; lying on top of the keyboard was a shapeless dark object. I moved closer.

It was the Demon’s tongue. I swallowed bile, looked at the screen.

The BBS was off; instead there was a banner-making program on. Four giant words blazed on the screen:

He Talked Too Much

I was still staring a few minutes later when the NSA arrived.