The Monday morning after we got home, I caught up with Amit at Kudzu Joe’s. “You know, it would have been much easier to just talk by cell phone,” I told Amit.
“You’ve got to be kidding,” Amit insisted. “They’re listening, you know.” I’d only been away for a week and already I was actually missing Amit’s paranoia. He’d been busy, too.
Amit’s demonstration to Berkshire management had gone well. Their IT people were pleased with what his network monitoring software did, and the operations team was impressed with how easy it was to use. Amit may not have had much experience with professional software projects, but he had years of experience helping his folks run their business. He knew hotel business processes and procedures cold. He understood exactly how to make a tool that a typical hotel manager would be able to understand and use. The Berkshire executives were happy to throw enough money Amit’s way to pay for his first year at college. In return, they were going to get a business tool that would have cost them hundreds of thousands of dollars to develop otherwise.
“I might have been able to charge them more for it,” Amit acknowledged, “but the recurring revenue for maintenance and upgrades will be huge if it gets adopted across the company. They’ve already agreed to roll out my software to an even larger scale pilot – a couple dozen hotels around eastern Tennessee, north Georgia and northern Alabama.”
In truth, I had mixed feelings. I was genuinely happy for his success but also a bit jealous that his accomplishments were so far beyond my own. “That’s great news,” I told him. I did mean it. “Is this going to make it easier to get online anonymously?”
“Absolutely,” Amit exclaimed gleefully. “No more wardriving for Internet access. I have to debug and test the software by capturing and sifting through an entire hotel’s worth of Internet access at a time. It should be easy to hide a search here or a download there in the data stream. But it’s going to take time for me to get everything set up so I can do it smoothly and without leaving a trace. Do you think we need to do more searching?”
“I think once we download scans of everything on this list, we’re done with book downloading for the time being.” I handed Amit the Xueshu Quan list I got from Nicole, and I brought him up to speed on my encounter at the bookstore in Houston.
“That was smooth, dude,” he said, admiringly. “I knew you had it in you. Next time you pump and dump a girl, though, try to do better than just pumping for information and a number.” It was hard for me to tell if he was being sincere and serious or if he was just trying to provoke a response out of me, so I ignored him.
“Our top priority should be getting this one – a copy of Lodge’s Modern Views of Electricity.” I suggested. “It’s the most expensive book on the Xueshu Quan list, so it’s probably the most revealing. We should be looking for more scans as well as physical copies. It’s on the list of books we already checked out from the Tolliver Library.”
“I thought that title looked familiar,” Amit said. “So, did you notice anything on page,” he glanced down at the Xueshu Quan list, “302 and 303?”
“Look at this!” I turned the laptop over to him and showed him pages 302-303 from the scan we made of the Tolliver Library’s copy. “See this figure?” In the middle of page 302, there was a collection of graphs labeled “Diagram of the electric and magnetic forces concerned in radiation” drawn by a Mr. Trouton. “This figure is labelled ‘Fig. 65,’ see? Only, there’s no mention at all in the text of Figure 65.”
“Interesting,” Amit said, thoughtfully. “You compared the Tolliver Library scan to the ones we downloaded off Omnitia?”
“Yes,” I confirmed. “The pages look the same. I think this is a case where the Tolliver Library copy was already altered.” I explained the discovery from Vanderbilt University where I found a physical copy of Fleming’s Principles of Electric Wave Telegraphy that differed from the copy in the Tolliver Library but exactly matched the Omnitia scan we downloaded.
I saw the light bulb turn on immediately for Amit. “So, it’s not just a modern digital forgery, after all,” he said. “Your electromagnetic villains censored some copies of these books, and they missed others. It probably happened right at publication. The book was published, someone noticed, recalled what copies they could, and reissued a ‘corrected’ or censored version. The Tolliver Library happened to get uncensored versions of the Franklin, Fleming, and Whittaker books. With the Lodge book, though, the one book that’s most important to figuring this out, we got stuck with a censored version.”
“Exactly,” I confirmed. “That’s the fundamental problem with our method. We’ve been comparing scans of Tolliver Library books to Omnitia scans. But, if the Tolliver Library book has already been censored, there’s nothing left to find except, perhaps, for some evidence of the censoring.”
“Like a mystery figure that conveniently eats up almost a whole page of text but is never mentioned in the text itself,” Amit noted.
“Oh, and speaking of evidence of alteration,” I scrolled down the scan to the index of the book. “Check out the index entry for Heaviside.” The index listed “Heaviside, 153, 233, 325, 391,” and then on the following line, “399n., 417.” There were broad gaps between the numbers, as if a page number had been deleted. “Our electromagnetic villain got the index right this time, but was too lazy to roll the “399n” up to the earlier line,” I hypothesized. “Take a look at the Hertz index entry.” Hertz was followed by six numbers. “I measured the text,” I explained to Amit. “There’s no reason why the ‘399n’ should have been dropped to the bottom line. I’ll bet a mention of Heaviside on page 302 or 303 was deleted and the remaining numbers were spaced out.”
Amit scrolled back up to pages 302-303. The remaining text on the page ended with a paragraph talking about a quarter-wave acceleration of phase. It seemed fascinating, but neither of us understood it.
“I suspect any library copies are going to be missing the ‘printing defects’ we’re looking for,” Amit speculated. “Just like the copy of Fleming’s Principles of Electric Wave Telegraphy at Vanderbilt.”
“If someone’s trying to hide what’s in these books, you’d think they’d have removed anything easily accessible from a library by now,” I agreed.
“It’s hard to believe the Tolliver Library was overlooked,” Amit said.
“Tolliver Tech was never that significant a university,” I pointed out. “In its day, it had a good reputation for engineering, but the place was never more than a regional standout. Tolliver money gave the library here an acquisitions reach on par with the top schools of the day, but even then, I doubt many people outside the region would have heard of it. Now that it’s a community college, who would anticipate that the library of some backwoods community college would have a world-class collection of century-old technical books?”
“It wouldn’t hurt to check nearby libraries just to be sure,” Amit observed. “It’s going to be tricky if this Xueshu Quan is looking, too. If he’s prepared to pay $5000, you can forget trying to outbid him on eBay.”
“I’ve been thinking about that,” I explained. “If we find a copy online from eBay or some other place, we could just contact the seller and get him to send a picture or scan of the appropriate page to an anonymous e-mail. That’s all we actually need.”
“That’s doable,” Amit concluded. “I can use an anonymous email account to make the request. The fundamental problem is that the information is time-sensitive. Up until now, I could head out every few days to make an anonymous search and download a few scans. No real time pressure. Now, we have to be able to move quickly on the information and try to act before Xueshu Quan or anyone else can snap the books up before us. I’ll have to search every day or set up an automated search. At least it’s not a lot of data – not like trying to download an entire book at a time.
“What about that other book you got,” Amit asked, “the one that came in to the Houston bookstore?”
“It was Philosophy of Mathematics and Natural Science by Hermann Weyl,” I explained. “I skimmed through it, but it doesn’t seem relevant. We ought to look into the owner, though, someone named Kenneth A. Norton.”
“So you think this Norton owned the Franklin waves book that you looked at, too?” Amit asked.
“Maybe,” I said. “Nicole said the books had come in together. I’m not positive. Norton stamped his address in the front cover. It didn’t have a zip code, which probably means he owned it a long time ago. The book was published in 1949, so this Norton may have been just one of several owners.”
“We can try to find out about Norton, but I want to try researching this Xueshu Quan, too,” Amit added. “He doesn’t seem like someone just investigating this bouncing waves stuff. From that list, it’s as if he already knows what’s out there, and he’s trying to gather up all the copies before anyone else finds them. At least we can download scans of the books on the list.”
“I want to call Nicole and apologize for standing her up.” I’d felt guilty about lying to the girl and felt I owed her at least that. “Can we do that while we’re wardriving?”
Amit looked at me, gently shaking his head. “Girls stand up guys all the time. Turnabout is fair play.”
“That’s not how I care to play ‘the game,’” I insisted.
“If you insist,” he acquiesced. “I can set up a VOIP call.”
“Voice Over IP,” Amit explained. “You can make a phone call over the Internet connection. We need a pre-paid credit card number, though. Can you ask your Dad to get a prepaid card on one of his trips to Knoxville? That’d be safer than buying it around here. I’ll need the card number to set it up.”
Amit agreed we’d complete a wardrive looking into Xueshu Quan and Kenneth Norton. Amit was going to look for more scans of the Lodge book just in case a different source might have scanned the uncensored version. The Tolliver Library had four of the books on the Xueshu Quan list, and we had scans for them all. Amit was going to hunt down scans of the remaining half dozen or so. We’d review the results, and then make one last wardriving expedition to let me make my call, to try to gather data on any open questions.
Our more immediate deadline was the pre-season debate tournament. We had less than a week to go, so Amit and I spent the rest of our morning at Kudzu Joe’s running through our debate plans. Amit wasn’t happy with the Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator case I’d come up with. He was concerned that it wouldn’t be significant enough – that legalizing RTGs wouldn’t have much impact. I needed to work on that. We also agreed we should both be working on some alternate affirmative cases. We spent the rest of the morning brainstorming and researching.
* * *
Finding an open Wi-Fi connection while wardriving was only half the battle. The other half was finding one with enough bandwidth to download book scans. Many of the free public Wi-Fi hot spots were throttled. You could check your email or browse the web, but they put a limit on how much and how fast you could download. Amit had found a number of good locations. And Tor itself tended to be slow, requiring a long time to download large files.
Monday night, we went almost into Knoxville, and we bought dinner at the drive-through of a Zaxby’s. I parked in the back of the lot, so we could eat our chicken fingers and do our web browsing. I got the Pringles can antenna out. “Point it at that hotel,” Amit said. I aimed it carefully at the hotel across the street. “The hotel manager never changed the default passwords securing the Wi-Fi access system,” Amit explained. He used an administrator login to get access to the network, fired up a web browser with Tor, and we were online. Amit liked to use a search engine called DuckDuckGo. The site was directly accessible via Tor, and promised to protect user privacy.
We started searching on Xueshu Quan, himself. We found a very minimalist website with the name and address, but it had no details. There wasn’t much else available on him. His address turned out to be a mailbox store in Arlington. His phone number came up as unlisted in a reverse search. The name translated from Chinese to English as something like “Academic Circle.” Maybe it was an organization instead of an individual?
We had the opposite problem with Kenneth Norton. There were many Kenneth Nortons, mostly dentists, doctors, and other professionals advertising online. The address in Washington, DC, seemed to be associated with someone else, and the District of Columbia did not have property records for us to search for any details on when a Kenneth Norton might have lived there. The lack of a zip code in his address suggested pre-1963, although Norton might possibly have continued using an older stamp on more recently acquired books after that. My guess was he acquired the book not long after it was published in 1949.
We ran right down the Xueshu Quan list, downloading scans of the books from Omnitia. Then, we tried a couple of other sites – Project Gutenberg, and a few libraries that had scans of old books online. We also searched online card catalogs for libraries with copies of the Xueshu Quan books. We found a few hits at the University of Tennessee and at Georgia Tech. By then, we’d spent nearly an hour searching, and we weren’t getting anywhere. We packed up and took our digital booty home for analysis.
* * *
The next morning at Kudzu Joe’s, we reviewed what we’d found. The scans we downloaded of the Xueshu Quan books were not terribly helpful. They’d clearly been scrubbed of any relevant mentions of Heaviside or bouncing waves. There were a couple of hints here and there that a deletion had been made, but of course, any relevant information was gone.
On the plus side I was now prepared with an untraceable credit card from Dad. It was the same gift card Dad got from Mr. Burleson. Since Mr. Burleson had paid cash, it should be untraceable. We realized in all our scanning that we hadn’t done a good job looking through used bookstores online. The plan for our next, and hopefully final, wardriving excursion would be to complete a search of used bookstores and to make the VOIP call to Nicole to apologize for standing her up. I thought I owed it to her. We headed out again that evening.
* * *
“This is one of my favorite spots for online access,” Amit explained. We were in the parking lot of a convenience store overlooking an interstate exit. We had a good line-of-sight to the far side of the highway where there were three truck stops, a restaurant, and a hotel. “They all have Wi-Fi, and with the Pringles Can antenna your father made, I can hit about six different wireless networks from here. I was over at that truck stop for lunch last month, and they gave me the password for the ‘secured’ wireless they provide for truckers who are overnighting in their lot. Let’s see if they’ve changed the password yet.”
He set up the Pringles can antenna on the dash of the car and tweaked the orientation to maximize the signal strength. “Password’s good; we’re connected.” He started up Tor to route our Internet traffic through a complicated network of relays, making it difficult for anyone to trace our traffic back to a physical location. Then, he fired up the VOIP program and handed me a headset. He fired up a web browser with Tor, and we were online. I called Nicole’s number through the web interface.
“Hello,” a man’s voice answered.
“Hello,” I said. “I’m calling for Nicole. Do I have the right number?”
Amit had a very concerned look on his face, I saw his hand move to the keyboard and hover.
“This is Nicole’s phone,” the man said. “May I ask who’s calling?”
Amit was frantically shaking his head no.
“I’ll call again later, thanks!” I could hear the man begin to bark something as Amit cancelled the connection.
“This is not good, dude,” he said.
“Can they trace us?”
“Not likely,” Amit assured me. “Even if they did get the number, all it will do is lead them to the credit card. But Mr. Burleson paid cash, so they shouldn’t be able to trace it. Let’s finish what we came here for.”
“Let me try one more call,” I insisted.
“To Nicole? You’re crazy…” Amit began.
“No, to the bookstore where she worked,” I explained.
“Oh,” Amit said. “Be ready to hang up quickly if it gets weird.” He looked up the number and dialed it for me.
“Thank you for calling Half Price Books,” a cheery woman answered.
“Hello,” I said. “I was wondering if I could speak with Nicole. I haven’t been able to get hold of her on her cell. Is she there?”
There was a long pause.
“Oh, honey,” the lady said. “I’m so sorry, but Nicole is dead.” Amit and I stared blankly at each other. “Hello?”
“Sorry,” I said. “I hadn’t heard. Do you know what happened?”
“The police say she was killed by someone she was seeing. Someone named ‘Dan.’” Amit looked as dumbfounded as I felt. “Do you know this Dan?” the lady asked.
“No ma’am, sorry. I hardly knew Nicole. I just met her once in the store. You probably knew her much better than I did. I’m sorry for your loss.”
“Oh, bless your heart,” she said. “My, it’s just been so crazy here losing Nicole and Mr. Rodriguez, too.”
My jaw was running out of room to drop any further.
“He was her… manager?” I asked.
“Well not actually her manager, no,” she explained. “He was our Acquisitions Manager. Handled all our book purchases, things like that.”
“And what happened to him?”
“Hit and run accident. Right outside the store. They were gone before anyone saw. It was horrible,” she seemed upset.
“I’m so sorry to trouble you,” I needed to finish this. “Thanks for your time.”
“You’re welcome,” she said. “Sorry about Nicole.”
Amit hung up the phone.
Sorry about Nicole. Yeah. Me, too. I’d good as killed her.
“It wasn’t your fault,” Amit said. He was getting way too proficient at reading me. “You didn’t kill her. Your electromagnetic villains did. It’s them. And if it weren’t Nicole, it would have been someone else. Maybe you or me.”
They were on to me. “They’re looking for ‘Dan.’ They’re saying I killed her.” I tried to keep calm, but I was feeling overwhelmed by it all.
“They must have interrogated her first,” Amit said softly. “She must have told them all about you, including that name you called yourself.”
“That’s so cold,” I was still in shock. “She told them everything she knew, and they killed her, anyway.”
Amit searched on “Houston, Nicole, Murder.” He turned up some local news reporting. She’d been found strangled in her apartment. Police suspected foul play. They were seeking a boyfriend, Dan, for questioning. There was a sketch. It looked a bit like me, but was off. Anyone with information should call the Houston Police Department.
“They don’t have video,” Amit said. “They should have had surveillance video of you buying the book.”
“I didn’t pay at the register. I handed her cash. She took care of it and brought it back to me.” This couldn’t be allowed to stand. It had to be this Xueshu Quan. Was he the electromagnetic villain?
“You want to call it a night?” Amit asked.
“Let’s finish what we came out here to do.”
Amit nodded in agreement.
We found and downloaded some more scans of Lodge’s Modern Views of Electricity from various sources, and then began working our way through online booksellers looking for copies. A helicopter buzzed overhead. That was odd. We don’t get many helicopters flying around this far out of the big city. I looked around in time to see a couple of state troopers lined up making a left-hand turn to cross back under the interstate – away from us and toward the truck stop. “Shut it down,” I exclaimed, as I yanked the antenna off the dash and pulled the Wi-Fi dongle out of the computer. Amit did a hard power off on the laptop.
“What’s going on?” Amit asked.
As I described the helicopter and began explaining about the state troopers to Amit, an explosion of flashing blue lights burst out around the truck stop on the far side of the interstate – the same truck stop whose wireless access we had been using moments before.
“Let’s go!” Amit fumbled for his keys.
“No!” I grabbed his hand. “Too obvious. We’d just draw attention to ourselves. It could be a complete coincidence.” I thought for a moment. We’d let ourselves get cornered. The roads on this side of the interstate were all dead ends that terminated in a wilderness area. We had to go past the police barricade. But, not just yet. “Let’s go into the convenience store, buy some Cokes, and head home.”
We got out of Amit’s car, and got our Cokes. As we were checking out at the cash register, I had an inspiration. “I’ll take a pack of Marlboros.”
The clerk eyed me suspiciously. “You got an ID?”
I made a show of searching my pockets. “Nope. Must have left it at home.”
“You should stay away from that shit, kid,” the clerk advised me. “It’ll rot out your lungs.”
Amit and I departed. He looked at me incredulously. Then I saw the light bulb flash on. “Oh, I get it. If anyone saw us sitting here for the last hour…”
“…the clerk is going to tell them we’re a couple of underage losers stealing a smoke in the parking lot,” I finished the thought.
“Better to look like we’re guilty of something else than draw attention to what we were really doing,” Amit approved. “Slick. Now let’s get out of here before they run out of innocent truckers to hassle.”
I seconded Amit’s motion. Our best bet was to get out now before they spread a wider net. The on ramp to the interstate was blocked by a state trooper. We had to drive right past the truck stop to get home. A couple of sheriff’s deputies had the truck stop blocked off, and they weren’t letting anyone in or out. We drove up slowly trying our best to remain calm and unconcerned. They waved us on past. I could see some state troopers’ vehicles and trucks. We didn’t pause to get a better look. As we were driving away, I heard more helicopters flying overhead. It was clearly something major. Perhaps it was all a coincidence – some big drug bust or something else going down? Could they truly be after us? Amit drove me home. It was late, so I didn’t wake up my parents to tell them what happened. After all, it could have been a coincidence.
The next morning, Dad woke me up early to see the news. Homeland Security and the Tennessee State Troopers had “thwarted a cyber-terror attack” that had been underway from the truck stop. According to the reports, the terrorists had been hacking into critical infrastructure at TVA’s Cove Creek nuclear plant. Only Homeland Security’s quick and decisive action had prevented a potentially dangerous situation. Unfortunately, the terrorists were still at large. The terrorists were likely using directional antennas to exploit unsecured wireless networks and even hacking into secured networks. One morning show host showed a picture of a Pringles can antenna – identical to what we were using. Tennesseans were advised to be on the lookout for any suspicious behavior. I couldn’t imagine there actually being “cyber-terrorists” who just happened to be at the same truck stop at the same time. It had to be a cover story for an effort to find Amit and me.
Dad insisted on collecting everyone’s cell phone and placing them in the microwave. “It makes a great Faraday cage, so there’s no chance anyone can turn them on remotely and listen to us.” He called Mom and me to the dining room to discuss the situation. I told them about Nicole and about what happened at the truck stop. He chewed me out for not waking him up last night. “They’re after you and Amit,” Dad concluded. “It can’t be a coincidence, but it makes no sense to me why anything you’ve done would trigger such an extreme reaction.”
“You’re always saying actions have consequences,” Mom pointed out to Dad. “You two thought you found some kind of dangerous conspiracy and just had to keep poking at it until the conspirators woke up. Well, now, they have. People have already been killed. That’s water under the bridge, now. How do we protect ourselves?”
“We go about our daily routine,” Dad said. “Don’t draw unnecessary attention, but we need to get ready.” He turned to me. “Take the DVD burner and back up all the data you and Amit collected. Make six copies – that ought to be plenty. Put a working copy on a flash drive. We’ll risk hiding it here. Gather up any hard copies as well as the laptops, wireless dongles, and antennas. Make sure all your other files are backed up, too.”
He turned to Mom. “Backup all your files. I’ll be doing the same. Let’s get any family records and documents together. I was going to be seeing Rob this morning anyway. I’ll run everything up to his place for safekeeping. We need to talk with a lawyer. I’ll call Greg Parsons in Knoxville to see if he can connect us with someone appropriate. I’ll try to set up a meeting for this afternoon.” Finally, Dad asked me, “When will you be seeing Amit?”
“I was supposed to be seeing him at Kudzu Joe’s this morning.”
“Good. Get Amit to do the same – back everything up and gather all the equipment. I’ll probably want to swing by the hotel later this morning. We’ll need to speak with him and his folks. You both know not to say anything and not to text or call each other regarding this, get it?”
“Got it,” I replied.
“Good,” he said.
We all got to work. A few days ago, I thought it ludicrous to think that all communications were being monitored. Now, I wasn’t nearly so confident. How could Amit and I have been monitored after all our precautions? I got my backups and equipment to Dad. He cautioned me to leave my cell phone at home so I couldn’t be easily traced. Then, he left for Uncle Rob’s with our backups and instructed me to get Amit back to the hotel – he’d meet us there. I headed off to Kudzu Joe’s just a bit late.
* * *
“I was beginning to think they got you,” Amit said softly.
He was already a couple of steps ahead of me. The state troopers had stopped by the hotel late last night looking for suspicious out-of-town characters who might be involved in cyber-terror. He’d been up a good part of the night backing up the data and caching his equipment. He assured me it wouldn’t be found. “A hotel is a big place with lots of nooks and crannies.” He’d even had time to look at what we’d downloaded. Let’s go back to the hotel. I think you’ll find it very interesting.”
When we got back to the hotel, I asked him if he’d told his folks about last night’s events.
“I didn’t get back until late, and they’ve been too busy with the morning rush for me to tell them anything,” he explained. “I think I’ll wait for your dad to show up. My father sometimes doesn’t understand what I do. He’s proud of what I’ve accomplished, but if there’s trouble, he’s likely to blame me, even if it actually isn’t my fault. He’s less likely to blow up at me if your father is around. Your father can help explain everything. He’ll listen to your father.”
Amit’s father had finished up with a guest, so Amit headed to the reception desk. I followed along for moral support.
“Dad, I may have gotten into some trouble last night,” Amit confided to his father. “I need to talk with you about it. May we take over the Smoky Mountain conference room? It might take an hour or so.”
“Sure, the room is open, but what is this trouble?”
“My father will be here in a little bit, Mr. Patel,” I explained. “It’s a potential legal problem we hadn’t realized might be an issue. He needs to check with a lawyer and get some questions answered. He asked me to arrange a meeting with you later this morning to discuss it in private.”
Amit’s father seemed both concerned and curious. Another guest approached the desk, cutting short his desire to interrogate us further. “Okay, I’ll see you back there in a bit.”
Amit led me to a storage room off the laundry. He moved some jugs of cleaning supplies and unscrewed an air vent cover. Behind was a small compartment with a laptop and the Pringles can antenna. Amit pulled out a flash drive. “All the scans and data are on here,” he explained. “Here’s a copy for you.” He handed me one of the flash drives. “I have a smaller hidey hole near where I work. I normally keep the flash drive there. For now though, I’m keeping everything in here.” He reached in and pulled out a couple of papers – a printout of the crucial pages from Lodge’s Modern Views of Electricity.
Amit looked thoughtfully at the pages. “Why is this so important that someone wants to kill Nicole and her boss and call our searches ‘cyber-terror?’”
“Beats me,” I confessed. “We need to figure out what was here on these pages before they altered it. Let’s take it up to show our fathers. We can shred it when we’re done.”
* * *
Amit’s father led mine into the conference room. “What’s this trouble our boys are in?” Mr. Patel asked. We told him the whole story and showed them both the suspicious pages from the Lodge book.
“This is what all the trouble is about?” Mr. Patel was incredulous. “This old physics book is what they call cyber-terror?”
“It’s all a cover story of some kind,” my father explained. “Somehow, this Lodge book is a clue to a very important secret: a secret so important that someone high up in the government is willing to go to extreme lengths to suppress it and keep people like our sons from looking into it.”
“The state troopers here last night,” Mr. Patel began, “they were here looking for my boy, all because of this?”
“I’m sure the state troopers have no idea about the Heaviside paper or the Lodge book or whatever the hidden truth is,” my father clarified. “They honestly believe what they’ve been told – that ‘cyber-terrorists’ were trying to break into a TVA nuclear plant from the truck stop. If they find our boys, they will be arrested, handed over to the people who do know the score. They might even kill our boys. The girl who gave my son the list with this book on it was murdered. The co-worker from whom she got the list was murdered. Some of the historical evidence the boys found suggests that a number of the famous scientists who worked on this problem a century ago were killed or silenced. I thought it was all a coincidence, but the fact that there could be all this trouble, this extreme reaction, it all makes me think there’s really something to it. We need to be very, very careful.”
“This can’t happen.” Now Mr. Patel was angry. “This is supposed to be a free country. We work hard. We build a life here. We raise our boy right. And they want to come after him because of some old physics book?”
“I know some good men, honorable men, men who believe in this country and what it can and ought to be,” my father assured him. “I’ve set up a meeting at their law office this afternoon. I hope you and Amit can come with us.”
“No, you don’t understand!” Mr. Patel was getting insistent. He spoke with a quiet intensity. “They are here already. They are right here in my hotel, up on the second floor! They checked in late last night. They took a copy of all my surveillance video, and a print out of all the guest information. They are right on top of us!”
Amit looked stunned. Then his eyes narrowed. “What room are they in, Dad?” He began opening his laptop. His father told him the room numbers. “Maybe we’re right on top of them.” Amit pulled open his software and clicked around a bit. “I have the log files for their internet usage. It looks like a lot of the traffic went over a VPN.” His father looked confused. “A Virtual Private Network. It’s an encrypted tunnel to try to keep your Internet traffic safe from the kind of poking around I’m about to do.”
“Is this a good idea?” Amit’s father asked him.
“Is there any way they can detect what you’re doing?” my father asked.
“I own this network,” Amit said possessively. “They’re playing on my turf now, and there’s no way for them to know what they’re leaving behind in my log files or if I fork their traffic and make a copy of it. If they want to try to frame us for cyber-terror, I want to fight back.”
“I think you should let him,” my father said. Amit’s dad nodded his head in agreement.
“I can’t tell exactly what they were looking at last night because all I have right now are the IP headers in the log file – the addresses where all their traffic was going. That’s about to change, because I’m setting the server to record all their traffic in the future.” He paused a minute, fingers clicking decisively across the keyboard. “Done,” he said confidently. He went back and began scrolling through the log file. “Sloppy, sloppy, sloppy. The point of a VPN is to shield all your traffic by encrypting it and routing it to a secure server back at your office. But look at these lags! Their VPN is crap!”
“You think you can read it?” I asked.
“Probably not,” Amit acknowledged. “VPNs are always encrypted, or what’s the point of having one. But apparently, the VPN these guys use is so slow that they did a bunch of Omnitia searches outside their secure tunnel. They probably got fed up with the lags.” He kept scanning the log file. “Oh, and here’s something interesting! One of these guys is checking out the Hook Up Landing website. No wonder he doesn’t want the main office IT staff to know about this.
“What is this Hook Up Landing website?” Mr. Patel asked his son.
“It’s a dating website…,” Amit began. Then he realized the trap he was getting into. “I… I understand it’s for people interested in… ‘short-term’ relationships.” He looked flustered. “I read about it somewhere,” he insisted. “It has a bad reputation.”
His father looked at Amit severely.
“In any event,” Amit continued, regaining his composure, “all this traffic outside the VPN is protected by a much less powerful default encryption. I might be able to hack into it.”
“That’s a project for another day,” my father cautioned. “We need to get out of here without being seen. You two really do need to accompany us to Knoxville to speak with my lawyer.”
“I’ll have to come up with something to tell your mom, Amit,” his father said. “I’m not sure she’d be able to deal with our guests if she knew the truth.” Amit’s father led us out the back door. “We’ll see you at the lawyers’ this afternoon.”
* * *
“Hi there!” Amit said cheerfully to the receptionist at the law office.
She looked us over, suspiciously. “May I help you gentlemen?”
“We’re here to see Greg Parsons,” my father told her.
“Yes, sir,” the receptionist responded. “Please have a seat, and he’ll be out in just a moment.” She called back to tell Mr. Parsons we were waiting. Amit lingered as the rest of us took our seat.
“I still have a boyfriend,” the receptionist pre-empted him.
“So does my girlfriend,” Amit assured her, confidently, “but I don’t have time to compare notes with you just now. I was wondering where the bathroom is?”
Not long after Amit got back, Mr. Parsons and another man came out and led us back to a conference room.
“Bill Burke,” the stranger introduced himself to Dad and then shook hands. We all introduced ourselves.
“Greg said this might be a criminal matter,” Mr. Burke began. “I usually defend more white-collar crimes like fraud, but I may be able to help you.”
“Before we begin,” Dad cautioned the lawyers, “this is highly confidential. How confident are you that this room is secure?”
“We take our security very seriously here,” Mr. Burke assured us. “We do a weekly sweep for electronic devices, and we have a professional security company that sweeps through every month or so.”
“May I ask you to leave your cell phones outside the room?” Dad asked. “We didn’t bring any.”
Mr. Burke and Mr. Parsons complied with Dad’s request although they probably thought they were humoring him.
“You know that big ‘cyber-terror’ case in the news this morning? These boys are being sought for it.” Dad explained how we’d uncovered mysterious edits and omissions in old physics books, and how we’d been wardriving to download scans. He handed over a copy of my note from Nicole with the book list and Xueshu Quan’s contact information. He explained how we’d found out about Nicole’s murder and the murder of her co-worker. Finally, he handed out copies of the critical page from Lodge’s Modern Views. They looked dumbfounded. There was a lot of that going around.
“This has to be the craziest story I’ve ever heard,” Mr. Burke said, shaking his head. He looked at Amit and me. “Boys, I’m your lawyer now. Anything you tell me is protected by attorney-client privilege. That means I cannot be forced to disclose anything you might share with me. Whatever secrets you have are safe with me. If I disclose them, I’m likely to get myself disbarred. That means I lose my job. I get some clients who don’t want to come clean with me and tell me the whole story. They hold back information that eventually comes out anyway, and it takes me by surprise. If there’s anything relevant, you need to tell me about it now. We can take action to avoid worst-case scenarios, and minimize the likelihood of fines or a jail sentence. You’re both underage, so you might get off with probation. I can’t protect you very well, though, if you let me get surprised when the facts turn up, as they inevitably will.
“Did you hack into any nuclear or TVA computers?”
“No, sir,” Amit and I concurred.
“Now I know computers can be complicated and sometimes you end up doing something you didn’t truly mean to do,” he continued. “So, tell me, did you access them at all, even by mistake or accident?”
“No, sir,” we confirmed.
“To the best of your knowledge, this cyber-terror alert is all about these old physics books and this Xueshu Quan person?”
“I suppose, sir,” I began, “I mean it’s possible that there actually was a cyber-terrorist at the same truck stop at the same time, but I don’t think it’s likely.”
“Neither do I,” Mr. Burke agreed. “You have two basic options. Normally, I would make sure I had all the facts and then accompany you to the police or the agency investigating the alleged crime. In this case, I don’t see that you have committed any crime. The feds might argue your access to the truck stop wireless network was unauthorized. I don’t think they’d be likely to prevail on that theory since the truck stop gave you the password at an earlier visit and the network is set up for their customers’ use.
“I’d like to do a little digging first.” Mr. Burke offered. “I think this must be some kind of national security issue – something considered classified or otherwise secret. I want to poke around a bit. I have a private investigator I work with in the DC area. He’s trustworthy and discrete. I can ask him to investigate Xueshu Quan – see who picks up the mail from Quan’s box and where they go.”
“It would be unwise for any of this to lead back to you, let alone us,” Dad pointed out. “They must know we have their address. They’ll be on guard. And I’d hate for your investigator to get in trouble with these folks. These people have been killing to keep their secrets.”
“As I said,” Mr. Burke assured Dad, “my investigator is very discrete and very careful, particularly if I emphasize the risks.”
“Investigators, particularly good ones, are expensive. How much will this cost?” Mr. Patel asked.
“Seeing as how my son got your son into this, I’ll be paying for it,” Dad offered.
“I appreciate the offer,” Mr. Patel said, “but let’s discuss it between ourselves later.”
“While we’re looking into this further,” Mr. Burke continued, “I should advise you what to do if you are approached by the police or federal agents. If they want to ask you questions, you should politely decline to answer any questions without your parents present. If they continue to press you, all you have to do is say the magic words, ‘I refuse to answer any questions without my attorney.’ Then, you should ask ‘Am I free to go?’ In principle, this requires them to either arrest you or let you go. Either way, you don’t talk unless I’m present. In practice, however, they’re likely to keep trying to persuade you to talk.”
“Don’t they have to read us our rights?” Amit asked.
“Only if they arrest you, but, they might not arrest you immediately,” Mr. Burke warned us. “Lying to federal officers is a crime, and there’s nothing they like better than to engage you in a long rambling conversation. Then, if they can trip you up the least little bit, find the slightest error or misrepresentation in what you said, they can charge you with lying to federal agents and use the case as leverage against you.
“In any given situation, you should use your judgment, and you don’t necessarily want to escalate to immediately demanding a lawyer. The general rule is you should never volunteer information to an officer or agent that might in the least way be pertinent to some kind of investigation that might be related to you.
“The Supreme Court Justice, Robert Jackson, who also served as the prosecutor of the Nazis at the Nuremberg trials, said, ‘Any lawyer worth his salt will tell the suspect in no uncertain terms to make no statement to the police under any circumstances.’”
“We’ll keep that in mind,” I assured him.
“It’s trickier than just that,” Mr. Burke added, smiling at our naïvety. “Police can be ruthless and devious in how they get you to incriminate yourself. They can deceive you, lie to you, pressure you, and trick you in order to get an admission from you, to help the prosecutor build a case.
“They’ll leave you alone in a room a long time to soften you up – bright lights, uncomfortable chair, one-way observation mirror. They’ll send in a scary, intimidating interrogator to work you over in hope of getting you desperate and scared enough to then confide in a friendlier, more supportive interrogator who’ll come along later. That trick is so common it has its own name. It’s called the ‘good-cop, bad-cop’ routine.
“They’ll take you and your friend in, interrogate you separately and tell each of you that the other has confessed to everything and your only chance to avoid a long sentence is to admit your guilt. They’ll tell you that they already have all the evidence they need to convict you and that it will go easier on you if you take responsibility. They may tell you that they already have your fingerprints or a video of you. They’ll ask you to write a letter of apology – and there’s little more incriminating than a confession written in your own hand. They’ll hand you a cup of coffee, and then take the empty cup when you’re done to surreptitiously collect a sample of your DNA.
“They have years of experience breaking down hardened criminals. Don’t talk with them. Don’t play their game. Just say the magic words, ‘I refuse to answer any questions without my attorney.’ And, unless they’ve already arrested you, you should ask, ‘Am I free to go?’”
* * *
The next morning, Amit got me up to speed on events at the hotel. He’d compared the IP log from the hotel’s current “FBI” guests to the IP activity from some FBI agents who’d stayed at one of the Knoxville locations of the hotel. “Totally inconsistent,” he explained. “Different VPN IP address and completely different protocols. I don’t think they’re actually FBI agents. I told Dad, and he called the sheriff. Dad explained to the sheriff that his new FBI guests seemed a bit suspicious, and would the sheriff please confirm that they were truly FBI agents. So apparently, Sheriff Gunn called the Knoxville office of the FBI, and they had no record of these guys. He told Dad to keep an eye on them and came out with a couple of deputies. They stopped the guys in the lobby as they were coming in and asked them for identification. Sheriff Gunn called the Knoxville office again right in front of them and they said they had no record of them. The sheriff was about to run them in for impersonating Federal agents when they told him to tell the Knoxville office to call the Director of the FBI in Washington. There was a long pause – a couple of minutes or more – and then suddenly the sheriff was apologizing for the misunderstanding.
“After the FBI guys left, my father apologized to the sheriff for getting him in trouble with the false tip, but the sheriff said, ‘No, that was a good call on your part. There’s something just not right about those guys. The FBI is very territorial. I’ve never heard of FBI agents operating independent of the local office. They should at least have checked in. The Knoxville office seemed pissed off about it, but apparently, someone in the Director’s office told them to mind their own business. Keep an eye open, and don’t hesitate to let me know if you pick up on anything else.’”
“That doesn’t sound like Sheriff Gunn to be so talkative,” I noted.
“He and Dad have a good relationship,” Amit explained, “Dad tips him off all the time when he sees suspicious activity. It makes the sheriff look good to the state troopers when he gets an arrest or tips them off. Trust me, you don’t want to have to clean up a room after someone has used the bathtub to make meth.”
“Who are those guys, really,” I wondered.
“Some secret group within the FBI?” Amit speculated. “Some group with the power to pose as FBI agents and make the FBI back them up in a pinch? It’s hard to tell.”
* * *
With all the anxiety and pressure, neither Amit nor I felt like preparing for the pre-season debate tournament. Both of us had begun the summer with the goal of getting prepped for it, but between all our other projects, we hadn’t done as much preparation as we should. The tournament was a full day affair. Our top competition would be Emma and her partner Sharon. They had just missed out on going to the national debate tournament representing Tennessee and were expecting to go all the way in their senior year. They were very good, very creative, and very formidable.
David and my Cousin Shawn and were also contenders. They were slick, smooth, and totally unscrupulous. At a tournament last year, I’d caught David strategically editing quotations, removing key words or phrases and inserting ellipses to change their meaning. We proved it to the judge and they not only lost, but also got a reprimand and a suspension. They’d had it in for us ever since.
The final contenders were Alex and Daniel. They would be sophomores this year and had taken an interest in debate. They didn’t have much experience, but I understood that our debate coach, Mr. Stinson, had been working with them over the summer to get them up to speed.
The intraschool debate tournament was something of a tradition with Mr. Stinson, our debate coach and teacher. His notion was to get us thinking early about the debate topic and working to collect research. By having our first tournament experience at the beginning of the school year, and by continuing to practice, review and improve ourselves, we’d be experienced veteran debaters by the time the first interschool tournaments rolled around in late October. Mr. Stinson’s insistence on an early start gave the Lee County High debate team a huge advantage, even over the top Knoxville debate programs.
We beat Sharon and Emma in our first match-up, and handily trounced Alex and Daniel, in both our debates with them. We’d also lost one round to Shawn and David. Going into the sixth and final round, we had a rematch with Sharon and Emma that would decide the tournament.
It was not our day. I presented our affirmative case for RTGs as an alternative energy source. In cross-examination, Sharon blindsided me with a bunch of questions about how unpopular nuclear power was with women. Then, Emma sprung their trap. They conceded the need for RTG, but insisted women would never approve of them because of their strong disapproval of nuclear power. Our approach of approving subsidies for RTGs through the regular democratic system, would never work in the face of this feminine opposition, so they offered a counterplan: they proposed repealing women’s suffrage.
Emma threw all of Amit’s claims and arguments from the Independence Day party right back at him. She and Sharon had done a remarkable job finding facts and statistics to buttress their case. Women do vote differently than men, they argued, citing a study by John R. Lott, Jr. and Larry Kenny. In her speech, Sharon claimed that women were directly responsible for the growth of the welfare state and its crippling effect on economic growth and progress. Writing in Public Choice, Burton Abrams and Russell F. Settle concluded that the 1971 extension of suffrage to women in Switzerland led to a 28% increase in social welfare spending and increased the overall size of the Swiss government. She had an impressive array of statistics. Overcoming the irrational objections to RTG was only the beginning of the benefits possible from the negative counterplan. By repealing women’s suffrage, we would roll back the oppressive state and launch a new era of growth and prosperity. Sharon almost had me convinced.
Amit and I made a valiant try in our rebuttals. We both argued for the complete infeasibility of expecting women’s suffrage to be repealed by any significant number of state legislatures, but we were simply unprepared to do much more than argue vaguely for fair play, equality, and justice. They’d caught us absolutely unprepared for any substantive rebuttal. Amit gave an impassioned closing statement, but I was sure we’d lost.
Mr. Stinson finished scribbling some notes, and finally looked up at the four of us waiting patiently for his pronouncement. “I wish I’d videoed that one,” he said, “because it was one of the most improbable and fascinating debates I’ve ever seen. Where on earth did you get the idea for that counterplan?”
“A good friend of mine suggested it,” Emma said coyly.
“You took the Affirmative by complete surprise. They were utterly unprepared for that counterplan and had nothing but cheap rhetorical appeals to equality and justice to offer in opposition. I do agree with the Affirmative’s point that your plan is completely unfeasible because no state legislature is going to act to deny women the vote. Their own plan, however, suffers the same shortcoming given the opposition, irrational or not, to nuclear power. I’m awarding this one to the Negative.”
We shook hands and congratulated the girls. Despite the loss, I enjoyed spending an entire day thinking about something other than electromagnetic villains and the suppressed Heaviside paper on bouncing waves.
* * *
The following Monday was the first day of school. I’d already taken the core math and science classes I needed, so I’d signed up for shop class, drawing, and electronics to fill the gaps in my schedule. Shop class in particular was a fascinating experience. I had shop just before lunch. I showed up a bit early and found a seat.
“You’re not a shop rat,” said a big guy sitting down right behind me. “What are you doing here?” I had to think to remember his name – Rick. He was on the football team, but I didn’t know much about him, because he wasn’t in my usual classes. And he didn’t seem very friendly.
“Hi, Rick,” I said. “What do you mean by a ‘shop rat’?”
“That’s what we all call ourselves,” he explained. “All the guys who take shop every year. What are you doing here?” His question had an edge of hostility to it.
“Just trying to pick up some useful skills,” I explained, evenly. “I worked as an apprentice electrician last summer for my dad. He’s a contractor, but I never got a chance to learn my way around wood and metal working tools.”
That seemed to mollify him a bit, and our conversation was interrupted by the bell. Coach Warner, who doubled as the shop teacher, got all our attention very quickly by holding up his hand. He was missing a finger.
“This is what happens to you if you don’t pay attention in my class,” he said slowly and clearly. “There will be no horsing around, no joking, nothing but absolute attention to what you are doing. A momentary lapse in concentration, and something like this can and will happen to you.”
The coach had gotten a good way through an introductory safety lecture when there was a loud knock on the classroom door. The shop had Plexiglas panels so folks in the hall could look into the shop and vice versa. As I turned to look, I saw Sheriff Gunn stepping through doorway.
The room was utterly still and completely silent. The sheriff had everyone’s attention.
“Please pardon the interruption, coach,” the sheriff said, “but I need to speak with one of your students.” I tried hard to maintain my poker face, but I had a sinking feeling I knew what this was about.
“Of course, Sheriff,” Coach Warner said. “Which one?”
“You,” the sheriff said pointing right at me, his eyes boring a hole through mine. “Come. With me.” I left my books and calmly stood up and followed the sheriff out into the hallway. I figured he was going to lead me to the principal’s office, but no. He closed the door and stood looming over me, uncomfortably close.
“So,” the sheriff asked, “when did you start smoking?”
Look for Chapter 7 Notes: On Talking to Police, Oliver Lodge, and Women’s Suffrage to post Friday, May 20.
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