A Kiss of Thorns (short story)

This story was originally published in 2012 in an anthology, It Didn’t Happen This Way, Untrue Stories, Volume One. I’ve touched it up a little, but the story remains the same. I hope you like it.


“Why do you feed the damned bird meat?”

“She likes it, and don’t use foul language. I’ll wash your mouth out with soap.”

“Sorry I swore, Mom. I’m not seven years old, you know.” Even as I said the words, I felt like I was still a child, still living with my mother and still being told what to do.

Mom was always fawning over her stupid Macaw, Jezebel, teaching her to say something new or just carrying on about how she was such a pretty bird.

“Pretty bird!  Pretty bird!” Jezebel would mimic back in that creepy, ventriloquist voice that parrots have.  My skin crawled every time the bird spoke, its head cocked sideways with its eye on me, seemingly dead but still seeing me.  Watching.  I shivered.

“What happened to fruit?  The thing used to eat fruit!”

“She likes hamburger more.”

“Fucking freak show, if you ask me.” 

“Such language!  Go to your room!”

As I closed the door behind me, it was one of the many times I was grateful for my aged mother’s Alzheimer’s.  She wouldn’t remember that exchange ten minutes later.  As for Jezebel, she was like a volatile, feathered tape recorder that might repeat anything that was said and reignite otherwise dormant synapses, sparking the discussion anew.   Damned bird.

Even when I was a kid, my mother loved that bird more than me. “Jazzy Jez,” she would call her, referring to the way she would bob up and down on her perch when music played.  Birds like this form an attachment to one person and barely tolerate anyone else.  The bird hated me, and I reciprocated.   Mom would enter Jezebel in shows, often winning some prize for plumage or… whatever.  The ribbons are displayed proudly on the walls of her room.  There were no pictures of my father or me; rest his soul.

Mother’s Alzheimer’s had grown worse over the last couple of years, and with my mother’s advanced Alzheimer’s, she couldn’t live alone.  I insisted that she move into my house, along with Jezebel.  It was the right thing to do.  She needed supervision, and they wouldn’t let Mom keep Jezebel in a nursing home due to the strict rules about pets.  It would have killed her to lose the bird, so Mom moved into the guest room, and so did Jezebel.

Jezebel behaved differently after the Northwest Texas Macaw Foundation’s Bird Show two weeks ago.  I drove Mother there, her fussing over the bird the whole way.  The show was canceled; something about the virus everyone is talking about and public gatherings not being allowed, but not before Jezebel got into a fight with a mean-looking Cockatiel at the show.  Jezebel didn’t seem injured, but she acted weird afterward.  She wouldn’t speak and clawed angrily at the mirror in her cage.  Mother obsessed with getting her well, and a trip to the vet did nothing to make things better. That’s when Mom started feeding her hamburger.  Jazzy Jez calmed down then and seemed more like her old, capricious self after getting some McDonalds’.  She liked raw meat even more, and she started speaking again.

“Where’s the beef?” Mom taught her to say.

Now that they have shut down the schools and my workplace due to the virus, I’m stuck at home with both of them.  Most stores have closed, too. It’s hard to find an open gas station, and vegetables are in short supply.  Apparently,  the virus spread from Mexico, and since most vegetables for the Southern United States come from Mexico, tomatoes, lettuce, and other produce were rare if not completely unavailable.  Last week, Houston was quarantined entirely; no one allowed in or out.  That could happen here. I’ll have to stock up on whatever supplies I can find.  The newly enforced curfew said you had to be indoors before sunset. 

I left Mom alone with the damned bird, and the next morning, I went out looking for an open store.  They were all closed, and the roads were oddly absent of cars, but I stopped at a roadside stand selling Tyler Roses and bought a dozen for $5.  My father used to bring yellow roses home to Mom from time to time, a demonstration of how much he loved her. “Despite your craziness, I love you.” It always melted Mom’s heart, and whatever troubled her about the day seemed to fade for a bit.  I hoped it would have the same effect if I gave them to her.

“You been into town?” the kid at the stand asked.

“Not yet.  Hope I can get some food.”

“You’ve got a gun, right?”

“Sure,” I lied, getting back into my car with the flowers. “This is Texas.  Who doesn’t have a gun?”

“Shoot for the head. It’s the only thing that works.”

I peeled out and went to the nearby store.  I could pick up some hamburger and soda at the grocery store, but they didn’t have much else.  The shelves were picked over; ransacked, really.  The sign outside said, “No bread, milk, or produce.” Or much of anything else.  Several Armed National Guard were outside and they looked nervous.  One approached me and handed me a flyer that had ‘NOTICE” printed across the top.

“Have the riots quieted down?” I asked.  The guard didn’t look at me, but I noticed his knuckles whiten a little on his M-16.  I didn’t press him for conversation and continued out to my car.

“Go home, sir.  Lock the doors and stay there.”

I turned around and asked, “Is it really that bad?”

He glanced at me sideways, and the look in his eyes told me it was. “Got a gun?” he asked.

“No.”

“Find one.  Wait,” he said, upholstering his pistol and handing it to me, grip first. “This is the safety; leave it on until you need to fire it.  Use both hands and aim for the head.  It has twelve rounds.”

I gawked at the gun being handed to me. “Why are you doing this?”

“Take it!”

“Thank you,” I said, grabbing the grip and feeling the weight of the weapon. “I really don’t think this is necessary…”

But the guard had turned and was already walking away.  I don’t have a license to carry a gun, I thought.

I had collected flowers, meat, Cokes, and a gun—none of the things I set out to pick up when I left this morning.  Reading the notice I had been handed, all things we’ve heard over and over for the last few weeks now: Avoid crowds, beware of people or animals acting strange or violent, stay indoors at night, lock the door, and drink only boiled or bottled water.  And it had a new one – don’t try to leave the city.  It didn’t say quarantine, but that’s what it meant.  I better get home.

Pulling into the driveway, I carried the food and flowers into the house and locked the door behind me.  There was no one outside for as far as I could see.  Putting the supplies down, I went back to see how Mom was doing.  I didn’t tell her I was going out because she never remembered, anyway. 

I took the roses and knocked on the door to her room. “Mom, are you up?”

“Mom, are you up?” quipped the parrot voice inside.  I hate that bird.  Turning the handle, I pushed the door open.

The first thing I noticed was the dark brown stain around my mother’s still body.  The gashes torn into neck and face made her unrecognizable except for the nighty that I knew was hers.  Perched on her chest and ripping at the flesh was Jezebel, blood covering her brilliantly colored breast and face.

“Where’s the beef?” Jezebel said, spreading  her wings and then laughing, “hah hah hah hah!”

Photo by Engin Akyurt on Pexels.com

“Mom!” I screamed, but I knew she was dead and had been for a while.  The blood had dried into the carpet and turned brown.  This had happened sometime last night.  You just had to feed her hamburger, didn’t you, Mom?

Jezebel flapped her wings and flew towards me, bloody and rasping, “Play that funky music, white boy!” She cawed.

Instinctively I swung at the bird and slapped her down to the floor with the bunch of roses, but she came back at me as I stumbled out into the hall.  I held up the roses to cover my face, and the bird landed on the flowers, flapping wildly and crying, “Kiss! Kiss!” The thorns raked my cheek, and I swung wildly, slamming Jezebel into the wall with the roses.  I turn and ran.

As I turned the corner and ran through the living room, I heard Jezebel singing the theme to Golden Girls, one of Mom’s favorite shows.  She hopped around the corner and cocked an eye at me.

“Thank you for being a friend.  Traveled down the road and back again. Your heart is true. You’re a pal and a confidant.”

I rounded the counter into the kitchen.  Gun! The gun is in the car!  Jezebel spread her wings and flew up and over the counter, landing on the faucet over the sink.

“Who’s a pretty bird?” she cried happily.

I grabbed the two-pound package of hamburger and swung down, knocking her into the sink.  I had her trapped beneath the meat, and her wings beat wildly in the basin, but I continued to press down.  I heard bones cracking, but still she fought back with more strength than I would have imagined. Jamming down harder with both hands, her head moved to the garbage disposal drain, and I mashed her into it.

“Where’s the beef?” She cawed from inside of the drain.  “Son!  Help Me!  Help me!” she mimicked my mother’s last words, and I flipped the garbage disposal switch, and the blades powered to life, grinding the head off of the shuddering animal.

I held down firmly until Jezebel stopped twitching.  When I let go, I left the disposal running, grinding away at nothing.  The bird’s legs still stuck out of the drain at impossible angles, splayed by the package of hamburger.

Quarantine or not, I’m out of here! Running to the car, I pulled the pistol from the glove compartment and turned the safety off.  I had enough gas to get me out of town and maybe to Oklahoma.  Maybe things are better there.  I made it as far as the city limits, behind miles of other cars, also trying to leave.

The officer came around to my car and told me to turn around, but then he saw my face and pulled his gun.  “Infected!”  He shouted, and two other police ran over with guns drawn.

“Out of the car.  Out of the car!”

I complied, and they shoved me to the ground and bound my arms, taking the gun.

“How long ago did you get those injuries on your face?”

“These?  They are from some roses.  Just scratches.  An hour ago, maybe?”

Hoisting me up to my feet, they shoved me to a fenced-in area with a bunch of other people, also bound or handcuffed. 

“It’s just scratches from thorns! That’s all.  That’s all.”  My voice trailed off as they locked the gate and walked away.

“Thorns on roses!  Just thorns!” I shouted anew, but they weren’t listening.  Before nightfall, the pen was full of people they deemed ‘infected’, and they started executing us methodically.

© 2012, 2021 Mitch Lavender

The Guardian (short story)

This is a short story I wrote in 2011 that was first published in “Report,” an ezine. I polished it a little, but the story remains the same. I always intended to expand on it and never did. I hope you like it.


Photo by Aidan Roof on Pexels.com

The rapping at the closet door started just after midnight, as it always did.  Who – no, not who – what could it be, inside the closet?

Erika had been repeating the steps of jumping out of bed, grabbing a crayon from the nightstand, and running to the door to redraw the strange symbols around the door’s frame before they faded entirely. Then, quietly running back to the bed, pulling the covers up to eyes, and watching the door with fear.  She did this every seven minutes, and each time, she was careful not to disturb the intricate design she had laid out so carefully on the wooden floor.  It was made of lines of carefully poured, pure white sand, and she knew that stepping on it or severing one of the lines might unseal the lock. 

Rap, rap, rap. 

Not like someone beating on the door and not even a full, adult knock.  It was just the whisper of a knock, barely audible but still there, then a pause of maybe twenty seconds, then coming again.  Patient.  Determined. Firm.

The magical cryptograms on the floor and door frame were the only things that kept – whatever – from entering her room.

Six minutes more passed of this, and she needed to decide on a new crayon color to use next.  The Aquamarine worked well, but now just a nub.  She could use Salmon or Bittersweet Orange, but she was afraid.  She had never used colors in the red spectrum to lock the door, and they might not be effective. 

Pulling a light blue one from the box of 64 colors, she read the name written on the side:  Blizzard Blue – it was close to Aquamarine, but lighter and lighter colors seemed to work best.  The Robin Egg Blue was great, sealing the door over eleven minutes at a time, but she had used it up the other night.  Sky Blue was another good one, almost nine minutes for it.  It might have lasted longer, but Erika was afraid to test it.  When the seals started to fade, she couldn’t let them disappear entirely, or the lock would fail.  The lock on the floor was the last defense, and she would have to stand in the center of it to be protected.

She got out of bed after seven minutes,  tip-toed over the sand pattern on the floor, and began retracing the symbols on the door frame again.  It was 6:53 AM, according to her clock, and sunrise was just minutes away.  Then, she could sleep.

The Rapture had taken Mommy and Daddy, and she was alone.  Now, the demons prowled the night hours, and it wasn’t safe after dusk.  Her closet was the only entrance to this hemisphere, but she didn’t know that.  She only knew she was keeping something inside from getting out, and in the daytime, there was nothing to worry about.  She could open her closet and even play in it if she wanted.

She had already decided she would use violet next, that upcoming night, and see how that works.  After the sun was up and she slept, she played with Barbies and went out to swing.  She collected the manna that fell from the sky, and while it was bland, she could dip it in honey or pour sugar on it, and it tasted better.  When the sun started to set, she took her bath and dressed for bed, violet crayon clutched tightly in her hand.

Erika’s father had read the bible to her before he was taken up.  She knew the story of Job in the bible and how God allowed him to be tested by the Devil so that Job may demonstrate his faith.  He also read to her of Lot and his family in Sodom and Gomorra.  If only one faithful person was present, the destitute cities might be spared. 

At only nine years old and still fancying Barbies, she didn’t know how she knew to make the lock or that she was The Guardian of Mankind still on earth.  She did not know this was her test.  Wherever she moved, whatever room she was in; that was where the portal would be, and she must guard it, or all of mankind would be forsaken.  This was her tribulation; this was her cross to bear.  She didn’t understand, but she had yet to curse God, so the rapping at the door would continue again tonight.

© 2011, 2021 Mitch Lavender

Life in Sixty-Four Square Feet–The First Six Chapters

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Over the last two months, I’ve posted seventeen episodes of my next novel, Life in Sixty-Four Square Feet, which I co-authored with a good friend, Tom Quinn.  This make up the first six chapters of the novel, and now, the first six chapters are free to download, distribute and read by anyone.  The format is PDF, which can be viewed on any PC,  tablet, smart phone or e-book reader.  I fully recognize it can be edited and changed, should someone desire to do so.  I ask that you please do not alter it in any way.  Good, bad or mediocre, it is mine.  Please respect that.

Here is the link to download LIFEIN64-CH1-CH6.PDF

I hope you enjoy it.  I really do.

Excerpt 3 From My Novel, “Find my Baby”

This is an excerpt from the first act of my recently published novel, Find My Baby, available on Amazon Kindle and other fine book sellers.

I hope you like it, and if you like it, please share.

 

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The dark room was illuminated by the monitor. The man staring at it was pensive and intense as he read the news story from the Korean text on the screen:

Sentia Solutions Patches BEATTHIS Exploit.

“Sentia Solutions of Dallas, Texas announced today that it has patched the code exploit that caused hundreds of email servers to crash three weeks ago. Zachary Foxborne was credited with leading the team that engineered the patch. Andre Gomez promised the signature update would be available Monday for Sentia Sentinel, the anti-virus software used by millions of computer users.”

He stopped reading there. Leaning back in his chair, he tented his fingers before him and thought. Had only this Ratmir Misko fellow had the diligence to complete his assignment sooner, this would not have mattered. If only Misko had not been so brazen as to demonstrate in such a public forum, this might not have gotten the attention it did that resulted in the patch. As it was, Misko’s code exploit was useless to him now. He only wanted it to deliver the payload rootkit to the South Korean servers, but now, it could be traced. He didn’t dare try it now.

His thoughts were interrupted by a knock at the door.

“Enter.”

“Excuse me, General, Sir,” the uniformed man said, entering and saluting.

“At ease. What do you want?”

“Your presence is requested in the briefing room.”

“Inform the Chairman I will not be attending.”

The officer paused, not sure what to say.

“I will not attend!” he repeated forcefully.

“Yes Sir. I will tell him, Sir.” And he scurried out the door and closed it softly behind him.

Staring at the screen, he said aloud, “Who are you Zachary Foxborne? You are only a man, are you not?” And he leaned in and opened Bing.com to do a search on his name.

Wikipedia pulled him up and he read:

Zachary Foxborne (born May 25, 1979) was accused of creating two computer viruses in 1996 that exploited pedophiles and violators of bestiality laws.

The first was a simple macro exploit of Microsoft’s email program. The email, sent with the title, “Nude pictures of Jenny – 14 years old and HOT!!!” containing an attachment that, if clicked, executed a macro that sent emails to the first 100 members of the users address list, replicating the message. It also emailed FBI.gov with a different message, titled “I am a sex offender. Stop me, now!”

The Jenny virus continued to proliferate on The Internet for more than a year before it was stopped. It also led to the investigation and arrest of over 300 suspected sex offenders, 122 who were convicted.”

Fascinating – a vigilante hacker, seeking to exploit the perverse parasites on society. And this was when he was only a boy of seventeen. He read on:

“The macro code for the Jenny Virus was used for multiple other exploits by other, unidentified sources for various means, but Jenny Virus is recognized as the original code.

The second exploit was known as the Chancy McChancy exploit. Using similar code, it replicated itself by a macro, sending to the first 100 addresses in a user’s address list when opened. It also contained a link and the text: See a woman DO IT with a horse!!! It had a link clearly identified as: SexWithFurryAnimals.com.

If the user clicked the link, they went to a website that displayed their personal information and threatened to send it to contacts in their email list, spouse, employers and legal authorities, saying they ‘like sex with furry animals’ unless they donated $50 through PayPal with the comment, “Donated by Chancy McChancy,” and returned to the site to enter the payment verification information.

The threat to follow through on notifying the parties mentioned was later determined to be invalid, but over 20 thousand dollars was donated to The Humane Society from sources claiming to be, “Chancy McChancy,” during the years of 1996-1997.”

The General laughed at this. The man even protects the sheep in the field, he thought. Animals have no rights, but men who set the bar so low as to have sex with an animal should be killed.

He read on:

“Zachary Foxborne was brought up on charges for the damages done by both of these viruses, estimated at over 2.2 million dollars. He was acquitted in an undisclosed out of court settlement on July of 1998.”

Interesting. The US court system had an opportunity to make an example out of him, punishing him to the full extent of the law, but they didn’t. Why?

The General scrolled the page down to see the rest:

“During his months pending trail in 1997, Zachary Foxborne worked feverishly at translating the arcane text of the Heusel Manuscript. His translation was later confiscated by the NSA and sealed as top secret.”

Now that is interesting, isn’t it? Thought The General. ‘Heusel Manuscript’ had a link to it, and he clicked it:

The Heusel Manuscript is a handwritten book thought to have been written in the early 16th century and comprising about 240 vellum pages, some with illustrations of what is believed to be stars, deserts and constellations. Although many possible authors have been proposed, the author, script, and language remain unknown. It has been described as the world’s most mysterious manuscript.

Generally presumed to be some kind of cipher text, the Heusel Manuscript has been studied by many professional and amateur cryptographers, including American and British code breakers from both World War I and World War II, yet it has defied all decipherment attempts, becoming a historical cryptology cause célèbre. The mystery surrounding it has excited the popular imagination, making the manuscript a subject of both fanciful theories and novels.

In 2009, University of California researchers performed C14 dating on the manuscript’s vellum, which they assert (with 95% confidence) was made between 1404 and 1430. In addition, the McCrane Research Institute in Chicago found that much of the ink was added not long afterwards, confirming that the manuscript is an authentic medieval document.”

Tenting his fingers again, the General wondered why Foxborne’s translation attempt was taken and sealed as top secret. What could it contain that the US government did not want it known? That alone was enough to want it.

He clicked the back button on the web browser twice and looked at the listing from Bing.com for matches for his search: Zachary Foxborne. Most just looked like old news reports, but there was one for Facebook.

He clicked it, but couldn’t see any information without being a friend. Backing up again, he saw Lucy Foxborne’s Facebook link in the listing. Clicking it he saw her Facebook wall and what was written there. One post by Lucy particularly caught his eye.

“Adoption papers for Ukraine submitted. Now, Zac and I wait.”

“Foxborne,” he said the name aloud. “I want this translation of the manuscript.”

If you are truly born of foxes, then I will need a bloodhound to seek you out. You are going to Ukraine for a child, are you? He stroked his chin and then opened a new email message. “Maybe I still have a use for you, Ratmir Misko.”

*****

“Ah, brother. We will have our revenge.” Ratmir grinned.

Viktor said nothing but looked on. When his brother spoke of ‘we’ he really meant him. He would have his revenge, whatever that might be. Ratmir hated so many people, it would be pointless to guess whom he referred to.

“That prick Foxborne is coming to Ukraine to adopt a child. We will make sure he pays for the problems he caused us! And we will make a pretty coin in the process, getting some manuscript from him.”

Viktor nodded and smiled. He really couldn’t care less. Tonight, he would see his love and that was what kept him going.

Excerpt 2 from my novel, “Find My Baby”

This is an excerpt from the first act of my recently published novel, Find My Baby, available on Amazon Kindle and other fine book sellers.

I hope you like it, and if you like it, please share.

 

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

 

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“What do you want me to do?”

Zachary’s voice was strained, his arms, crossed.

“Keep loving me!” Lucy said, tears welling in her eyes.

Really? Zachary wondered why Lucy went to extremes like this. Why she would fathom that he did not love her, yet after eight years of marriage, this is what she would bring up again and again. As if he would… as if he could stop loving her! This was a normal cycle of an argument for them, and it was one he knew well.

“I never stop loving you, Lucy.” He put his arms around her waist and pulled her to him. He looked into her deep, green eyes and kissed her gently but passionately. “And of course I am on board with this. We do this together. I want a baby, too.”

“What if I can’t?” Lucy stammered, tears welling up in her eyes. “What if I can’t get pregnant? Or if I lose the baby mid-term again! What if…”

“What if you stop worrying about problems we don’t have. How about that?” Zachary countered. “We’ll handle whatever problem comes up. I promise. Let’s not worry about them now.”

Zachary took the white, plastic stick from Lucy’s hand and held it up. A light blue minus sign showed on in the little display. “This just means, ‘try again.’ And I do love trying,” he said with a coy smile.

Lucy smiled too, blinking away her tears. “I think we need to try right now.”

They kissed and, hand in hand, moved to the bedroom. Sometimes, their love play was passionate and driven. Sometimes, it was gentle and slow. Zachary was completely enamored with the woman he married and it showed in every way he touched her.

*****

Zachary Foxborne watched CNN later than night. The headline ticker read “Global Messaging Hoax.” They were interviewing a network security analyst from Sentia Solutions, Andre Gomez. He was there to address how this could have occurred.

Andre Gomez was distinguished-looking without being old. He was geeky without being uncool. Zachary had met him once and had worked at Sentia long enough to know that Gomez was just regurgitating what he was told to say. Unfortunately, he didn’t say much.

Apparently, the message sourced from just “5l@x0rH@x0r” with no domain name following it; no ‘@yahoo.com’ or whatever. The Internet, and email in general, just does not work without domain names, he pointed out. The TCP/IP protocol suite can work on just IP addresses without using domain names, but even this was not evident in this case.

Gomez went into some functionary descriptions of how email servers do spam-checking – checking for what he called “spoofed” email addresses and so on. Apparently, not only was all of this by-passed, it was not even recorded on any server or intermediate network device. Not anywhere on the entire Internet; even servers who only function to track e-mail traffic failed to have any record of it.

*****

That Monday, Zachary had a new meeting on his schedule. It was a short presentation and as the meeting concluded, he learned he was to lead a team at Sentia Solutions in finding the source of the hoax email. This was big, but it was also a cool project, tracking down the source of a high-profile virus or malware was about as cool as it gets for someone in his field. He was excited to not only be part of the team, but to be the lead.

Still, short of overloading a few email servers, the message had not been noted to have done any real harm. Yes, it distracted people and therefore cost businesses productivity as people started speculating on the source or philosophical aspects of the message, but no harm had been noted. That was to be his first step in analyzing the message; what underlying, hidden vulnerability did it expose? Did it plant a backdoor on the computers or devices it infected – something the creator might activate at a later date, or was set to activate at a specific date?

Typically, a virus was a program or computer script that claimed to be one thing, but in fact did another. One of the famous ones was Fireworks23.exe, released in the late 1990’s.

It claimed to be a program that, when run, would do a pretty display of fireworks on the screen. It did do that – the fake fireworks looked cool for the time – but it also stealthily downloaded and installed another program from the Internet that would allow remote connectivity. The program activated and hacked into the user’s email, sending an email to everyone in the user’s address book, telling them this was, “A very fun program!!!! Check it out!!!!”

The link included in the email installed Fireworks23.exe, which proliferated and spread across the Internet, and the more users executed the program, the more vulnerable machines there were. Of course, the average user didn’t even know they were vulnerable. They didn’t know that there computer (and all of the data and files stored on its drives) could be accessed by someone in China, running the client-side of the software that had been unwittingly run on their machine.

Most people thought computer viruses were there to cause instability and crashes. Over recent years, they had far more nefarious purposes, and it was only due to badly written code that they crashed the systems. At least in most cases, this was true.

Trojan Horse viruses like Fireworks23.exe were so-called because the claimed to be a program of one type, but when run, did something compromising or detrimental, just like the Greek soldiers that hid within the wooden horse that was presented as a gift to the city of Troy.

Zachary Foxborne had worked on the team that identified the Allison virus, which struck millions of PCs in 2007. The virus, which hid itself in a .DOC file, exploited a vulnerability in Microsoft Word and Outlook, and would send itself to the first fifty addresses in Outlook’s address book. The subject line of the infected e-mail sent out was: “My Pictures of Username”, where Username was the name to whom the sender’s copy of Microsoft Word was registered.

Much worse was the variant of the virus named ‘Allison B/N’ which would find and destroy Microsoft Excel documents, randomly deleting sets of data from files, or make the files completely useless by applying sets of malicious macro code. To simplify the code, the author has encrypted a vector search pattern in it, so the virus could only delete linear sets of data, usually random rows or columns in a table. It also had a search parameter that made it selectively change unique sets of data, so as to cause more damage.

Still later, a variant of this virus would make backup copies of the destroyed files and then demanded a ransom of $100 to be transferred into an offshore account in return for the files.

Zachary had been instrumental in tracing this back to the originator – a programmer in Russia. Due to a malfunction in the code, the code made copies in about one-percent of cases of infection, and did not proliferate as much as earlier variants.

The virus was rendered obsolete by Sentia Solutions when it was discovered that it leaves visible traces in the registry of the Windows Operating System, providing enough data to ensure its safe removal and the retrieval of the data held hostage in a hidden directory on the local hard drive. Zachary programmed the signature and fix for this variant, preventing an estimated 240 million dollars’ worth of lost data.

Still another version of this virus variant would modify the backed-up data, fooling the user even further. It searched for numeric data inside the files, and then, with the help of a random number generator, slightly modified the data, making it useless.

Identifying such threats and providing remediation through updates to the Sentia SAFE anti-virus program, Sentia had become one of the biggest players in the computer security game, their software being used by many governments, including the United States. Sentia Solutions is considered the foremost authority in identifying malicious programming threats.

Sometimes, hundreds were identified each month in “the wild,” meaning that it was actively proliferating on the Internet. This was big business, and Sentient Solutions saved companies hundreds of millions of dollars every quarter.

They also took the brunt of it when a virus did sneak past. Though a well written disclaimer absolved them of any blame, it wasn’t good for business, and Sentia Solutions took this sort of thing very seriously. Antivirus Investigators and Programmers like Zachary were kept very busy, but Zachary was alright with that. He considered it job security, and he liked being one of the good guys.

This threat was something new – not just a variant or your run-of-the-mill virus, stealthy Trojan horse or even a root kit. Everything before this could had left traces. It wasn’t easy, but they all had a tell-tale sign that could be used to identify their presence, and once detected, it could be removed.

Zachary was confident that this new virus had a signature too – something he could pick up on. All viruses did, and he and his team would find it and remediate the threat. The hunt and chase, Zachary’s favorite part.

Programmers who put out malicious code were infamous for executing it poorly, and this had been their downfall and even lead to arrest, imprisonment, or in Zachary’s case… getting a job working for a company that tracked down said virus’. It also put him on the NSA’s “go to” list, calling on him to assist with an investigation that required his unique capabilities.

When Zachary was seventeen years old and working at a pre-employment screening company, Profiles Unlimited, he took notice of a piece of code that was used to identify the person’s reaction time on each question. He thought this was interesting – determining how long the person contemplated the question factored into the overall score and determining the accuracy. The program also went online and pulled any public information on the candidate, such as marital status, criminal record, credit reports, and current and previous addresses.

He had leveraged this bit of code and put it up as a script on an online website claiming to be a bestiality website called sexwithfurryanimals.com. When someone would connect to the site, expecting they would see some perverse images, they were instead greeted with a page that displayed their personal information: Their current IP address, a home address, spouse’s name, and sometimes an employer’s address and phone number. It then threatened to contact the spouses, employers and local newspapers with the information about their interesting browsing habits, unless they donated $50 to Humane Society under the gifting name of Chancy McChancy.

Zachary got the idea to do it after reading an article about a man who was convicted of animal abuse. This man set off firecrackers in the butts of cats. He had twelve accounts of the offense and many of the animals died painful deaths. His fine was a mere $100 and a slap on the wrist. People like that should have more severe punishment, Zachary thought.

The Humane Society received twenty-two thousand dollars donated from Chancy McChancy before Zachary Foxborne was forced to take the web site down. It was a mostly benign form of phishing – one that benefitted a charity, but it was still exploitation and therefore, illegal – a federal offense in the United States.

Because of his age and the fact that the judge thought his ploy was amusing, charges would be dropped if he would accept one hundred hours of community service, assisting in the role as intern for Sentia Solutions, and on call to the NSA as required. After his hundred hours of service, Zachary was offered a full time position and almost three times the salary he made at Profiles Unlimited. Profiles Unlimited fired him after the whole thing became public and even sued him for damages, but they didn’t win. After all, he was the sort of person Profiles Unlimited were supposed to be helping employers avoid, and they had hired him. They didn’t need that kind of press.

The McChancy Phishing Scheme as it came to be called, had gained him credibility in the hacker underground and anti-virus community. It wasn’t particularly brilliant or innovative, but the way he had executed it was. It exploited those who had predatory and perverse fetishes, and it benefited a charity that was exactly counter to that behavior.

Now, he would be leading the team that was investigating the H@x0r’s Hoax. This was the name they used for the “Beat This” messaging ruse.

Key goals of the investigation were:

1. Understand how the message was originated and sent.

2. Understand how it failed to be recorded on any server.

3. Develop a means to prevent such an exploit from being used again.

4. Identify the author who wrote it and identify the person who executed it, if they were not the same person.

5. Keep Andre Gomez apprised of the progress so that he can handle the public-facing side of the investigation.

Estiban Foulk had thought Zachary was a good choice for leading this project. Just like Zachary’s McChancy Phishing Scheme, this hoax was relatively low-threat. This hoax didn’t damage data or open any back-doors to allow remote access. In fact, it didn’t really seem malicious at all. It was probably authored by some high school kid, maybe a college kid.

Kids these days were brilliant when it came to computers and coding, and they often failed to recognize the full consequences of their actions or the tell-tale signatures they leave behind. The internet presented a false sense of security to people who think they are anonymous, just because they were sitting in their own homes, surfing the web.

It couldn’t be farther from the truth. There were certainly means to help disguise an individual’s online presence, if they knew how to use them. Proxy servers on the Internet could be connected to, and then everything the user did seemed to originate from the source of the proxy server, rather than the individual’s unique IP address. Still, proxy servers had records that were recorded, and these could be subpoenaed and reviewed.

The biggest obstacle was obtaining the server’s records, as many proxy servers were set up in parts of the former Soviet Union, the Philippines or China. These places had ‘real problems’ to deal with and didn’t see any value in cooperating with US agencies to track down the source of some malicious activity on the Internet.

Tracking down and nullifying threats despite these obstacles was how Sentia Solutions made a name for themselves as the biggest and most renowned security specialists in the field of computer technology. Neither Foulk, Zachary nor anyone at Sentia Solutions fully understood the gravity of the hoax that was being investigated. Not yet.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Thanks for reading this excerpt.  I f you enjoyed it, please share with your friends and check out the full novel on Amazon.

ML

Review of “Find my Baby” by Daniel Kaye

The reviews of my latest novel, Find My Baby, have been coming in on the Internet, and I’ll share and reblog them as I can (the good and the bad). This one is from Daniel Kaye, an author in Ireland. 

The original post can be found here: Daniel Kay on Blogspot.

FMB-square.2

 

Quote:

“I thought Mitch Lavender superbly crafted this novel and like a snowball slowly rolling down the hill gaining both momentum and mass, this story pulled you in.

Would I recommend it? Definitely.”

 

There you go.  What’s keeping you from reading Find My Baby?

Get a free copy of my new novel, Find My Baby (ends July 30)

I’m looking for honest reviews for my new novel, Find My Baby.

FindMyBabyTransparent - work

I’ve received a few reviews on Amazon and Goodreads but would like to see more.  Many prospective readers look at the reviews of book to help them decide if it right for them or not.  This is particularly true if the author is unknown, such as I am.

If you are willing to take a chance on my book and leave reviews on Amazon or Goodreads,  I’m willing to give you a copy in e-book format.

I’m offering 10 free copies to anyone who agrees to this, and will provide the book in PDF format, which is readable on e-book readers, tablets and PCs.

Find my Baby Synopsis:

Zachary and Lucy Foxborne have everything they want except a child. As they begin navigating the legal and bureaucratic maze of international adoption from Ukraine, they could not imagine their newly adopted child would be held for ransom by a brilliant and demented cyber-terrorist, bent on revenge and even darker motives.  Finding their baby could cost them everything.

Mitch Lavender is an accomplished author of short stories and has been published in numerous magazines and anthologies from Static Movement, Pill Hill Press and Pantoum Press. He worked for Microsoft Corporation for over 18 years, happily married 25 years and is the father of a son, adopted from Ukraine. With this background, it makes sense that his first, published full-length novel would be a high-stakes thriller interlaced with computer espionage, set with an American couple, attempting to do an international adoption.

Book Promo–Find My Baby

Contact me at mitchlav@outlook.com if you are interested and I will send you the details.

Thanks.

Soundtrack for FIND MY BABY

 

FindMyBabyTransparent5

When I was writing the first draft of Find My Baby, I created a playlist of music that characterized the scenes I was writing. Sometimes I selected a song for the lyrics, but many times I selected the song for the vibe – the overall feeling it conveyed through the sound.

The original playlist was 37 songs and 2 hours and 51 minutes long. I have shortened that considerably. I hope you enjoy it.

 

Find My Baby Soundtrack

What’s Going On – Giorgio Moroder\Adam Ant – The Beat This virus surprises the world by messaging all Internet-connected devices.

Free Radicals – Flaming Lips – Ratmir’s theme.

So In Love With You – Texas – Zachary and Lucy’s theme.

This is Not America – David Bowie – Arriving in Ukraine, Zachary and Lucy suffer some degree  of culture shock.

Find My Baby – Moby – I think this one is pretty obvious. Smile

Beautiful Boy – John Lennon – Alexander’s Theme.

Winter Time – Steve miller Band –  Cold in Ukraine in February.

Up Jumped The Devil – Nick Cave – Ratmir has new motives and a new target.

The KKK Took My Baby Away – The Ramones – After finally finding their son, Zachary and Lucy may have lost him forever.

Stranglehold – Ted Nugent – Ratmir has manipulated Zachary into a situation with little choice but to comply.

Don’t Give Up – Peter Gabriel – Time is running out and Zachary has so much to do.  He feels the pressure.

On Your Own – Billy Squire – Viktor faces down Ratmir.

Better Together – Jack Johnson – Finally a family, Zachary, Lucy and Alexander are complete.

Codes and Keys – Death Cab For Cutie –   The Heusel Manuscript translation.

 

Book Promo–Find My Baby by Mitch Lavender

Zombie: An Original Short Story by Chuck Palahniuk

Not many magazines have the nutsack to publish a story by Chuck.  Let’s face it, he’s hardly New Yorker material, and I mean this in all possible, positive ways. Playboy not only published the story, they made it freely available to read online.    If you are here, you must be interested in reading it, so click the link (below) and go already!  This is classic Chuck, and though the story is called Zombie, it is not a typical zombie story.

I’ll give this a proper review later.  For now, enjoy.

And though this is in the SFW (Safe For Work) section of Playboy.com, I recommend that you DO NOT click this link while at work.  Better safe than explain to HR tomorrow why you were looking at anything on playboy.com while at work.

Just sayin’.

 

Chuckp-Zombie

Zombie: An Original Short Story by Chuck Palahniuk

http://playboysfw.kinja.com/zombie-a-new-original-short-story-by-chuck-palahniuk-1465542446

Short Story: Nothing More Than Feelings

This story appeared in Untrue Stories, Volume One, by Pantoum Press in 2012.  It was inspired by a story written by David Yu – Standard Loneliness Package.  I hope you like it, and if you do, please share.

 

Nothing More Than Feelings
by Mitch Lavender

Mari showed up at my cubicle at 10:40 in the morning.

“What’s your eleven o’clock?”

I checked my screen, sorted through my cases and replied, “I’ve got a funeral.”

“What kind of funeral?”

I clicked the case and waited for it open. “Grandmother.” I looked at the description. “Oh, man. And I’m a thirteen year-old girl.”

“Want to trade?” Mari asked immediately.

I did funerals every day. Some days, I had three or four in a row, but a grandmother was a tough one, especially when I’m getting the transmission from a thirteen year-old girl. Mari’s case must be super-bad if she wanted to trade for this. I waited for her to come out with it.

“I’m putting my 12 year-old Golden Retriever to sleep. I don’t think I can do that. I really love dogs, you know?”

Mari was such a softy. I said, “All right, I’ll trade.”

In the cubicle across from mine, Taj had his headset on, working a case, crying and sniffling, blowing his nose into a wadded tissue. Probably a funeral. Most of our cases are funerals.  I looked back at Mari.

“Thanks, Doug. I owe you one,” Mari said with a weary smile. She walked back to her cube.

This job takes a lot out of you and Mari was having a tough time lately. It’s easy to burn out and I’ve seen coworkers get to the point where they couldn’t put the transmission receiver on anymore; most quit before they had a complete breakdown. I think she was close.

Mari and I started working at Sensation Solutions, Limited, about the same time, and we used to laugh about it. We’re paid $16 an hour, plus bonuses, to feel crappy for customers. Basically, people outsourced their bad day to us.

During training, they told us that Emotional Support Technicians (ESTs) weren’t needed for a customer to avoid their bad feelings, but we were a luxury that most would pay to have. A person could just wear the Emotion Interrupter Device, which looks like a small, square patch, placed at the base of the neck, and it would collect the emotional data from a customer and delete it, but when that was done, the customer didn’t appear to have any feelings at all. They would be blank and expressionless, and no one wanted to look like they didn’t feel anything at the funeral of a loved one, so they transferred their emotions to an EST like me, and I felt their sorrow, remorse, regret, guilt or whatever. Whatever I felt showed on the customer’s face. They didn’t feel it, but it looked like they did.

I didn’t understand the pricing structure, but that was negotiated through our sales staff. I think the charges were flexible; how much money the person had, times how badly they didn’t want to deal with their emotions, equals cost of my services for one or two hours. Or something – like I said, I didn’t understand it.

At 11 AM, I was going to feel what it was like to put my dog down. I’ve never done this before, but it couldn’t suck any more than the child’s funeral I did for a grieving parent last week. I swear, I almost hit the abort button on that one. I’ve never hit abort before; it’s considered a failure. No one says it, but you’ve failed to do your job if you abort, and the customer gets a refund, plus compensation. Hit abort too many times and you get your hours cut or scheduled for crappy shifts, or even let go.

I got a certificate and cake for making it twelve months without an abort. It’s thumb-tacked to the wall in my cube. The certificate, I mean. Not the cake.

So I went ahead with Mari’s case and killed my dog. It sucked every bit as much as any funeral I’d ever felt. Seeing through the eyes of the dog’s owner as she sat next to the aged Retriever in a vet’s office somewhere, the animal, its brown eyes rolled up with a whimper. I was very aware of it. This dear animal was in pain, and putting her to sleep was the loving thing to do, but hard.

DOG-EUTHANIZEDI wept and moaned, “Sweet, wonderful girl. You are so loved. I will love you forever. Sweet, sweet Goldie.” These were all emotions from the dog’s owner, transferred to me. After 35 minutes, Goldie lay still on the vet’s table. My customer paid for the full hour, so I stayed on the line.

As she left the vet and went out to her car, I was still feeling immense sorrow and continued to cry. Blubbering, really, snot pouring out my nose and, oh man, the wretched sobbing, but I couldn’t control it. Taj looked across the aisle at me, a silent show of respect that I was dealing with a tough one. He was in-between cases and had a break before his next. I knew it was a divorce hearing, and those usually made him angry. I wanted to be out of here for lunch before he got too far into it.

Sitting in the car, I saw my customer open the glove compartment and take out a gun. It looked like a .22 and was staring at it. I was staring at it, through her eyes. Still jacked in and receiving her emotional transmissions, I felt such complete despair and hopelessness. I couldn’t imagine this emptiness ever being less; this pain would never end.

The gun went up and I felt the barrel in my mouth. Everything was so completely miserable and I was confident it would not stop unless I ended it. I wanted to finish it and make it stop. I wanted to die, like Goldie. I was going to squeeze the trigger and all of it would stop.

Alarm.

suicideI opened my eyes and blinked, wiping away the tears. I realized I was on my knees in my cubicle and Taj was standing next to me. The meep, meep, meep alarm sound continued. Somewhere nearby, I could hear Mari, sobbing like a little girl, still connected to my funeral case.

“I hit your abort,” Taj explained. “Please do not be mad, but I think you were too far in. You might not come back out.”

I blinked at him as he helped me back to my feet. I wiped the snot from my nose. “Thanks, Man. I owe you.”

“Shake it off. Go to lunch early. You don’t have another case until one o’clock.” He smiled, white teeth through his black beard. It was a good smile.

“No, that’s it. I’m done. Tell Mari to meet me outside when she’s finished with her case, would you?”

Taj nodded, still smiling. He handed me a box of tissues and I took several, blowing my nose, then grabbed my jacket and headed to the elevator.

My one o’clock customer would just have to deal with their own feelings.

 

~~~~~

A Short Story: So I Lied (410 words)

This is a story I wrote in 2011.  It was published on Thought Catalog in February, 2012, and can still be read, here.  

If you enjoy it, please share.

 

So I Lied
by Mitch Lavender

 

“Is the Moonlight Tower still up?”

Random questions and comments had become the norm for my eighty-four year old mother. Every now and then a spark would jump a synapse, igniting a memory that she hadn’t thought of for years. This time, it was a memory about the Moonlight Towers in Austin, Texas.

MLT-2

They must have been an amazing sight when they were first switched on in 1895 – 165-foot tall spires of wrought iron shining down their bluish, carbon arc light on various parts of the city of Austin. This was before streetlights. There had been thirty-one towers in all, but I know my mother was asking about one in particular.

Only once and quite a long time ago, she told me how, in 1955, Father proposed to her under the Moonlight Tower in Emma Long Memorial Park and she accepted. Though the marriage ended after ten years, and ended badly I would add, I recall how precious that singular memory was to her. I could imagine how happy she must have been at that moment; how special she surely felt. The future would have seemed as if anything were possible. My father would have been so handsome beneath the bluish light on that spring evening; on his knee, holding out a modestly adorned ring.

MLT-1I had my own memories of the Moonlight Towers as well, though they involved a keg party and a free-spirited girl I met named Sunni who laughed at my dopey jokes. That was in 1983. Since then, all but seventeen of the Moonlight Towers have been destroyed. The one in Emma Long Memorial Park was gone.

The last five years have been hard for my mother. Many of her longtime friends had passed away. In the last three years, she had become so frail that she could no longer live alone and now lived with my wife and me. Her memory has been slipping but she’s still sharp enough to realize it and I know that saddens her. She senses the dusk in near and I only want to make these days as bearable as I can.

So I lied. “Yes. The tower is still there in Austin.”

She smiled. “Thank you, son.” After a pause, another synapse fired and she asked, “Have you seen Jingles?”

Jingles was our cat that died over twenty years ago. It will be harder to lie convincingly about that, but I’ll try.

 

~~~~~

Book Review: Everything Men Know About Women: 25th Anniversary Edition

EverythingMenKnow3.inddThe 25th Anniversary edition of the “worldwide best-seller”, Everything Men Know About Women by Dr. Alan Francis, has been updated and revised to reveal all we, the male gender, know about the opposite sex.

All 120 of the pages are blank.

Yes, it’s a joke.  Apparently, it’s an old joke, now in its 25th anniversary, and plugging along just fine.

HA.

I can see the comedic value in a physical book, sitting in the open so some unsuspecting sap picks it up and flips through the pages, seeing there is nothing written on them.  What I don’t understand is the e-book version, which sells for $3.82 on Amazon.  Seriously?

HA.

Anyway, the joke just gets better and better:  This book is in the Amazon top 100,000 books.

My book, Death Zone and Other Stories, is ranked 334,357 on Amazon as I write this.

That means that a book with no words in it at all outsells my book, and hundreds of thousands of other legitimate books on Amazon, for that matter.

HA. *cough*

That’s depressing.  Or is it?

With only $3,000 and determination, Cindy Cashman and a partner started a publishing company and published the world wide best seller EVERYTHING MEN KNOW ABOUT WOMEN (written under the pseudonym of Dr. Alan Francis).

Cindy knew that marketing the book would require the type of original creative thinking not usually taught in MBA schools. She recognized that selling through traditional booksellers would be a hard sale, as it would get lost among the thousands of titles. Therefore, she developed a marketing plan to sell outside the book industry and stores bought them by the thousands.

On the strength of this initial success, they published ten original books and sold over a million copies to become one of the most successful self-publishers in the country.

Well played, Cindy Cashman. You are living up to your surname.

HA.

Notice I never disputed the accuracy of the book’s premise?  Really, pretty spot-on, if you ask me.  Since the pages were blank, I just wrote the word, “boobies” on every page.  Sometimes I drew a picture.  I’ve also scratched out the title and renamed it, Booby Traps. 

I expect to sell millions.

Recommended.

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Chuck Palahniuk on Writing

If you’ve been even a semi-regular reader of the Life64 blog, you know that I’m a fan of Chuck Palahniuk’s writing.  He’s put out some of my favorite books, including Survivor, Haunted and Choke.  One thing about Chuck that’s different from so many other authors is how accessible he makes himself to the public.  More than that, he is willing to share his experience with struggling writers. 

Granted, Chuck is not everyone’s cup of tea – he takes huge risks in some of his stories that cost him readers, but the ones that stick around are a loyal lot.  If you have never read Chuck and want to give it a go, I’d recommend Survivor, Invisible Monsters, Choke, or Fight Club.  I would never recommend Snuff or Pygmy to anyone, ever. 

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In this post, I just want to share some of that Chucky experience I’ve gleaned from the corners of the internet.   Some of this advice is common sense and some is opinion, but it’s coming directly from Chuck and I think it is worth considering.

 

Chuck on forcing yourself write

 

Chuck on the value of belonging to a writer’s workshop (via LitReactor)

A warning about the following clip:  Chuck discusses research for his novel, Snuff, which is a gross story.

The value in this for me (starting around 1:35) was his insight on the social model and characters, with reference to Fight Club, and fiction that resolves itself by killing a character.

Chuck on how to research gangbangs for Snuffed (via TWRpodcast)

And though I expect no one except hardcore Chuck fans to be interested in this, the following video is Postcards from the Future: The Chuck Palahniuk Documentary, an 89 minute film made in 2003.  It’s about Chuck, his books and what people think of Chuck.  It is full of Chuck and all sorts of Chucky goodness. 

If you want a highlight moment, click in around 17 minutes and catch Chuck talking about transgressional fiction.

via Chuckpalahniuk.net