Some authors dread revising, while others find it hard to stop. Back in the day when authors found publishers and then mated for life, I expect it may have been easy to know when to call it a day and ask for an editor’s invaluable assistance. But in the self-publishing world of today? Not so much.
If you’re like me, its impossible to review your manuscript and fail to find ways to improve it. And the longer you let the draft sit, the more it’s flaws jump will out at you. What if you had not given it that extra pass? Horrors!
And yet. At some point, the moment comes when you’ve doubtless reached the point of diminishing returns, or even the reverse – where new changes will introduce new issues instead of resolving old ones, and where fresh, inspired prose will begin to be replaced by structurally correct but stiff replacement text.
When you get to that point, it’s time to engage with those that will bring a fresh eye to the project and help you bring it to market. There’s still a lot of work to be done, but also an opportunity to shift some time for launching your next book or story as well. And that can be a real treat after laboring over the same story for so long that you don’t want to read it again.
I think I’ll be at that point when I finish the third revision (now in process) of my new book, The Lafayette Deception. Like the book to which it is a sequel of sorts, it’s a cyber security mystery or thriller (it teeters somewhere on the cusp between the two). And like it’s predecessor, it aspires to be more than just a plot-driven story with cookie cutter characters and no time permitted for the reader to stop and smell the roses that have been provided for that purpose.
Is that a good idea for a genre book? Well, given that 99% of all self-published books will achieve only a handful of sales in any event, one might as well not sell books that you’re happy with rather than ones that you aren’t.
In any event, here are the first few chapters of my second book, The Lafayette Project. If you have an opinion one way or the other on how well it’s working, I’d love to hear it.
* * *
Endless lines of code scrolling down the screen…
No. But soon. Scroll farther down, and stop…right…now. Here’s the right section of the program…and it looks like…this is the right line…here.
Insert the new code, and double-check it…good. Now wait for the next signal.
Is that the new one? Check that, too.
Who would have thought it should be so easy to change the world?
* * *
Chapter 1: Hi Ho Adversego!
A broad, Nevada valley stretched before Frank Adversego – stretched as far as he could see. Something about the vista pricked at his memory. Something about the way the mountains converged in the hazy perspective of the far distance.
Ah – that was it. This was the stretch of road he’d traveled in ghostly moonlight a year ago, wrestling with various demons from his past, most of which had now been laid to rest. Who knows what might lie ahead this time?
It wasn’t unusual for his future to be as enigmatic as the landscape unfolding ahead. But he couldn’t recall an occasion in the past where his reaction to uncertainty was positive and expectant rather than morose and resigned. He was determined to hang on to this strangely pleasant new attitude for as long as possible.
At the moment, his last planned destination was Eureka, Nevada – as isolated an oasis of wandered-off souls as you could find in the lower forty-eight states. He could identify with folks like that. Once he got there, the next hamlet would be more than seventy miles distant in any direction he cared to turn. And it wouldn’t amount to much when he got there.
Nor did Eureka, for that matter, with a population of just over 600. But with the Ruby Hill gold mine open again, Eureka wasn’t just another sorry, boom-busted mining burg one short step away from becoming a ghost town. It would be a good place to spend a few days and figure out where to head next.
Or maybe to settle into for a while. When he’d passed this way before, his thinly constructed cover had been a search for solitude in order to write a book. Now he actually did want to write one, a book that would tell people how vulnerable the country was to cyber-attack. Perhaps it would even become a best seller. Given his recent brush with fame after helping thwart a nuclear disaster, that wasn’t impossible, provided he cranked it out quickly enough.
That was the plan, anyway. But he hadn’t written anything other than computer code since grad school, and self-discipline had never been his strong point. His publisher had sensed that, and urged him to work with a co-writer. But Frank had no desire to be tied so closely to some stranger with dubious technology credentials, or to give up any control over the story he wanted to tell. Maybe he could get some momentum going in Eureka, far from any possible distractions. If so, he’d stay awhile. But if inspiration eluded him, he could just move on. Hopefully the Muses would smile on him sometime, somewhere, further up the road.
But what if they remained elusive, week after week?
He had avoided that thought as much as possible while he was planning his expedition. Now that his self-imposed deadline of sitting down to write was less than 24 hours ahead, though, that thought kept sneaking up on him.
What if he couldn’t do it? He tried to banish the thought without success.
Well, that hadn’t lasted long. With his unaccustomed, good-humored detachment fading, he turned on his satellite radio for distraction. But soon he turned it off. Heaven help us all, the election cycle was gearing up again, and a bunch of improbable primary candidates had come yammering out of the woodwork, each more ridiculous than the last. It seemed as if the doors of some political Bedlam had been thrown open, letting loose a mob of raving lunatics onto the primary trail. Incredibly, one after another of them had been rising in the polls, too.
He realized he was driving over 80 miles an hour again, and took his foot off the gas. Endless roads like this were made for day dreaming – straight as an arrow and well graded. But like most Nevada roads, it was only gravel. If he didn’t pay attention, he’d find himself skittering half sideways towards the shoulder, out of control.
Braking, he noticed someone standing beside the road up ahead. Drawing closer, he saw a hitchhiker standing next to something indistinguishable on the ground.
Damn. City boy that he was, Frank was conditioned to regard all hitchhikers as presumptive murderers, hell-bent on luring hapless good Samaritans to their doom. But the guy must have seen him slowing down, and it might be hours before another car ventured down this empty stretch of road. Damn again.
He really ought to do the right thing and stop. He kept his foot on the brake until his camper came to a stop just beyond the young man.
Frank looked warily into his side view mirror. The hitchhiker had his back to Frank and was picking up a bike with a front wheel that suggested a Mobius strip having a bad hair day: bent spokes bristled out at every angle. Its owner was slim, wore a sleeveless T shirt, cut-off jeans and sneakers. At most he might be 5’ 6”.
Well, he didn’t look too threatening, and it was clear why he was thumbing a ride. That left Frank physically comforted, but still annoyed. Now he’d have to make small talk for at least a couple hours. He must be at least fifteen years older than this person, and readily admitted to being solitary by nature and conversationally challenged even with his peers. What the hell could they have in common?
Frank got out of the cab to help the cyclist strap his bike to the rack on the back of the camper.
“Here, let me show you how that works.”
The hitchhiker turned around. “Thank you for stopping. It is my lucky day. I have been standing here only one half hour.”
Frank stopped in his tracks. He had not thought he was giving a lift to a short-haired, slim – and very attractive – young woman. And with a French accent to boot. Now he felt truly tongue-tied, and took his time tying her bike down while she climbed into the cab, her bicycle pannier bags slung over one sun-tanned shoulder.
Once more behind the wheel, he eased the camper back into gear. Wondering what to say, he settled for the obvious.
“Where you headed?”
“To Gerlach?” she said hopefully.
“It is north of Reno. And you?”
“Ah! So perfect! I can fix much on my bike on my own, but I cannot straighten a wheel rim. And I have not enough extra spokes. But I can have a new wheel sent to me there, I think.”
She gave him a bright smile, and then turned to look out the window, saying nothing more.
They drove on in silence. But Frank’s hopes for a pleasant spell of day dreaming were now dashed. He was painfully conscious of his young passenger’s proximity as he drove on, eyes on the road but distracted by the image of her dark, long-lashed, glittering eyes; short, black, wind-blown hair; warm, sun-tanned skin; and cheekbones that inspired him to wax metaphorical – cheekbones like . . . like the vaults of a gothic cathedral. He felt briefly pleased with that metaphor, and then foolish. He wondered how old she really was.
Best to not go there, he thought, keeping his now-gloomy eyes on the road. Long divorced and solitary, it had been ages since Frank had found himself in close proximity to such an exotic creature. He wondered what her story could be, traveling alone in such an empty part of the country. Eventually, his curiosity got the better of his awkwardness.
“What’s in Gerlach?”
“The Burning Man festival. Perhaps you have heard of it?”
“Yes I have.”
Which was true. But he didn’t know much about it. All he knew was that every year tens of thousands of latter-day hippies and other counter cultural types for some unimaginable reason descended on a sun-blasted salt flat in Nevada to build a temporary, psychedelic city dominated by an enormous, vaguely humanoid statue. A week later, the same statue would be torched as the climax of the event, and the city would disappear as quickly as it had materialized out of the shimmering heat of the desert. Frank felt even more uncomfortable around flamboyant people than he did around mainstream types. He was about as likely to attend a Burning Man festival as he was a debutantes’ ball.
Silence again. It bothered Frank that he had found this young woman on a deserted road. He had a daughter back east who was only a little younger. He’d be furious to find her hitchhiking anywhere, let alone in the middle of an almost uninhabited desert. To the extent that anyone lived here, Frank was disposed to assume the worst. How strange would you have to be to live in a place like this, anyhow?
It was clearly none of his business, but finally he asked, “Don’t you think it’s dangerous for a young woman to be hitchhiking in such a deserted area?”
“Oh no,” she said, without looking away from the window.
No? Clearly, this young French woman didn’t understand America and Americans. “Well, you’re wrong, let me assure you!” he said emphatically.
“I think not. But in any case, it does not worry me,” she replied absently, fumbling for something in the pannier bags at her feet.
Surprised, Frank stumbled over how to explain what he thought was obvious to an attractive young woman he did not know who was also not a native English speaker.
“Well, what would you do if someone picked you up and tried to, tried to, well, force his attentions on you?”
She laughed. “Shoot him!”
Startled, Frank turned to look at her. Arms crossed, she had a playful smile on her face and a small gun in her hand. The gun was pointed at his head. She waggled its barrel back and forth and silently mouthed the word “Bang!”
He jerked his head back towards the road, eyes wide as saucers.
For a minute there was silence again. But then she giggled. “But no. Probably I would not have to really shoot him. But one has to be prepared to, no?” She slipped the gun into a pocket and returned to looking out the window.
Frank decided that he had exhausted his conversational skills as well as his need to know anything more about his unusual passenger. He wondered how much longer it would take to get to Eureka.
A half hour later, his passenger abruptly became talkative.
“My name is Josette,” she said. “And what is yours?”
“Frank,” he said cautiously.
“You are on vacation, yes?”
“Not really. I’m writing a book.” Frank tried to sound nonchalant, the way he imagined a famous author might.
“A book! But that is very impressive.” She looked around the inside of the cab.
“This is a very fancy vehicle. If I may ask, what are all those controls?”
Well, this was a topic he could handle. “Electronics mostly, all satellite based and with service available anywhere: telephone, GPS, Internet, seven bands of radio, you name it.”
“I see. With so many instruments, I suppose you must have a generator, too?”
Frank shook his head, feeling a bit smug. “No. The top of the camper is covered with solar panels. I could run everything day and night, and never run the batteries all the way down. At least not in a place like this.”
“Ah! Very good thinking.” She pulled an ultra-light laptop out of her pannier bags. “So I may perhaps use my computer to check my email, yes?”
“Yes, with a password. Would you like it?”
“Would you mind?”
“Not at all.”
He gave her the log in information, and once again they drove in silence, broken only by his passenger’s occasional, musical laughter as she read whatever it was that she was reading between rapid, staccato bursts of typing. For his part, Frank brooded unhappily over the fact that he was an out of shape, socially inept, middle-aged man sitting next to an attractive young woman who was as unmindful of his presence as he was acutely aware of hers.
Later, with the sun going down, the road turned uphill, aiming for a pass in the ridge. When they passed through it and began their descent once more, a modest town appeared ahead, perched in a fold of the mountain.
“That will be Eureka,” he said.
His passenger looked up. “Ah! That is very good. You will please let me off here?”
Frank was surprised once again. But he obediently slowed the camper to a stop, scanning the road side and wondering why his passenger wanted to disembark just there. They both got out.
“Thank you for the ride,” she said as he unfastened her bike.
“Don’t you want a lift into town? I think there’s a motel there.”
“No, please. I have got everything I need to camp.” She patted the heavy pannier bags slung over her slight shoulder. Then, half wheeling and half carrying the bike, she disappeared into the sparse groves of juniper and pinyon pine that lined both sides of the road.
Bemused, Frank drove slowly downhill. The day had certainly turned strange. But then again, that morning he had departed from Rachel, Nevada, an even tinier town that straddled “America’s Extraterrestrial Highway,” just at the edge of the officially nonexistent military Area 51. And you couldn’t get much stranger than that.
But he felt hollow and at loose ends as he motored slowly up Eureka’s main street in second gear, passing a gas station, a motel, a fire station, a few shops and cross streets, and finally the small supermarket. Luckily, it was still open. He pulled in, finally found the shopping list he had shoved into the glove box, and walked in.
It was dark by the time he had stowed away everything he would need for the next few weeks. Time to find a place outside of town to park for the night. He looked at the dashboard. The temperature had dropped dramatically with the setting of the sun. Ghostly, back-lit clouds scudded across the sky, intermittently obscuring and exposing the moon. Gusts of wind rocked the camper as he drove slowly along the desolate road, looking for a jeep track to turn off on.
He wondered how Josette was faring, alone in the blustery darkness.
* * *
Chapter 2: Fancy Meeting you Here
Frank was frustrated. He had spent the last two days at his laptop and had nothing to show for it except make-work outlines and false starts – lots of false starts. Miles away from anyone who could help him, he ruefully admitted that he had not the slightest idea how to go about writing a book.
He stared at his latest vain attempt at an opening:
Never in the history of this great nation have we faced such a horde of vicious, invisible, insidious, and downright evil enemies. Each is more dangerous than the last, and the last cares as much for your welfare as Adolph Hitler. They must be stopped, and stopped now!
He wished he had brought a printer along so he could crumple that effort up and toss it in the garbage.
After eight straight hours of failure in Eureka, he’d left town and driven to the same mountain pass where he had spent three months of difficult but exhilarating cyber-sleuthing work the year before. He parked just where he had then – even set up his folding chair in the same place, where he could once again ignore the fantastic scenery that spread out before him as he focused on the challenge at hand.
But no luck here, either. After another day’s clumsy effort he still hadn’t written anything worth saving. One sentence – couldn’t he write even the first sentence better than a seventh grader?
He snapped his laptop shut and stomped from his chair to the camper. After exchanging his laptop for a beer, he stomped his way back.
Now what? He’d quit his job in the information technology department of the Library of Congress, had a MountainTamer expedition vehicle built just for him – the same kind of rig he had rented the year before, but this time customized to his own requirements. It had cost him a fortune. He’d had this idyllic notion that he could just head back west and pick up where he had left off, substituting writing a book for solving the mystery that had taken over his life the last time around. Then he’d live off the royalties for a while and figure out what to do next.
But there was no urgency driving him this time. No CIA and FBI scouring the country for him, and no evil genius to ferret out and foil. Just this stupid book idea taunting him with his inadequacies. What had he been thinking? He threw the still-full can of beer at a Ponderosa pine twenty feet away and missed it by five.
Shit! He started pacing back and forth, pulling up the mental list of past failures he kept at the ready for purposes of self-flagellation. Kicking pinecones out of his way, he luxuriated in the warm bath of self-criticism that best suited him in his blackest moods.
Usually, he would have indulged himself in a good hour of deeply immersive pacing at a time like this. But it wasn’t long before he became dimly aware of a sound that had been building at the edge of his consciousness. Absentmindedly, he stopped and turned in the direction of the disturbance, out over the valley floor lying thousands of feet below. To his astonishment, he saw a helicopter heading straight at him. It was only a few hundreds of yards away, and closing fast.
He instinctively backed up as the roaring aircraft reached, hovered over, and then descended at the edge of his clearing, kicking up a cloud of dust and pine needles that almost blinded him.
Eyes watering, he wondered what new strangeness was afoot, feeling like an awestruck earthling awaiting his first sight of whatever bizarre creatures might emerge from a UFO. Then one man, followed by another, jumped out of the helicopter and walked towards him, crouching under the still-spinning blades. To his relief, he recognized one of them.
“What the hell are you doing here?” he yelled over the descending register of the engine’s whine, reaching out to shake hands with his former boss. Publicly, George Marchand was the Chief Technology Officer of the Library of Congress. But Frank knew now that this was simply the cover for one of the CIA’s top cyber security strategists.
“I want to introduce you to someone,” he yelled back, gesturing to his companion. “This is Len Butcher.”
Frank shook hands as he took his visitor in. What he saw was a bit unsettling. Butcher’s pale skin was stretched so tightly over his gaunt features that Frank half expected to find a knot of extra skin tied behind his head. His forehead sloped back in a line that began at the tip of a long, thin nose and ended at the margin of an almost white-blond buzz cut. Below thin lips, a weak chin tilted back in towards his neck. The overall effect was weasely.
Butcher’s expression was self-satisfied and smug and his hand shake limp. Frank decided the guy was probably some variety of creep, exact type yet to be determined.
Turning to George, Frank asked, “How did you know where to find me?”
“It’s our business to know where people like you are,” Butcher interjected. His adenoidal voice slipped neatly into the negative profile that Frank was enthusiastically creating for him.
“Oh, really? And who might ‘we’ be, not to mention, ‘people like me?’”
George cut Butcher off before he could answer. “How about we go inside?”
Frank shrugged and led the way. Behind them, the helicopter pilot strolled around the clearing, checking out the view and looking with curiosity at the field of charred and twisted metal wreckage strewn below him. Flowers and grass were only just beginning to reclaim what had been a meadow extending downhill before some unknown, violent event had obviously burst upon the bucolic scene.
Once they were seated inside his camper, Frank leaned back and crossed his arms. “So what gives?”
“Frank, Len works with another government agency. They’re aware of the essential role that you played in cracking the Alexandria Project, and they’re hoping they can recruit you to help penetrate a new group that’s proving tough to find.”
“Thanks for the vote of confidence, but that’s not exactly what I’m up to these days.”
“I’ve told Len that, but this is pretty important, so here I am. That, and the fact that the Director of the CIA promised the head of the other agency that we would do whatever we could to help persuade you.”
“So what’s the other agency?”
“That’s not important, Frank. As a matter of fact, you wouldn’t recognize the name of the agency if I told you, which I’m not at liberty to do. Things have changed a lot since 9/11. Suffice it to say that there are now more than a hundred U.S. intelligence units, both within existing agencies as well as stand-alone outfits. None of the new independent units have been publicly disclosed, and this is one of them.”
“So what does it say on your identification?” Frank asked Butcher.
“When I’m working on this project, it says I’m a field rep for a computerized voting machine service company,” Butcher said, sliding a plastic card out of his wallet and handing it to Frank.
“Anyway, Frank, that’s why I’m along for the ride, to credential Len for you. Now how about we tell you what this is all about?”
“Okay, sure. I can at least listen.”
Butcher leaned forward, elbows on the dinette table.
“So tell me, Frank. Been paying any attention to the upcoming presidential election?”
“Not really. The President’s certainly going to run again, so no drama there. For some reason, the Tea Party conservatives keep standing up one crazy whack job of a candidate after another. I can’t believe any of them stands a chance of taking a primary, let alone the Oval Office. And the mainstream Republicans don’t seem to have any candidates that people are very enthusiastic about.” Frank hoped Butcher was a staunch conservative. If so, he looked forward to expanding on this theme to get his goat.
“It is an interesting cast of characters, isn’t it?” Butcher responded evenly, not giving Frank any clues. “Have you heard any of the poll results, though? What people are saying about them?”
“No. Why bother? The primaries don’t start until January.”
“Because those ‘whack jobs,’ as you call them, are out-pointing the credible candidates by double digits.”
“So what? That’s not unusual. It’s mostly just name recognition at this point.”
“Usually, that’s true, yes. So then how do you explain Julian Johnson or Roxanne Rollins being way out in front of Vance Drake and Hollis Davenport?”
“Precisely. Makes you wonder, doesn’t it?”
“Maybe they’re just badly conducted polls. Or maybe they were taken in those candidates’ back yards.”
“Actually, no and no. The polls were conducted in major cities across the country by top professionals.”
“Then their data’s flawed.”
“Indeed. So what does that make you think of?”
“Somebody’s tampering with the poll numbers.”
Butcher turned to Marchand with a smirk. “Your boy’s just as quick as you said he was, George.”
Marchand gave him a dirty look and jumped in. “At this point, we don’t have a clue who’s behind this, but we do believe that someone is altering with the data on the pollsters’ systems.”
“I get that would be a problem. But these are just pollsters – so why does Butcher’s agency, whatever it is, care?”
“Well, as you may or may not know, the next election will be the first one where just about everyone will be voting on electronic rather than mechanical balloting equipment. In most states, they’ll even be able to vote using their smart phones. That should dramatically cut down on voting lines, since people can fill in their votes in advance, and then just download them at the voting booth. So the fact that someone’s tampering with poll data is pretty alarming. For all we know, if they’re hacking polling systems, they may try to hack voting systems as well.”
“Okay, I’ll buy that.” Frank turned to Butcher again. “But if you’ve got a hundred intelligence agencies plus the FBI to work on it, what do you need me for?”
“Here’s the thing. We haven’t figured out yet how they’ve penetrated the polling systems, let alone how they’re changing the data. Until we do that, it’s almost impossible to figure out who they are.”
“Maybe no one has. Maybe its employee’s with security privileges that are changing the data.”
“It’s not that, either. We’ve had one of our own people input new data, and then read the results, and guess what? They don’t match – what comes out is different from what we put in.”
“So? That just means someone placed malware on the system before you used it. It’s already programmed to change the results.”
“Nope. We used a brand new system, straight from the factory.”
“Then they’ve paid a guy that works for the vendor to change the polling software.”
“No again. We’ve scanned the code against an earlier version – which does work fine – and they seem to match identically except for legitimate bug fixes.”
“Then the malware feature was just lying dormant, waiting to be triggered by something. Doesn’t your agency, whatever it is, have anybody working on this that knows what they’re doing?”
“Sure they do, Frank,” George interjected. “And so does the FBI. But so far, no luck. There’s over half a million lines of code in the original software, and a lot of bug fixes and updates besides.”
Sure, Frank thought. And there were also computer chips and firmware that could have been replaced in the servers the polling software ran on. Not to mention software elements that could be reprogrammed remotely, and an Internet connection that would allow the software to call on external databases for information not found in the system’s memory. Any of those vulnerabilities could be the source of the problem. You’d have to check all of those meticulously, one by one. He began to think what tests he’d run in what order to find where the rat was hiding in the maze. It was an interesting problem.
“So what do you say, Frank?” Butcher said evenly. “Want to show us how much smarter you are than our boys?”
Marchand watched the interplay between the two men. Butcher might not be a charmer, but he’d figured out pretty quickly which of Frank’s buttons to push to get him to sign on. Or maybe he’d read the file that the FBI had put together on Frank a year ago. Of course – that would be it.
Frank frowned. He had to admit that he was intrigued by what he’d heard. It sounded like a pretty good hack. It would be interesting to devise a plan to get to the bottom of it, and then see whether it worked.
That hadn’t been how he’d been planning to spend the next few months, though. He’d been looking forward to getting away; some sort of clean break and a fresh start from his old job, which he’d left with mixed feelings. After the revelation of his role in averting the crisis with North Korea, everyone at work suddenly thought he walked on water. But after the high pressure months he’d spent on the road, his old job was painfully dull. Just a lot of ho-hum daily tasks for him to do, just like before. It wasn’t long before he felt bored and ignored.
Then he had the idea about the book. Given his notoriety, it had been easy to get an agent, and then a publisher. So one day he just handed in his resignation and put in an order for a customized MountainTamer expedition vehicle – something he could live in off the road for a month at a time. Then he’d headed out to Nevada to spend some time with his father and wait for its delivery.
Becoming a best-selling author wasn’t looking so easy now. And he’d already spent most of the publisher’s advance and his own savings on the MountainTamer and the equipment he’d loaded it up with. Maybe he should be taking this new cybersecurity opportunity seriously. But only if he could do it on his own terms, and that might take some negotiating.
“Let’s say I did. What happens next? I just paid a pile of money for this rig and was looking forward to doing some extended touring. And I’ve got this book I’m working on. I don’t want to set that aside.”
“No worries.” Butcher said. “We know you’ve got this camper set up to let you do whatever you want wherever you want to do it. In fact, we’d like it to look like you’ve kept to your original plans, so as not to attract attention. But we’ll give you up to the minute, unrestricted access to whatever information and resources you need. We’ll even give you a nice business card, just like mine.”
Butcher slid another laminated card across the table. At the top was the service company’s name and logo, and below it were Frank’s name, a hologram, and an ID number.
“Big deal. What am I going to do with that?”
“That’s up to you. It may come in handy doing whatever you decide to do to get to the bottom of things. It’s even programmable – you can be whoever you want, when you want, and your name at the website will automatically update at the same time.”
Frank left the card lying on the table and stood up. He took a beer out of the refrigerator and set it in front of Butcher.
“Here’s a beer on me. George, feel like taking the Grand Tour of my clearing?”
The two men stepped out and walked a dozen paces from the camper. Across the valley to the west, angry thunderclouds were building above the purple silhouette of the mountains.
Frank turned to his old boss.
“I don’t know, George. My last experience with the intelligence establishment wasn’t exactly what you’d call a love fest. And those were public agencies with Congressional oversight, not ones that most legislators don’t even know exist. What would I be getting myself into here?”
“I think everything would work out fine this time, Frank. You’d have complete independence, not be part of a team. Last time around showed that’s how you work best. If you’re successful, that’s great. If you’re not, that’s the government’s problem. And any time you felt like it, you could simply walk away. I don’t know whether you’re still making a killing in the on-line game space, but if not, the money would be pretty good. Consultants to non-existent agencies aren’t tied to government pay grades, and that service company on the business card has a real office – even a receptionist. Not much else, but I can guarantee you their checks won’t bounce.”
As a matter of fact, Frank’s latest game ideas had all been flops. With his book prospects in doubt, his economic future was looking murky at best.
“Would I have to report to this guy Butcher? He wouldn’t be my pick for a detailer.”
“Not a problem. He’s a desk jockey, not a field manager. I can do a little interfering and be sure that you end up with someone you can work with. And of course you can contact me any time.”
George waited while Frank brooded, hands in his pockets and staring out across the valley. Lightning intermittently illuminated the cavernous, lobed interiors of the thunderheads massing in the distance. Closer to where they stood, the flittering silhouettes of bats sketched erratic paths across the fading horizon as the exotic desert smell of dust and rain and sage enveloped them, borne by a freshening breeze rising from the valley below. Wasn’t just experiencing a place like this again what he had been looking forward to?
Well, yes and no. He’d need something to focus on besides the scenery or he’d be climbing the camper’s walls in two days. And it didn’t look like writing a book was going to provide that focus – or an income.
He looked back at his camper, its windows all aglow in the gathering darkness. In what way was this unexpected invitation not a gift? It seemed to be tailor-made to fill the inconvenient void that his lack of book writing success had left.
“Okay. I’ll do it.”
George clapped him on the back. “That’s great, Frank. I’ll go in and tell Len. Judging by those thunderheads, we’d better beat it back to home base unless you want company for the night.”
Five minutes later, the whine of the helicopter’s engine was receding in the distance. As he watched it’s blinking navigation lights fade, Frank felt his spirits lift. To his surprise, he found himself happy to be back in the game.
* * *
Chapter 3: Shelter from the Storm
Less than an hour after the helicopter’s departure, Frank was on the move, driving carefully down the jeep track through wind-whipped, driving rain, periodically blinded by vivid flashes of lightning. This wasn’t the usual late summer, late afternoon southwestern thunderstorm, where only a few raindrops survive the long descent through dry desert air without evaporating. This was the product of a full monsoon front sweeping up from the Gulf, the kind the ranchers relied on to refill stock ponds and green up the grass again for their cattle.
Now that he had signed on with whoever it was Butcher worked for, Frank was anxious to get started, and he wanted a change of scenery to go along with the new objective. It hadn’t taken long to pack up. But by then the storm was breaking over him.
The jeep track was now awash in cascading runoff, forcing him to let the heavy truck ease itself along slowly in first gear until he reached level ground. But the going there was no better, because the deep, red clay dust of the jeep track had predictably dissolved into a thick sludge reminiscent of borscht. Thank goodness for the camper’s high clearance and heavily treaded tires. Even so, he had to alternate gunning the engine to keep up his speed so as not to bog down with hitting the brakes to avoid fishtailing off the side of the track.
The racket of the rain hammering down on him was still distracting as he pulled into Eureka, his camper caked and running with mud splattered up to the sills of his windows. The trip to town had kept him on the edge of his seat, and now he was hungry. Might as well take advantage of an opportunity to get a hot meal out of somebody else’s kitchen for a change.
The epicurean offerings of Eureka being limited, Frank decided he’d try the most hopeful looking alternative, a saloon-themed restaurant next to the town’s restored, late 19th century Opera House. Inside he found a dimly lit dining room and bar populated by a sprinkling of tourists and locals. He took a table against the wall and opened the menu he found standing upright between the inverted bottles of ketchup, mustard and barbecue sauce.
Frank was trying to decide whether having a buffalo burger was a local attraction not to be missed or a questionable curiosity to be actively avoided when someone appeared at his elbow. Expecting to see a waitress, he found himself instead looking at a very wet and bedraggled Josette.
“Please, may I sit down?”
“Of course,” he said, standing up, flustered.
“The wind blew my tent apart,” she said simply. “It is in rags. So I came to town.”
“That’s terrible. You must be soaked.”
She smiled bravely and nodded. “I thought this was the desert. So much wind – and rain! Who would have expected?”
Frank held a chair for her and tried to catch the attention of a server.
“Let’s get you something warm to drink.”
A middle aged waitress appeared and promptly adopted Josette. She returned almost immediately with a steaming mug of tea and a clean dish towel. Josette accepted both gratefully and mopped her face and hair.
“I am so cold and hungry! I was not able to cook my dinner in all the wind and rain.”
Frank was feeling protective, and handed her his menu. Josette studied it intently.
“Tell me, please, what is ‘pork barbeque?’”
“It’s sort of a shredded meat in a spicy sauce, served on a hamburger bun.”
Josette wrinkled her nose and eventually opted for a southwestern salad with grilled chicken in a tortilla shell.
The waitress saw to it that their food arrived quickly, and Josette began to brighten. She smiled at Frank, and he smiled back.
They chatted about this and that while they ate, and Frank gradually became more comfortable. Then Josette asked, “How is your book?”
Frank’s smile faded. “Oh, I’m still doing research. I’ll have to do lots of research before I can actually start writing.”
“Ah! You must be very patient.”
She smiled demurely and finished the last of her salad. Frank changed the subject. “Were you able to get your bike fixed?”
“Yes, yes! My new wheel arrived at the post office this morning, thank goodness. Otherwise I would have had to walk to town in the rain.”
“Will you be moving on to the festival now?”
“Ah!” She looked downcast. “It took so long for the wheel to arrive. I have lost much time. Today is Saturday, and the festival begins on Monday.” Then she brightened. “But I can still, how you say, ‘hitch a ride,’ yes?”
Frank frowned. Hadn’t this young woman seen any American movies? He was still convinced that she would be picked up by some sort of crazy person before she made it halfway across the state.
Josette laughed, and then covered her mouth. “You are worried, but afraid to say something!” She laughed again and reached across the table to take his hand. “Don’t worry! I promise not to shoot you!”
Frank’s ears were burning now. If only she would be less comfortable and open with him. He was too out of practice to be having a conversation like this. Josette was young, attractive, and vibrant, while he was old, crotchety and self-consciously formal. This felt like his first date all over again, but without the excuse that it was a date. He caught the attention of the waitress and made check-signing motions in the air.
Josette realized she had embarrassed him and changed the subject.
“So – do you stay in Eureka for long?”
“No. As a matter of fact, I’m leaving tomorrow.”
“And to where do you go now?”
“Why, I…I’m not exactly sure. You see, I don’t have to be any special place at any particular time. I’m just touring – driving where my fancy takes me. I arrive somewhere, stay a few days, and then move on again.”
Josette put her hand on his again. “Then Frank! You must come and see the Burning Man! You will love it! They say there is nothing like it anywhere!”
Taken by surprise, Frank pulled his hand back. “Oh, no, I mean, I can’t do that, really.”
Josette gave him a sly look. “Ah! You are afraid of me! It is my gun, yes? Don’t be!”
She reached into her bag, and then pressed an object into Frank’s hand.
Frank stared down at what was now obviously a toy plastic gun, and stammered, “No!” louder than he intended. Then, more quietly, “No, it isn’t that at all. It’s just that I’ve got work to do – I can’t afford to be distracted – it’s too hard to stop and start. I’ve got to maintain my concentration.”
The waitress brought the check. Frank paid it and stood up quickly. He held the door for Josette, and they stepped out onto the weathered wooden sidewalk, sheltered by an old-fashioned Western arcade roof.
Frank was angry at his awkwardness and anxious to get away. But it was dark, and a boisterous, heavy rain still fell. “Let me drop you off at the motel.”
Josette looked down, and then up into his eyes. “Every place in town is full,” she said softly. “I have already checked. They say it has something to do with, how you say, a ‘rodeo.’”
Frank opened his mouth half way, and then shut it again. Now what? Where could she stay? What should he do – tell her he would be happy to drop her back by the side of the road, in the rain, with her shredded tent? It must be obvious that there were at least two beds in a camper as large as his. Damn!
“I guess you could, I mean, I have two beds in my camper. Would you like to stay there tonight?”
She smiled at him radiantly and his heart skipped a beat. “Oh, Frank, you are so kind!”
She looked down, and then glanced up, shyly. “I do not want to be a bother…but what else can I do?”
Frank once again strapped Josette’s bike on the back of his camper, and dropped her pannier bags inside. She chattered happily as they began to drive out of town. Behind them, the scattered lights of Eureka glistened wetly in the night – the yellow lights of the Shell station, the upward-cast, white lights that illuminated the letters that spelled “Opera House,” and in front of the motel, the small, red neon sign that read “Vacancy.”
* * *
Chapter 4: Frank’s Long Day’s Journey into Night
The sun was shining the next day as Frank drove west on Route 50, making the roadway shimmer uncertainly ahead. Just the day before, he had been sitting in his clearing swearing at his laptop, and now he was off on what could prove to be two wild goose chases – the first, to find someone that a government agency that didn’t exist thought was hacking into pollster computer systems, and the second to chauffeur a young French woman to a countercultural festival for reasons he was trying hard to pretend he did not understand.
He yawned once, and then yawned again. It had been a long and sleepless night. While Josette was taking a hot shower, he had gotten into bed as quickly as possible and turned off the light, lying on his side facing the wall of the camper. He had been divorced for twenty years now, and with all too rare exceptions, those had been twenty very solitary years. Gazing appreciatively at an attractive young woman when she wasn’t looking was one thing, but more than that was unthinkable. Still, he’d had a few beers at dinner, and feared that he might manage to make a fool of himself given half a chance. He was determined not to give himself that chance.
It had seemed forever until he heard the muffled click of the light switch in the camper’s tiny bathroom, and then the sounds of a quietly opening and shutting door. He all but held his breath until he heard the soft rustling sounds subside in the other bed, just three feet away. With a silent sigh that was equal parts relief and longing, he tried to empty his mind and get some sleep.
He had almost succeeded when he became aware that someone slipping into bed beside him. His eyes snapped open, and most, but not all, of his body went rigid.
“Shhh,” Josette said soothingly, lying quietly by his side. She settled her head on his shoulder, and began gently massaging his arm.
“So tense – you must relax.”
Easy for you to say, he had thought. It took many minutes, but at last the tension in his body began to seep away. He tried to focus on breathing slowly and evenly. Many minutes later, his heart leapt as a wave of confidence began to rise within him.
At this moment, it is necessary to pause to note how one may suddenly be confronted with a fork in the road of destiny. When we choose, and choose we must, between those forks, will we find happiness or sorrow? Ecstasy or despair? The only way to learn is to go bravely forward, following wherever our chosen path may lead.
So it was that as Frank turned toward Josette, she whispered three short words in his ear – the three most deflating words a man can hear in the unshared heat of a not to be consummated moment.
They were, of course, these: “Just hold me.”
In the cold light of day, Frank decided that those words sounded even worse in a French accent. He’d been afraid to move for the rest of the night for fear of waking his gently breathing companion. Wretched and sleepless, he had finally eased out of the bed at dawn and began driving, while Josette slept on peacefully and unaware. He told himself that it was only because he had no other destination, anyway, that the direction he chose to drive was towards Burning Man.
It was almost 9:00 AM when Josette joined him in the cab of the camper, belting herself in and tucking her long, tanned legs beneath her. He was mildly shocked to see that she was wearing one of his T shirts, and not much else (“I hope you do not mind! Everything I have, you see, is still so wet!”).
“Here,” she said, “I have made us coffee.” She handed him a cup, and he took a sip.
“What is it?”
“It is French coffee. So much better than you have in America. My friends warned me.” She laughed.
Frank sipped the brew appreciatively while Josette commented on the scenery rolling by. It had been so long since a woman had made him a cup of coffee, he thought ruefully, or passed the time of day with him as they traveled. For the second time in twenty-four hours, he began to relax, but this time more guardedly.
“Tell me Frank,” Josette said, “this book of yours, what is it about?”
He was sorry for the change of topic. “Security – I mean, cyber security. Do you know what that means?”
She frowned and nodded no.
“It means trying to keep people from getting access to your computer and stealing information, or damaging it.”
“Ah, yes, I do know what you mean. ‘Cyber security’ is what you say in English?”
He nodded. “Yes, and it’s a very big problem. There are criminals that steal your credit card information, foreign companies that make off with your product designs, spies that steal government information, terrorists that try to penetrate national defenses, and much more.”
“Of course, of course. It is the same problem everywhere. But what exactly is it that you will write?”
Frank wondered how to make what he had in mind sound more heroic and less dorky than he was sure that it would. Then he had a thought.
“You recall the Maginot Line?”
“But of course. It was a great folly – and a great failure. We French spent many millions of francs building hundreds of miles of defenses facing east after the First World War. But the Germans built hundreds of tanks and simply drove around it.”
“Yes, exactly. Well, that is something like what is going on today on the Internet. We fool ourselves into thinking that we are doing what we need to do to protect ourselves from our enemies, but in fact we’re just building another Maginot Line, only this time in cyber space. Criminals and terrorists and spies are already getting around it as if we had no defenses at all.”
Josette gave him a coquettish smile. “I am told that our French companies, they have not found it so very hard to get to your companies’ information.”
Frank laughed. “And indeed you’ve heard that right. The French and the Chinese are the worst of the lot when it comes to stealing corporate trade secrets. And your government even helps them! But there’s much worse going on. Why, not long ago it came out that the controls of the Pentagon’s Predator drones had been hacked. We think the Taliban did it, but we don’t really know.” And shame on the Pentagon, he thought. Not long before that, someone had hacked their way into the video feeds the same drones were transmitting back to their targeting bases.
“Ah yes. But what is it that your book will say about this?”
The fact was, he didn’t know exactly what it would say, assuming he ever succeeded in writing it. He hadn’t really taken the concept much beyond his general sense of outrage at the inability of most people to appreciate the dire straits he was personally convinced the world was in.
“Well, I’ll…give lots of examples of bad things that have already happened, and then examples of even worse things that are bound to happen if nothing is done. Then I’ll describe what we need to do to prevent those things from happening.”
“Ah! I see,” she said non-committally. “Ah! It is ten o’clock. May we listen to the news?”
With relief, he said, “Of course,” and turned on his satellite radio. The announcer on the public radio station it was tuned to had just started to deliver the lead story.
“. . .announced his campaign yesterday at a press conference.”
“Oh no,” Frank groaned. “Now who?”
To his surprise, Josette leaned forward and listened intently.
The Texas governor’s decision was immediately acclaimed by the host of supporters that has been urging him for weeks to throw his hat into the ring. With this announcement, the Republican field has now expanded to six.
Frank snapped off the radio and launched into one of his trademark rants.
“I cannot believe the stupidity of the American people! How anyone could consider Julian Johnson for dog catcher, much less president of the United States, is completely beyond me. How does Texas keep coming up with these jug heads? It’s like they they’ve got a closet full of them down in Central Casting!”
Josette giggled. “This Mr. Johnson – he is not so good?”
“Not so good! He’s appalling! He panders to every single bias and no-nothing creed in the ultra-conservative book of beliefs. He’s signed the no-taxes pledge, claims global warming is a hoax, and says he’ll wipe out the Federal deficit without raising taxes. You tell him what he needs to say to get the nomination, and he’ll be saying it before all the words are out of your mouth.”
“So you think he does not believe in what he says?”
“Who knows? I can’t decide which would be worse – that he would be stupid enough to believe what he says, or corrupt enough to say what he doesn’t believe. Either way, he better not get elected.”
If Frank had not been watching the road, he would have noticed the ironic smile on Josette’s face.
“If he is so bad, how can you worry that he could be elected?”
Frank did look at her this time. “D’you remember the last guy we elected who came from Texas?
“Ah yes.” Josette replied, archly. “You elected him twice, in fact. It did not turn out so well. Tell me – those other candidates – do you think that they are any better?”
“Hah! I Wish! Every species of loony ever hatched seems to be represented in the race this year. There’s the Libertarian who thinks we should just shut Washington down and hand the keys to the Capitol over to Wall Street. Then there’s the former Dairy Queen from Wisconsin who wants the mothers of America to unite and throw every progressive out of government. And that just scratches the surface.”
“Why is it that no one who is both conservative and capable runs for president?”
“Good question. Whatever the reason, there’s only one guy in the Republican race so far who seems to be sane, and intelligent besides – Hollis Davenport. But he doesn’t stand a chance.”
“And this is because?”
“Well, first off, he’s a Unitarian Universalist. Most evangelicals have never met one, so they’re immediately suspicious. Plus, most Unitarians don’t believe in the Holy Trinity. 99.99% of evangelical Christians don’t have the foggiest notion what the Holy Ghost is, but they know they’re supposed to believe in one, so that’s that. Most Unitarians don’t believe in Hell and damnation, either, so that tells some people that Unitarians must be some kind of pagan cult, or worse.”
Josette laughed, but Frank was still picking up speed.
“Then there’s the fact that when he was governor, he led the charge that resulted in his state becoming the first one in the nation to pass a universal health care bill. The conservatives have never forgiven him for that.”
“But why? Everyone in Europe gets healthcare. It seems to make so much sense!”
“Of course it seems to, because it does make sense. Going into the last presidential election, both parties agreed that universal healthcare should be adopted nationwide.”
“So? What changed?”
“A Democrat was elected instead of a Republican, that’s what. So anything he wanted to accomplish immediately became treason to some of the Republicans in the Senate, and a whole lot more in the House. If the new president had tried to make Mother’s Day a Federal holiday, they would have called that Socialism.”
“I do not think I will ever understand your politics.”
“Well, that’s no surprise, because I don’t, either.”
Josette stared out the window for a while. Then she spoke again, choosing her words carefully.
“You know, Frank, you Americans really should choose your president more carefully.”
“No kidding. I couldn’t agree with you more. Some people really shouldn’t be allowed to vote at all.”
“But seriously, Frank. Your president wields so much power. What he wishes to do, he can do, whether other countries want him to or not. Look at Iraq. Look at Viet Nam. Look at so many other invasions – in Panama, in Grenada, in Nicaragua. The Bay of Pigs. Santo Domingo. The list goes on and on. You Americans really should be more careful who you put in charge, because while the rest of the world has no say in the matter, we must suffer the consequences.”
Frank looked at her in surprise. This was a very different Josette than he had heard before.
“I suppose…I mean, of course, you’re right. The president does have a lot of power.”
Josette was no longer amused with Frank’s answers.
“It’s not the power of your president that’s wrong. If your President Roosevelt had not nudged your country into World War II, Hitler would have won. It’s when you elect a foolish president!”
“You Americans always insist on calling your president the ‘Leader of the Free World.’ But only Americans are allowed to vote for him. If your voters want to elect a leader of the free world, then they should be sure they pick one who is up to the job!”
“Well sure…” he began, but it was Josette who was still picking up steam.
“Look who is running now! Roxanne Rollins! Roland Overby! Landa Goshen! And now your Mr. Johnson! What is the rest of the world supposed to do if you allow one of these fools to become president?”
She stopped abruptly. Frank drove on in silence, wondering how to respond to Josette. Because, of course, she had a point.
* * *
Chapter 5: Got a Match?
It was early afternoon when Frank and Josette rolled slowly into Gerlach, following a 1960’s era VW bug. Trundling along behind them was a forty-foot long something that resembled a cross between a Viking long ship and a Mississippi river boat. (“Ah! An Art Car!” Josette exclaimed.)
“Excuse me?” Frank asked, craning his neck to examine the outlandish contraption in his side view mirrors as they idled along.
“An Art Car!” she repeated. “Burning Man is famous for them. We should see many more, each one unique!”
Unique was barely sufficient to comprehend what he was looking at, Frank thought. He hadn’t expected to find much in Gerlach, since Josette had already looked the hamlet up on the Internet. A typical description read:
Welcome to Gerlach, Nevada (pop. 450). In this thriving metropolis you will find one elementary school, one high school, one post office, one propane distributor, one gas station, one motel, 3 bars and that’s it.
But in fact there was much more, at least temporarily, because the Festival was about to begin. Almost overwhelming the few tired, dusty buildings that together comprised downtown Gerlach was a collection of brightly hued tents and stands selling water, food, balloons, used bicycles, and almost anything else that you might (or might not) expect a Festival goer to want. Colorful pennants fluttered in the breeze above a throng that would have blended in well in Key West on New Year’s Eve, only wearing even fewer clothes.
A few miles out of town, they reached the edge of a great salt playa that stretched for mile after heat-shimmering mile into the indeterminate distance. Towering over it was the geologic formation – Black Rock – that had lent the local desert its name. Following a caravan of normal vehicles as well as the hulking, otherwise uncategorizable Art Cars, Frank and Josette left the road and rolled off across the salt flat, eventually reaching two small tents between which each vehicle was required to stop. A hand made sign proclaimed that it was the Festival Greeter Gate.
When at last it was their turn to be admitted, Frank rolled down his window. A young man wearing khaki shorts, sunglasses and rather magnificent hair spikes sticking up through holes in his hat took their tickets.
“Howdy. Welcome home.”
“Uh, actually, I’ve never been here before.”
The young man let out a whoop.
“We got us some virgins!”
Instantly the greeter gate crew surrounded the camper, opening the doors and dragging them out. Josette cooperated, laughing, while Frank acquiesced, objecting. Mortified, he followed Josette as they were led to a wooden tower inside which hung a large bell. Hair Spike Man handed Josette a pole, instructing her to bang the bell while yelling that she was no longer a virgin.
Happy to oblige, she gave it an enthusiastic whack while confidently claiming her new status, after which her forehead was anointed with white playa dust. Frank was not released until he had suffered a similar, though significantly less enthusiastic fate.
Josette looked at Frank sidelong as they drove away, trying not to laugh.
“Frank, you must try to join in the fun.”
“Fun? Where’s the fun part? All I see is a bunch of weirdos baking in 100 degree heat a million miles from nowhere. And what’s that?”
Ahead they could see what appeared to be a massive, openwork ziggurat, rising fifty feet into the air. Astride its apex stood an abstract, angular figure that was easily twice that tall, with legs slightly spread and arms outstretched high above its head.
“Why that is the Man, of course. What else would it be?”
But at this point, a sign directed them to the left, and now they drove around the perimeter of the sprawling, semicircular city that was still erupting out of the alkaline lakebed. A week hence, it was destined to vanish like a mirage, as if spirited into the sky by the glittering waves of heat rippling upward from the desert floor.
Out of a dust swirl ahead, hundreds of bicycles began to emerge, each one propelled by a gaily painted, often topless (regardless of sex) rider. A few moments later, they were engulfed by the mob, which just as quickly left them behind.
“Uh, can you tell me what exactly that was all about?” Frank asked.
Josette laughed. “Why must it be about anything?”
Frank was about to reply testily that everything was about something, but decided that on Black Rock Desert at this time of year that might in fact not be the case. The pair of enormous triceratops made out of abandoned car parts they were rolling by just then seemed to confirm that conclusion.
It was almost dusk when they finally reached the area where vehicles were permitted to park. Only foot and bicycle traffic would be permitted into Black Rock City until the festival was over.
Frank was removing the bicycles from the rack when he heard Josette call out someone’s name. Turning, he saw a group of young men and women on bicycles come to a stop. And Josette was running into the arms of a bronzed young man in shorts and sandals. He wore a red bandanna around his neck and a wide-brim hat above his handsome, stubbled face.
Frank stood dumbly by the camper. Josette had told him earlier that morning that she hoped to rejoin the group she had been touring with before taking a solo detour to visit friends in Las Vegas. But he hadn’t assumed that she would come upon them so quickly amid so much confusion.
A minute later, Josette glanced his way and saw him watching. She took the young man’s hand and walked him over to the camper.
“Frank, this is Alexandre. Alexandre, Frank is the one that rescued me by the side of the road after I hit a pothole with my bike. My front wheel – it was such a mess! And then he drove me the rest of the way from Eureka so I would not be late.”
“It is good to meet you,” Alexandre said pleasantly, shaking Frank’s hand.
“Hi. You too.” Frank said shortly. He turned to Josette as Alexandre walked away. “Well, enjoy the festival.”
Josette looked surprised. “But of course you will stay, yes?” It had not escaped her notice that Frank had unloaded his bicycle as well as hers before she spied her friends.
“No, no, my book, you know,” he said turning his back on her and tying down his bike. That task complete, he turned around and shoved his hands in his pockets.
“Got to get back to work,” he said awkwardly. “Not likely I’d get anything done here.”
Josette looked momentarily uncertain, but then she turned to glance at her friends. They were standing by their bicycles, waiting.
“Well, if you must. But I will miss you.” She pulled his head down and gave him a quick kiss on the cheek. “You must promise to email me!” And then she was on her way.
Frank walked slowly around the side of his camper. He paused by the cab to watch the group of young adventurers pedal off towards the strange, temporary skyline of Black Rock City, above which the arms of the sacrificial Man stretched upwards in a triumphant V. In front of Frank, everything was young and frivolous and alive, and behind him was the empty desert.
“Enjoy it while you can, Big Guy,” he said to the Man. “It doesn’t last.”
Frank climbed into the cab and turned the key in the ignition. Then he headed north.
To be continued