In Memory of Ed Wooton
For the Love - 19. Fire in the Hole
Steve lurched away from me, stumbling sideways, his eyes wide in shock. I thought the worst; that the bullet had...
"I'm ok, it just made me jump, what the fuck happened?" asked Steve, as muffled yet frantic shouts coming from the living room drew my attention. We waited, hearing only the rising commotion from the living room.
"I think it came from the living room, maybe we should..." I said, before nearly leaping out of my skin as Steve's bedroom door opened suddenly.
Steve's father came in, "Chris, one of my officers is bleeding to death, he needs you..."
I shoved past Steve's father and dashed for the living room.
The scene in the living room was pure chaos; one officer sat on the floor, in a spreading pool of his own bright red blood, clutching his leg. The other was attempting to tie a tourniquet around the wounded leg.
A quick look confirmed the worst; bright red blood was spurting out, and that meant arterial blood. I ran and grabbed a knife from the kitchen drawer, hoping like hell that I could do what needed to be done, and do it in time.
I quickly cut away the officer's blood-soaked pant leg, exposing the two wounds. It appeared to be a through-and-through wound, one small entry hole and a much larger exit wound, both on the outside of the thigh. I wasn't sure which artery had been hit, but I knew that if I didn't stop the bleeding, the officer would die.
I applied pressure with my hands just above the upper wound, compressing the outer thigh, and watching the blood flow to see which pressure points were the most effective.
I was able to slow the bleeding down significantly, as the wail of the approaching ambulance grew louder added, a welcome sound to the room. The officer looked like he was in severe pain but handling it okay. I was just glad that he was showing no overt signs of shock. His partner kneeled at his side, looking even more pained than the wounded officer, while Mr. Williams crouched down on the other side of the wounded man, placing a hand on his shoulder and telling him, "The ambulance is just about here, Jacobs; you are going to be fine."
The ambulance pulled up outside, and I heard loud footsteps on the hardwood floor behind me as the paramedics charged into the house. I shared a few quick words with them about what I had done and what I thought, and backed off as they got to work on Jacobs. Jacobs was still conscious, and showed no signs of shock, so I had a good feeling about his prognosis. His partner watched as the paramedics worked on Jacobs, but Mr. Williams interrupted, "They'll take good care of your partner, he's gonna be ok, so go see if you can track down my goddamn son before he gets clean away."
The officer, with a glance back at his partner and a promise that he would go to the hospital as soon as he could, took off out the door, heading south, drawing his flashlight as he disappeared from sight.
Mr. Williams quickly filled us in on what had happened, "They untied Eric and went to cuff him. As they pulled him to his feet, he lunged for Jacobs' gun. All he managed to do was knock the hammer back enough so that when it snapped forward, the gun fired, right through the holster and into Jacobs' leg. Eric ran off in the confusion, and we couldn't chase him because Jacobs was spouting blood like a fountain."
Steve stated the obvious: "So Eric got away and is on the loose again?"
Mr. Williams nodded, "He's got an APB out for him, and dispatch is calling up a couple of off-duty officers. Unfortunately, every Lonesome Valley deputy currently on duty consists of me, the guy who just left, and Jacobs, so we are shorthanded until the off-duty officers can get in."
"Why don't you two see what you can do, if you are up to it? Eric isn't armed as far as I know, but don't take any chances." Mr. Williams fished his cell phone from his pocket and handed it to Steve, "If you see him, keep him in sight and call for backup. I'll check the area around and near the house."
I scrubbed most of the blood off my arms and hands as fast as I could, and then dashed outside to meet an agitated Steve at the curb.
"The deputy went south, so maybe we should go north or east," he said, handing me a flashlight while clicking on one of his own.
The Williams house was on the southwest corner of a block, and there was nothing to the west except desert. "Would he head for town, or into the desert?" I asked.
"If he went into the desert, he will have a hell of a time in the dark without a light, and I don't think he has a flashlight. My guess is he is hiding somewhere nearby and will stay put until he thinks it's safe, then make his way wherever the hell he's going."
I glanced at the driveway to be sure my Jeep and Steve's Charger were still in place, and was relieved to see that they were. Steve nodded in response to my thought, "Yeah, I thought that too, after him stealing your Jeep last time. He's on foot, so I think we should be too. More of a chance that we will see or hear him that way. Maybe leave the flashlights off until we need 'em, so he won't see us coming as easily."
Steve clicked off his light, and I followed suit while glancing at the crescent moon hanging low amidst the twilight in the western sky, "Should be enough moonlight to see by, plus a little from some of the houses."
"Keep an eye out for motion-sensor lights coming on. Lots of people have 'em, and Eric might trigger one, okay, let's try east."
Steve turned to start running, but I held up my hand, "We can cover more ground if we split up. You go east then north, I'll go north, then east and we should meet on the opposite corner of the block. If either of us arrives alone, keep going around the block until we meet up."
Steve nodded and dashed east, while I ran north. I figured that Eric had about a ten-minute head start, maybe a little more. He could be a long way ahead, or hiding in the next yard over. Every fifty yards, I paused to listen, but heard nothing except the buzz of desert tree frogs.
I sprinted between my pauses, keeping to the shadows as much as I could. I wondered what I'd do if I spotted Eric: go after him, or try to follow him until Steve arrived? It wasn't a hard decision to make; if I saw him, I knew I could catch him easily enough, and I did not intend to let him get away. I thought of the pictures now floating around the Internet, and decided that the second I got my hands on Eric, I'd knock him out cold.
I rounded the corner, and ran down another quiet street, the houses, like all the ones in the area, on large lots, often overgrown with weeds or shrubs. Eric could be anywhere. I paused to listen again, hearing nothing, and sprinted on. As I approached the corner, I saw a movement in the shadows: Steve. I ran up to him, "See any sign of him?" I asked.
"Nope, and I guess you didn't either. I did some thinking though; he's likely to hear us coming in time to hide. Maybe we are going about this the wrong way: if he's headed for town, from here he pretty much has to go east, and this is the quietest street heading that way out of the three that do. So, maybe we should run east a few blocks, and find a hiding place on a corner. We might get lucky and let him come right to us."
"Sounds like a plan. If we see him, then what? Do you really want to just call for backup?" I asked.
"Hell no, if I can get my hands on the freak, I'll make damn sure he is in no shape to get away," Steve said, punching his fist into an open palm.
"Same here," I agreed, "let's go."
We ran at an easy pace for half a mile, stopping to listen on occasion, but hearing and seeing nothing, no sign of movement, except for a coyote dashing across the road. We reached a likely looking corner, and found a very large thicket of brush growing near it. I lead the way, and found a hidden spot a couple of feet from the pavement. I was about to sit down when Steve whispered urgently, "Don't sit on the cactus."
I reached out with my foot, and felt the scratch of cactus needles against my shoe. I had indeed been about to sit on a cactus. Something else I hoped Veronica never heard about. I looked closely, trying to make it out in the dark, and managed to do so as Steve and I sat down a couple of feet away.
"Thanks," I whispered.
"Are you feeling ok?" Steve whispered, "I know this whole camera thing must be a hell of a shock for you. It was for me."
I put my arm across his shoulders, "I'll cope, as long as I have you. I'm really freaked out about people watching us have sex, so it might take me a while before I'm comfortable in either one of our rooms again," I said as I watched a car slowly making its way down the street, noticing that it was a Lonesome Valley squad car as it passed.
I felt his hand take mine, "Yeah, I know what you mean. I just feel creeped out in my own room now. I have an idea though; I bet we have tons of stuff to do dealing with this crap, but how about we go to Hidden Springs for that camping trip next weekend? We can camp out Friday and Saturday nights. It's totally private; it has a place to swim and no one around."
"That would be cool, and after all this shit, a couple of days away, just us, would be so perfect." I whispered, "Thanks man, looking forward to that will make dealing with this crap easier," we fell silent, listening to the sounds of the desert night.
We sat in silence for quite a while, with no signs of Eric. I stood up, and Steve followed. Together we walked out into the street, as I whispered to Steve, "He's either holed up and lying low somewhere or he went another way. Want to split up and scout around a few more blocks?"
Steve nodded, and we agreed to meet up a few blocks further east. I turned and began to sprint, but I'd just planted my foot to start my sprint when a sudden shrill noise had me nearly leaping out of my skin.
I spun around to face the sound, only to find Steve answering his dad's cell phone. I walked towards Steve as he hurriedly finished the conversation, speaking as softly as he could. He closed the phone, placed it back in his pocket, as he turned to me and said in a normal voice, "Not much point being quiet now. He would have heard the phone for a block. Too bad it isn't one of those new ones that you can set to vibrate. Anyway, dad said there are several cars out looking for Eric, so we should come home. He also said Dex is there and needs us."
As one, we turned towards home, breaking into a steady, even run through the warm desert air.
We arrived home to find Dex and Mr. Williams in the living room, with Dex looking uneasily at the congealing puddle of blood on the hardwood floor.
Mr. Williams looked up at us as we entered, "Anything?"
"Nope, no sign of him," I replied.
"There are three cars out searching for Eric now, plus an All Points Bulletin, so we should be able to get him. Officer Jacobs is in the hospital, and the paramedics said he should be ok, and they told me to tell you that you probably saved his life. Good job!"
I mumbled my thanks, stunned over possibly saving someone's life. That had long been a dream of mine, and was one of my reasons for choosing to go to medical school. I'd just never imagined that it could happen so soon.
A pat on the back and a hug from Steve brought me out of my reverie, and Mr. Williams added, "I told Dex about the cameras, and he said he would have a look, but he wants to tell us all about the whatchamacallit he had on that data thing first."
Dex looked at us and coughed, "The Easter Egg worked. I got an e-mail from it today, and I saw it just before you guys called."
Steve and I both shook our heads, "Can't be, it is still in dad's drawer," Steve said, with a puzzled look on his face.
We led Dex to Mr. Williams' office, and pointed to the data stick in the still open drawer. Dex picked it up gingerly by the ends, barely touching it, and studied it for a moment, "Didn't you notice that this isn't the one I gave you? The serial number is different."
"Uh, no, I didn't think to record the serial number," I said, a little rattled, "Do you just remember numbers that easily?"
"Sure, doesn't everyone?" Dex shrugged, "Anyway, the Easter Egg in the one I gave you ran this afternoon. And it worked. I now have a code pass phrase, and I know whose computer it was entered on."
Steve asked the obvious question before I did, "Whose computer? Eric's?"
Dex shook his head, "Nope, it came from Reverend Thaddeus, and it's the same email address that he has on his church website. The I.P. matches, too."
"Thaddeus... Goddamn it! I ain't surprised," Mr. Williams growled, "now make my day and connect him to this camera stuff, so I have something actionable and I can go slap the cuffs on that obnoxious windbag."
Dex angled his head, "Don't know about that yet. I need to look at the camera setup and the system it is hosted on."
Steve led the way to his room, and I was grateful that his father remained in the living room. I was anxious enough over Dex seeing the stuff on the website, without having Mr. Williams there as well.
Steve opened the site and logged in, pulling up Cam1. Dex twigged to it immediately, and looked directly at the air vent. Steve then showed him a gallery, and I cringed. Dex, though, was his usual unflappable self, and made no comments, in fact, he didn't react at all.
I showed Dex the camera and cable that Steve had found in his shower, still hanging from the ceiling. Dex examined it, and then asked, "Have you guys turned this off yet?"
"Nope, didn't want to mess with it until you had looked at everything." I replied.
Dex nodded, and after poking around the website a little, He followed us to my apartment, and checked out the two cameras there. Dex followed the cable from the outside, walking through the brush between the back of my apartment and the boundary fence, and picked up a trash bag that the cable ran into. After opening it up and examining the contents, he nodded, "The cameras are high-end web cams, and are powered by the USB - Universal Serial Bus - cables that connect them to the computer. They are high resolution, so the still pictures are just frame grabs from the recorded video feed. Of course, everyone knows that USB cables have a length limit."
I rolled my eyes as Dex said 'everyone', but let him continue.
"So that method would not work for your apartment. Instead, what they did was use a USB extender. The USB extender consists of two units, the local unit, and the remote unit, which are interconnected with CAT5 cable. The local unit is near the computer, connected to it by a USB cable, and the remote unit is here, with USB cables to the two cameras in your apartment. This way, they only had to run one cable to each camera, and it powers the cameras too. Damn clever." Dex nodded approvingly.
One word caught my ear, "They?" I asked.
Dex held up the box, "I doubt Eric could rig this himself. Or maybe he could, it would be easy to install, and he could have just looked up the hardware online. Probably about a thousand bucks worth of equipment here, maybe more."
"Oh, great. Now we know where the missing money from the blackmail went. He must have stashed it somewhere, and then used it to buy this stuff," Steve said, and I could have sworn I heard his teeth grind.
Dex wanted to examine the host computer, so we led him to Eric's room. Dex impassively eyed the kicked-in door, and took a seat at the computer, moving the mouse to bring up the password prompt.
"We don't know the password," I said.
"So?" Dex replied, grabbing a CD from his oversized shirt pocket and slipping it in the drive. Moments later, the password prompt disappeared, and Dex was in, "Let me work on this alone." He said, reminding us bluntly of his dislike for having people look over his shoulder while he worked.
Steve and I retreated to the living room, where Steve filled his father in on Dex's findings so far. No sooner had Steve finished than Dex came steaming down the hallway, "I need to have a look at the router. I'd need the password."
Mr. Williams replied, "Just use my PC, Dex. The password is entered automatically by the browser, it's a web based interface, and the router is right next to my computer."
Dex disappeared into Mr. William's office, and we heard the PC booting up, then the clatter of keys as Dex typed at his usual frantic pace. It wasn't long before he called out for all of us, and we entered the office to discover what he had found.
"In simple terms, the cameras feed into Eric's computer. I found a graphics-editing program, and web server program that relays the cam feeds out over the Internet to what looks to me like a dedicated server that hosts the camera feeds, video recordings, and the rest of the actual web page and contents. I can't get into the remote server without a password, and there is no record of one on Eric's PC. I shut off the local program though, so the cameras are no longer active," Dex coughed, "and oh, by the way, that is, as they say, the tip of the iceberg."
Mr. Williams did not like the sound of that, at all, and with a sharp glance he prompted Dex to spill it.
"I found more on Eric's computer; keylogger log files, so I did a scan for keyloggers," said Dex.
That puzzled me, so I asked, "Someone was spying on Eric's computer?"
Dex shook his head, "Nope. There is one on there but it isn't installed. It is just the program itself, and it is an elegant one; it's called 'Fire in the Hole', and I've seen it before. It uses the Win32 function SetWindowsHookEx. That function can intercept many operating system operations such as windows messages being sent to all windows, all mouse movement and button clicking and all keystrokes. When placed inside a DLL - Dynamic Link Library - that DLL then gets loaded up with any subsequent application and is treated as being in the same process space as that application. In other words, if loaded into a browser like Internet Explorer, that DLL acts as a keylogger, and also bypasses any firewall because it would look like part of the browser, which already has permission to act as a server. It uses TCP port 80, which is pretty normal for a browser, so I doubt any normally configured firewall or router would stop it. And on a Windows system, Internet Explorer is always loaded because it is integrated with the desktop."
Mr. Williams held up his hands in surrender, "In English, please, Dex. Something I can understand..."
Dex angled his head sideways, staring off at nothing as he thought, and finally give us the news, "This is a program that when placed on a computer becomes part of the browser, but records anything you type in any program, and can access any document or file it wants, and send it out to another computer. It is an electronic spy, much like what I rigged up in the fake data stick, but permanent and more advanced. Eric had a copy of the program on his system, and logs in his system had been sent from the target computer. The target computer has been compromised for a long time by the look of it, and Eric was sending the data on to someone."
I watched as Mr. Williams' face drained of color, as he said in a loud whisper, as if fear had gripped his heart, "What was on the logs, and whose computer was it from?"
"Looks like Lonesome Valley Sheriff's department investigation reports, planning, and other police business, from your computer, sir. I just checked directly, 'Fire in the Hole' is installed on your PC."
Mr. Williams would have fallen over if Steve and I had not each grabbed an arm and eased him into a chair. His face was ashen, and he looked up at us with a glazed stare, "Oh, Shit! The department has been on the trail of a shadowy outfit for the last couple of years. We've had few tips that they are into everything from gunrunning to drugs, and who knows what else, but every time we pick up so much as a hint, they evaporate, and nothing ever pans out. The Sheriff and I thought we had a leak in the department, a traitor warning them of our every move. Now I know they did. And it's me."
Dex shook his head adamantly, "No, sir, you are wrong. I am a security pro, and your safeguards were better than average. However, you were up against a real pro, a hacker. There is no possible way you could have known."
Steve's head snapped around, "Eric is a hacker?"
Dex shook his head yet again, "No. But he was working with one. Hackers are a very strange breed; they are both secretive and vain. They must have anonymity but their vanity demands recognition. Therefore, they sometimes leave clues to their online identity. In this case, the hacker signed his work, which is a monumental display of ego as well as a waste of file space; his signature is an embedded image, and that adds to the file size."
Dex typed in a few commands on the keyboard, and an image of a playing card, the three of hearts, appeared on the screen. "That is his signature, and his pseudonym," said Dex.
I looked at it, and the incomprehension must have been plain on my face, because Dex sighed, and explained, "It is a black and white image of the three of hearts. Hearts are a red suit, but this is a black heart. Get it? Blackheart. That's his pseudonym, and he's one of the most notorious black-hat hackers on the net. Eric would have had to pay him big bucks for this, but I suspect this isn't Eric's operation."
"Spill it, all of it, and in English, Dex," growled Mr. Williams.
"I think Eric was selling information to this outfit you mentioned, or was their partner. This kind of info would be invaluable to them, as they would always be one step ahead of your investigators, and would know what you knew. My guess is that Eric saw the opportunity and offered his services. The outfit then paid the hacker for the keylogger setup and gave the disk to Eric. You saw how easily I bypassed the password on Eric's PC? This could have been installed the same way; just boot it up with a CD in the drive, and the CD would install the keylogger. That's my guess as to how it was done, anyway.
Long and short of it is, I think Eric is working with your criminal outfit. This could explain the tech advice he's getting too. I'll need to take his computer with me to do a full investigation, but those are my preliminary opinions."
Mr. Williams still looked shell-shocked, but he asked the question that was on my mind, "And that booby trapped data thing; somebody switched them in my locked drawer..."
Dex took a paperclip and bit it, making it narrower, and then closed the drawer and used the paper clip to lock it and then unlock it. "Not much of a lock, so that part was easy."
"And the fake was taken and run on Reverend Thaddeus' computer..." I said, as the pieces finally started coming together in my mind.
"Yup. And his little vendetta against you guys started right when you found the Data Stick as I recall. Looks to me like you are up against a major operation, and they play for keeps," said Dex with a very inappropriate yawn.
"And Thaddeus is involved? What did you actually get?" Asked Steve.
Dex tapped a few keys before answering, "A pass phrase, which I assume is the right one for the first of the two encryption layers. That means I can darn near guarantee that I can crack the damn Data Stick eventually. Plus there was some other stuff, looks like part of a sermon, and he's on about Leviticus yet again. Didn't anyone ever tell him that Leviticus isn't the only thing in the Bible? Anyway, all I was recording was the keystrokes; I'm not sure what they were in."
"But that means we know it was him! Is this enough to get a warrant?" I asked hopefully.
Mr. Williams shot that notion down in a hurry, "No way. All we know from this is he tried to enter a pass phrase for something, and in any case, the evidence was illegally obtained. Okay, now what about Eric? Where is this damn server with the website? If we locate that, then we can do something."
Dex angled his head in that strange way of his, "No luck there. It's a legit outfit that rents server space and bandwidth, and it's in Hawaii. If we send them an official e-mail from the Lonesome Valley Sheriff's department, they should take the thing offline immediately. They might have some information as to who the customer is, and we would probably need a court order to get it, but I'm betting it's phony. The credit card charges look like they are being run through an outfit in Nicaragua, which is a common dodge to avoid inconvenient laws. My guess is that the dedicated server would be paid directly from the credit card proceeds, so that would be a dead end too."
"Are you sure the cameras are off now? Can we get rid of them?" I asked.
"They are off, because I shut down the program. I'll be taking the computer with me, so the wires will just dead-end. But don't touch the cameras; I'm guessing the police will need to see them?"
"Darn right! This is a laundry list of felonies. I'll probably have an investigator here in the morning," said Mr. Williams through grinding teeth.
Dex nodded, "Well, now we know what the leak in the Lonesome Valley Sheriff's department was. Unfortunately, we can't use it to feed them false info because it was sending to Eric's computer, and Eric was relaying it. I've de-activated and removed the keylogger, and made a copy to take with me. Right now, they probably think they have the real Data Stick, and either got the pass phrase wrong, or that you guys altered it, maybe re-encrypted it."
The worry that had been building inside of me since we first heard of a website slowly took full form in my mind, "Okay, but what is bothering me the most is that I was real worried, when I just thought it was guys who looked like us, that the Fundies would find the website and use it against us. Now we know it isus, that Reverend Thaddeus is linked up with Eric, and Eric was running the website. So, Thaddeus has or soon will have knowledge of and access to those pictures, and I'll bet he uses them against us."
Steve's father shook his head adamantly, "Don't worry too much about that. Eric ran the website without your knowledge, and if I get word that Thaddeus has those photos, whether he uses them or not, I'll go bust the son-of-a-bitch for possession of child porn."
After some more discussion and re-hashing, Dex disconnected Eric's computer and after signing for it, put it in his van.
Steve and I followed Dex out to the van and gave us one more piece of delightful news before he left;"Don't count on too much cooperation from your internet service provider when it comes to this mess. The ISP is located in Piedmont, and if I'm not mistaken, Thaddeus' church owns a chunk of it. They aren't really involved too much though, because the server isn't there, so I wouldn't worry about that too much."
Dex drove off, leaving Steve and I standing in the driveway, dealing with yet more bad news.
"When is this crap gonna end," I mumbled.
"Now," said Steve, as he turned away from me, "because I'm breaking up with you."
I felt a tightness in my chest, and I thought for a moment that he meant it. Then I realized that he didmean it, but I had a good guess at his reasons.
Springing from a standing start, I was in motion, without ever thinking it or planning it, but I saw my target in front of me. I leapt at him, crashing into his back, rattling my teeth as we both slammed into the side of my Jeep. "Oh no you don't," I yelled, "I know damn well why you said that, and what you’re thinking."
I lowered my voice a little. "Let me lay it out for you. You are thinking that I'm in this mess because of you, so I'd be better off without you. You are flat-out wrong. Your brother and the Fundies and the Sheriff are not your doing, they are their own. And if you break up with me, guess what, they are still gonna be there, and I'll be alone. Think about it. I was alone when the Sheriff tried to kill me, and I would be dead if you hadn't been at the bookstore. You saved my life that day, you airhead, and I'll tell you right now that I'd rather be in this mess with you, than not in it but without you, even if it kills me."
"And one more thing," I said, in an even lower voice, "if this splits us up, Eric and the Fundies win."
Steve had been avoiding my eyes during my tirade, but finally met them, and after a few moments of terrifying silence, he pulled me into a hug and said into my ear, "Okay, I won't do that again. Together to the end, no matter what."
I hugged him hard, "That's what I want," I said, before we kissed.
When we returned to the house, Steve's father was waiting for us with a pair of double-barreled shotguns, one cradled safely under each arm.
Please let me know what you think; good, bad, or indifferent. The feedback thread for this story is in my Forum. Please stop by and say "Hi!"
Many thanks to Conner for editing, support, encouragement, beta reading, and suggestions on this chapter.
Many thanks also to my editor EMoe for editing and for his support, encouragement, beta reading, and suggestions (and for thinking up a title!).
Thanks also to Shadowgod, for beta reading and advice, and for putting up with me.
Any remaining errors are mine alone.
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