Man Overboard, page 30
As they pulled up in front of the building, Shirley raced out to greet them. The moment Stu emerged from the vehicle, she pounced on him, pulling him into a bosomy bear hug.
“If you aren’t a sight for sore eyes!” she exclaimed. “You scared me half to death.”
“Sorry,” he murmured.
“That Agent Elwood guy is waiting to see you,” Shirley continued. “I stowed him in the conference room with Mr. Simpson.”
“They’ll both have to wait,” Stu said. “I’m not talking to anyone until I shower and put on some clean clothes. I’ll be out in a little while.”
The whole time Stu stood under the shower with his head being pummeled by hot water, he thought about Frigg and about the intriguing offer she had made him—about her wanting him to be the human intermediary between her world and his. Once out of the shower, he toweled himself dry. Then, dressed in nothing but his robe, he hurried into the computer lab and took a seat at the keyboard.
Odin and Frigg. It took only a few moments to find an article recounting any number of old Norse legends about Frigg and Odin. They had been gods, and Owen Hansen had certainly seen himself as godlike—right up until he smashed himself to pieces on that boulder.
Next, Stuart tracked down the spoofed 911 call, the one that had purportedly come from the main switchboard at High Noon. It took only a matter of minutes for him to trace it back to an address on Via Vistosa in Santa Barbara, the same one he had located the previous night, Owen’s Hansen’s digs with the huge electrical drain. Stu couldn’t be sure of Frigg’s motives in placing the call. Had she done so in an attempt to stave off Odin’s attack and, in the process, maybe find herself a new human sidekick?
Frigg had said in the text that she had turned against Odin, and the 911 phone call situation made that seem plausible. And the idea of having a sophisticated AI at his disposal was certainly tempting. She was right. Working together would turn Stu Ramey and Frigg into a formidable pair.
But now there was a new wrinkle in the situation—the malware. If Odin had access to and knew how to use the malware; so did Frigg. Since she had at some point decided to turn on one human partner, then down the road she could just as easily do the same thing again. With her capabilities, there was almost nothing she couldn’t do or learn, but with that malware at her disposal . . .
Stu checked his watch and then reread the note in which Frigg said she was about to initiate the secure rewrite. Between then and now, enough time had elapsed that it would be over by now. The files in Odin’s on-site computer system would be completely obliterated long before the NSA got around to executing its search warrant.
That also meant that there was no longer any trace of Frigg there, either. The only place she still existed was in the files in the kernel that she had left in Stuart’s hands. It was ironic that she had named her preferred vehicle Tolkien’s Ring. Stuart had read and loved The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien’s stories were his fictional favorites, so he understood what was on offer here—power, incredible and absolute power—capable of corrupting absolutely.
Stu sat there unmoving for several long minutes. He thought about Roger McGeary and about how Frigg had facilitated his friend’s murder. No, he could not have her as an ally, not now and not ever.
Returning to the text, he downloaded the two video attachments and e-mailed them to himself without bothering to watch either one. Then he opened the kernel file. Without a moment of hesitation, he pressed delete. With that one gesture, Frigg was gone forever, but Stuart understood the danger of temptation—the idea that, at some point in the future, he might regret that deletion and decide to bring her back. He went straight to the general settings on his phone and hit the reset button. Then he chose ‘Erase all content and settings.’ He followed that by doing a complete reinstall on his computer as well. There might be a backup of the message lingering somewhere, but it was thoroughly encrypted and inaccessible to anyone but Stuart.
By the time he was dressed and ready to face the conference room, his phone was working normally again—at least it appeared to be. There was a crowd in the conference room when he walked inside. B. Simpson immediately jumped to his feet and came over to clasp Stu in a brotherly hug.
“Good work,” he murmured.
“Thanks,” Stu said.
“We just got off the phone with Cami again,” Ali said. “She said, ‘Way to go!’ The same thing goes for me. Amelia here has been telling us about how you saved the day.”
Stu summoned a surprisingly genuine smile, which he sent in Dr. Cannon’s direction. “We were in it together, and we got out of it together,” he said.
Stu was a little taken aback that B. and Ali’s new butler, Alonso, was there in the conference room along with everyone else, but that didn’t seem to matter. Instead, he focused his attention on the one stranger in the crowd who was wearing a suit and tie.
“You must be Agent-in-Charge Elwood,” Stu said, holding out his hand. There was a confidence in both his voice and his handshake that had never been there before. Where had that come from?
“Yes, I am,” Agent Elwood said. “I’m very glad to meet you, Mr. Ramey. I take it someone told you why I’m here?”
Stu nodded. “It’s about the malware, right?”
“I’m happy to discuss it, but first I need to show you something. Earlier today, Owen Hansen’s AI, an entity he called Frigg, sent me a text message. In it she claimed that, without her direct knowledge, Hansen had been using her capabilities in attacks against several individuals resulting in what might be called assisted suicide, but which, in this case, I believe are actually homicides and attempted homicides. She included two video clips. I haven’t viewed them. Do you mind if I put them up on the screen?”
“Not at all,” Agent Elwood replied.
For the next few minutes, the room was dead silent as a group of stunned people gathered around a computer monitor and watched as a stranger named Paul Abernathy breathed his last on a deserted strip of sidewalk. Next they rode along as a drunken Roger McGeary staggered down a ship’s corridor, stumbled through his cabin, and then raced out onto the balcony. When his tortured face disappeared from the screen a few minutes later, there could be little doubt about what had happened just out of frame—he had thrown himself overboard.
“Roger was on a cruise. He seemed to be having fun. I don’t understand why he would do something like that,” Agent Elwood said.
“A similar situation happened with a bride-to-be named Beth Wordon last night in San Jose,” Amelia Cannon explained. “Her life was coming up roses as well. Both Beth and Roger were former patients of mine—successfully treated patients, to my way of thinking. However, there was a serious data breach at my office a number of months ago. I believe that Owen Hansen used confidential information gleaned from my files to lure both Roger and Beth into suicidal crises and drive them over the edge.”
“These video clips are trophies of Hansesn’s two successful attacks?”
“Right,” Stu answered. “And that was Hansen’s big beef with both Dr. Cannon and me today. We cheated him out of prize number three, Beth Wordon.”
“What was his deal?” Elwood asked.
“His father committed suicide when he was a boy,” Dr. Cannon answered. “I believe he’s been obsessed with suicide ever since. In my experience that’s more common than you would think.”
“I don’t understand. Why would he send out those clips?” Elwood asked with a frown. “It makes no sense.”
“He didn’t,” Stu answered. “The clips came from Frigg.”
“Right,” Stu answered.
“Then I’ll need to have access to her, too,” Agent Elwood said.
“That’s the problem,” Stu sa
“Because she’s gone. In the text Frigg sent she claimed she was about to start a secure erase. By now I’m sure her files have been wiped clean.”
“But wait,” Amelia objected. “Didn’t she say something else, too? Something about leaving you an ear of corn so you could get the files back if you wanted?”
“Not an ear, a kernel—a file containing her operating system that would allow the AI to be reconstructed,” Stu answered. “And Dr. Cannon is right—Frigg did offer the kernel to me initially, but something or someone must have changed her mind. When I got back to the message a few minutes ago, the message itself was gone and so was the kernel. All that remained were the two film clip attachments.”
“She used the disappearing text routine on you as well?” Elwood asked.
“Apparently, and since Frigg had successfully accessed my phone, I’ve initiated a complete reboot to avoid spreading the malware to any other devices.”
“So executing that search warrant isn’t going to yield much usable intel.”
“Probably not,” Stu agreed. “Whoever sold the malware to Hansen in the first place may well have sold it to someone else, too, but with Odin and Frigg both gone, I don’t believe there’s an ongoing threat from Owen Hansen’s copy.”
“Excuse me, did you say Odin or Owen?”
“Both,” Stu said. “Owen was his name, but Odin and Frigg were the handles they used. Odin was an ancient Norse god, and Frigg was his helpmeet.”
Elwood sighed. “This whole thing has turned into a wild-goose chase.”
A door buzzer sounded, and Shirley hurried to answer it. She returned to the conference room followed by, not one, but two Yavapai County Sheriff’s Office detectives who were there to interview both Stu and Dr. Cannon.
As soon as the other investigators entered the room, Agent-in-Charge Elwood rose to go. “I understand that the reason High Noon became involved in all this was that Roger McGeary was a friend of yours.” He reached across the table and shook Stu’s hand. “Sorry for your loss,” he added.
With that, the NSA agent departed, leaving behind a stunned Stuart Ramey, who was astonished to find himself wiping tears from his eyes, because Elwood was right. Roger McGeary had been Stuart’s friend, and he was most certainly gone.
Knowing the interviews would take time, Ali ran up the flag to Leland. He packed up the dinner he’d made—meat loaf, baked potatoes, and salad, along with some of his freshly baked bread—transported it from Sedona to Cottonwood, and served it to all comers on paper plates in the conference room.
When both dinner and the interviews were over, the detectives went on their way. By then Alonso had walked down to the highway and collected his Jeep from the spot where he’d abandoned it near that initial roadblock. Ali had planned on giving Dr. Cannon a ride back to Carefree, but when Alonso volunteered to do so in her stead, Ali was only too happy to accept.
“By the way,” she told Alonso as he was leaving. “We never did get around to doing the paperwork, but don’t worry about it. It’s a done deal.”
Shirley and Leland finished straightening up the conference room. Finally the only people left were Ali, B., and Stuart Ramey.
“So how much of that was true?” Ali asked.
“How much of what?”
“What you told Elwood about Frigg,” she said. “There was something in that story that just didn’t ring true. The part about the disappearing text, maybe? I’m guessing the AI didn’t change her mind. Somebody else changed her mind for her.”
Stuart Ramey looked floored. “How did you know?” he asked.
“The other texts were completely deleted, not partially deleted,” Ali answered.
“I got rid of the kernel,” Stuart admitted with a catch in his throat. “Frigg was incredibly smart. Having access to that malware made her extremely valuable and extremely dangerous.”
“To say nothing of two-faced,” B. added with a smile, “if an AI can have a face, that is.”
“I’d say unreliable rather than two-faced,” Stuart countered. “Once she turned on Odin, she deliberately set out to undermine him. Eventually she would have done the same thing to the next person who hooked up with her.”
“Yes,” Stuart agreed. “Me included.”
“So you did the right thing,” Ali said.
“Absolutely. The right thing for the right reason.”
Two weeks later, on a fine Saturday morning in late September, Stuart Ramey ventured outside into the early-autumn sunlight and climbed into the passenger seat of Cami Lee’s bright red Prius. People who knew Stuart well would have been astonished to see him that day. At Cami’s insistence, he was dressed in jeans, a Western shirt, genuine Tony Lama boots, a camel-colored leather jacket, and a massive white Stetson that he couldn’t wear inside the car because it bumped up against both the passenger window and the headrest.
“Ready to rumble?” Cami asked as he belted himself in.
“I guess,” he said. “Thanks for driving me.”
“You could get a license and a car of your own, you know,” Cami said.
“Maybe,” Stu allowed, but he sounded neither convinced nor enthusiastic.
They said very little on the nearly two-hour drive from Cottonwood to Payson. They were two people who worked well together; they were comfortable together. When Stu had asked if Cami would give him a ride to Aunt Julia’s ranch, Racehorse Rest, on the far side of Star Valley off the Payson-Heber Highway, she had been happy to comply. At Aunt Julia’s insistence, it was an overnight trip. She wanted them to come for dinner and stay for brunch the next day.
As far as Cami was concerned, the very idea of Stu’s having agreed to leave his lair for the better part of twenty-four hours was something to be applauded and encouraged.
“Holy moly!” Stu exclaimed as the GPS announced that their destination was on the right in one half mile.
“What?” Cami asked.
“This used to be a desert wasteland,” Stu said. “Look at it now.”
What Cami saw outside the car windows was indeed beautiful. The rest of the highway had been lined with miles of barbed wire, but the white vinyl fencing around Racehorse Rest said horse ranch all the way. At the entrance they drove over a cattle guard and up a long graveled driveway.
Along the way they passed a complex pattern of individually fenced pastures containing round tracts of green grass lush enough to grace any golf course on the planet. Each pasture boasted its own irrigation equipment and usually only a single horse. Dozens of horses could be seen, grazing peacefully on that sun-drenched expanse of green. It was a breathtakingly beautiful sight.
The ranch house itself was located on a slight rise. To reach it, they threaded through a collection of buildings—garages, shops, tarp-topped stacks of hay, and metal barns with corrals out back. Some of the buildings were old and decrepit, but several of them were clearly new construction. As they came up the drive, Julia Miller stood on the covered porch surrounding a river rock house. She raced down the steps and was on hand to greet Stu with a hug the moment he stepped out of the Prius.
“What do you think about what we’re doing to the place?” she asked.
“It’s beautiful,” Stu said, shaking his head in obvious amazement. “I can’t believe how different it is.”
“That’s the miracle of what money and water can do in the desert—Roger’s money, that is,” Aunt Julia added. “When you and Rog used to come here, back in the day, this was nothing but a seat-of-your-pants outfit. Now, with the money Rog left me, we can rescue way more horses than ever before, and we can care for them properly. Come on. Let me show you around.”
They spent the next hour wandering through the
Dinner that night was exactly as Stu remembered it from all those years ago, plain food and plenty of it—beef stew, pinto beans, and corn bread. Dessert was plain old tapioca pudding served with hot coffee.
“Nothing fancy, but good,” Aunt Julia said.
“It’s amazing,” Cami said.
Over coffee Aunt Julia gave Stu a stern look that would have sent him scurrying for cover back when he was a kid. “I’m a little pissed at you, you know,” she chided gently.
“You never let me pay you for doing the work you folks did on Roger’s case. It wasn’t the answer I wanted, but you did give me an answer. I know what happened now, and I know who was at fault. But you shouldn’t have done it for free, Stuart. I may be an old lady, but I have my pride, you know.”
“I didn’t do it for you,” Stuart said thoughtfully a moment later. “Roger was my friend, and I did it for him. But if you really want to pay us, you can.”
“When you finish that brand-new barn you’re building out there, I want you to put a sign on it.”
“What kind of sign?”
“You can call it High Noon.”
“Done,” Aunt Julia said, beaming. “With pleasure.”
On the first Monday in October, Ali alone drove Leland Brooks to Sky Harbor. She had wanted to throw a going-away bash for him, but he had turned the idea down cold. “No fuss, please,” he said. “I’d rather make my exit privately, the same way I showed up all those years ago.”
She had abided by his wishes. There had been no party, but Leland wasn’t returning home to the UK exactly the same way he had come. Back then, he had traveled in a tramp steamer as a citizen of Great Britain. He was going home booked in business class on British Airways—at B. and Ali’s insistence—and traveling on a US passport.
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