Castle Roland


by David McLeod


Chapter 6

Published: 27 Apr 15


by David McLeod

Christian Voices

"Hey, Lewis, listen to this!" Brad turned up the radio volume.

The announcer's voice held a note of alarm. "…know that the phone company is using your long-distance dollars to pay for the work of Satan? Do you know that twenty cents of every dollar in phone company profits pays for abortions? Do you know that the phone company hires homosexuals, and that more than half the time, when you or your child talks to a telephone company operator you are talking to a homosexual?

"Do you want your money to pay for the Devil's work or for God's work? If you want your long-distance dollars to pay for God's work, then dial 10-10-5378772837, that's 10-10-JESUSSAVES, before you make a long distance call. Your call will be carried by Grace Communications, a ministry of the American Christian Values family of companies, and an important supporter of this radio program."

Lewis reached over and snapped off the radio. "Brad, why do you listen to that crap?"

Brad turned the radio back on. "Because, it was on the news today: the ACV people are going to send a lawyer to take on the school board. They're gonna try to get the LGBT Alliance de-certified as a school club."

"Oh, yeah? Then I guess we gotta find out more about them…but not by listening to that crap. Come on, let's hit the library."

An hour later, Brad and Lewis were sitting in front of an internet terminal at the library. Stacked on the carrel behind them were half-a-dozen books including the Scofield Reference Bible, an encyclopedia of cults and religion, and a travel guide to Mississippi.

"It says here they were started by a Methodist preacher, Don Willis, and that he was so weird, he was kicked out of his church and started a new one."

"Yeah, but look at the page…it's got no references. Let's find another one."

"Okay, here, how about this wiki page…it says the same thing, and that it happened in Tucker, Mississippi. And here, links to the Tucker Daily Journal…and here, to the Oxford, Mississippi Oxfordian."

The boys read the articles. Every few minutes, one would mutter something and Brad would scribble a note. Their time on the internet terminal expired, but they quickly logged back on with Brad's library card. "Hey, you don't think the library'll track what we're researching, do you?"

"Nah," Lewis said. "My sister is a volunteer, and she talked a lot to Kevin about the system. He said that they can't even monitor which sites you're checking, and that the software automatically erases browsing history, cookies, and everything else when you sign out."

"What about porn?" Brad asked.

"The whole system is filtered…if you're an adult, you can ask to have the filter removed from your terminal…if you wanted to research something like 'breast cancer,' more than half the legitimate sites would be blocked 'cause they have pictures of boobs. What kind of sicko…"

Brad had typed erectile disfunction into the search box and was about to hit the enter key when Lewis slapped his hand. "Don't! And besides, it's d-y-s-function. Come on, search for that long distance company."

Another hour passed. Brad fed quarters into the box by the network printer and grabbed the screen captures and the web pages they'd copied. "Got 'em; let's go." Fifteen minutes later, their bicycles were in the rack in front of the coffee house and they were bouncing from one foot to the other, trying to get warm after the ride through sub-zero air. "Triple espresso…" "Hot chocolate…" "Chocolate? You're such a wimp…" "You're such a big dick…" "You wish…"

"Okay, what did we get on the long distance company?" At their table, Brad spread out the papers.

"First," Lewis said. "They just buy minutes from the phone company, and then resell them to people who dial that special prefix. The phone company isn't losing any money on the deal, for sure. The Grace Communications people keep track of calls and bill people. They get a discount on minutes 'cause they buy a lot, but they charge more than the phone company 'cause they have to do the billing and pay the radio program…and all their salaries. If that one site is right, the head of the company is making more than the President of the USA."

"That doesn't mean anything…my dad makes more than the President. And what are you guys talking about, anyway?" Paul Hansen stood behind Brad. Larry Bowen arrived a second later carrying two mugs of coffee. Paul and Larry didn't have to ask if they could sit at the table.

"We've been at the library looking up the American Christian Values people. You know they said they were going to send a lawyer out here to help the Evangelicals get us thrown out of the school?"

"Yeah," Larry said. "But aren't they just a cult? I mean, their lawyer might be smart enough, but does it matter who's paying him?"

"It might," Lewis said. "These people are a cult…there's no doubt in my mind about that, but somebody is a pretty smart businessman. They own more than 50 radio stations, and have another 350 more that carry their programming. Some of the programs are sponsored by an alternate long-distance company, which is owned by their church and doesn't pay taxes because it's what they call a ministry of the church. Another sponsor is a bunch of investment advisors, who steer people's money away from sinful companies…which means any company that doesn't discriminate against gays and lesbians…and into Christian companies…which means, as far as we've been able to find out…companies controlled by members of the church. We can't prove that, though…and none of the web sites we found could prove it, either."

"What do you conclude from that," Paul said.

"Okay, Spock," Lewis said. "First, they're interested in making money. Second, they're interested in publicity that will further their position, which is rabidly anti-gay. And, no, that's not an opinion. I'll show you some stuff…

"Third, they have a broken history of success. They've tried to organize several boycotts…an amusement park company that allowed a Gay Pride day…as if they could stop people from coming in the park wearing rainbows. Another was a soft-drink company that was irreligious enough not to discriminate against gay and lesbian employees. And one was a boutique clothing company that advertised that they offered benefits to partners of gay and lesbian employees. The boycott of the amusement park fizzled, mostly because the park was just too big and rich and the ACV people were just starting out. The soft-drink company was a multi-national, and they couldn't make a dent. But, they probably were responsible for the clothing company going bankrupt…they managed to shut them out of a huge chain of malls across the south."

"Conclusion?" Paul asked.

Larry looked up from the handful of printouts he'd been scanning. "Conclusion: they're on a roll. They have a win with the clothing store, or believe they do. They think we're their next victory, and they'll stop at nothing to defeat us."

Brad nodded. "Yeah…and, they're pretty rich. There won't just be a lawyer…there'll be a backup staff."

"And maybe, goons," Lewis added. "There were rumors that at some of the malls, they beat up store employees."

The four boys looked at one another and at the papers spread on the table. "Guys, we need some help," Paul said. "And I think I know where to start."

The "On the Air" light outside Paul's father's home office switched off just as the boys approached. Paul pushed open the door. "Dad? Company." The office reeked of ozone, and looked like a techno-geek's wet dream: computers, monitors, a server rack, and, in one corner, a mahogany desk at which a seriously hi-def webcam pointed.

Mr. Hansen gestured to his son, and rolled his wheelchair from behind the desk to a position that resembled the cockpit of a star-fighter: six huge, high-def screens displayed several major news channels, including one in Arabic; scrolling news and stock tickers; and a handful of line graphs. "Just a second, son. Tokyo…" He put on a headset and pressed a few buttons. After a brief conversation in Japanese, he turned. "Hello, Larry. Guys, welcome to the command center."

"Dad, this is Brad and Lewis. Uh, we've got something to bounce off you, if you have time…"

"Sure. Kitchen."

Once everyone had a seat and a soft drink, Mr. Hansen opened the meeting. "Shoot," he said.

The boys looked at Brad. "Uh, sir, Lewis and I have been looking at the American Christian Values people out of Tucker, Mississippi. They're gonna send a lawyer to make the school board kick the, uh…oh…" He stopped talking, and then looked at Paul.

"Oh, come on, Brad," Paul said. "Larry and I were outed more than three years ago. Just 'cause Dad's buried in computers all day doesn't mean he doesn't know."

Brad blushed, and then continued. "They're gonna take on the LGBT Alliance, and I don't think just the Student Section, either. They're rich, they just put a gay-friendly company out of business, and I think they're looking for publicity…and blood."

"Um, hmm," Mr. Hansen said. "And where do I come in?"

Brad looked at Paul. This was your idea, his eyes said.

"Dad, Brad and Lewis have found out some things about the ACV organization, some of its businesses, including two that claim to be Christian ministries, but which are probably cheating people." He described the alternate long distance company, and the network of investment advisors. "There are claims…rumors, mostly…that they put their clients' money into companies owned by the church, meaning by the Willis family and their allies. I was hoping that you might know something…or could help us find out…"

Mr. Hansen stirred his coffee unnecessarily. "The long distance company? Legal, probably. If people want to pay more for something in order to support a church, a radio program, or just a neighborhood business rather than someone like Sprawl-Mart, that's their business. Not paying taxes on a business because it's a ministry? Not my line of work. Larry? Your father would be the one to look at that.

"The investment advisors? I've been aware of them, and of the rumors, but they've been below my radar screen." He caught the startled look on Brad's face. "No, Brad, none of those antennas on the roof is radar. They're strictly commercial television, and satcom backups to the fiber optic lines that feed my servers."

Brad grinned. "After seeing your office, sir…well, I wasn't really sure."

Mr. Hansen continued. "What do you want? What is your goal?"

The boys looked at one another. "Huh?" Lewis said.

"What outcome do you want from a confrontation with the ACV people? Do you want them to not bother you? To not sue to ban your club?"

Paul understood instantly. "What Dad is asking…or telling us, rather, is that a goal to not do something isn't nearly as good as a goal to do something. Besides, even if we stopped them here and now, they'd just find someone else to pick on…until they decided to come back."

"I know what I want," Lewis said. He looked at Mr. Hansen. "Sir, I believe that those intolerant, bigoted, call-themselves-Christians-but-aren't, narrow-minded bastards are also thieves and felons, and I want them in jail where maybe, just maybe, someone can show them the error of their ways."

He looked at Paul. "How's that for a positive goal."

"Well," Paul said. "It's specific. If they are felons, it's probably achievable, if Dad will help us…and Larry's dad, too."

Mr. Hansen nodded. "I'll help…and by that, I mean, help. You guys…others of your friends, too, are going to have to do a lot of legwork." He grinned, and then added. "I don't necessarily mean running around, either. It's going to take a lot of computer time. Paul, you're going to have to clean up your room so that your friends can get to your computers without risking the plague—or being carried off by the alien life form that's growing in your laundry hamper. By the way, are we charging him rent? We'll need to keep our work secure, so we'll do it all here…none at the library…no more, that is.

"Larry, after you guys talk to your dad, and if he agrees to help, ask him to call me. We'll need to talk. We'll set up a meeting. Brad, Lewis? You guys did some exceptional research. Do you feel like doing some more?" When the boys nodded, he continued. "Then perhaps you'd come back to my office with me while Paul and Larry go talk to his father?"

"What the hell is that?" Brad's voice broke Lewis's concentration. Lewis grabbed the mouse, but couldn't close the window before Brad had seen.

"Uh, getting' ready for you," Lewis said.

"Huh! If you were any more ready, I would have been too late." Brad looked pointedly at Lewis's lap where thin, nylon running shorts were stretched in ways they'd not been designed. "Why do you look at that stuff? Isn't the real thing better?" Brad asked. He put his hands on Lewis's shoulders and bent to kiss the top of his head.

"Don't knock it," Lewis said. "I pulled myself through puberty with some of these web sites. Where do you think I learned, well, you know…?"

Brad stopped kneading Lewis's shoulders. "Hmm. Anything else on that site we need to know?"

"Okay, what's up?" Paul's father called to order the meeting of the Baker Street Irregulars. Toby had proposed the name after their first meeting, and it had stuck. The original group of four had quickly grown to ten, and the meeting was held in the basement rec room of Paul's home. Tiff had plugged her laptop into one of the half-dozen internet ports, and was typing furiously. "I want you guys to see this," she said. She grabbed the TV remote from Larry and switched inputs. The Tele-Tubbies yielded their place to the image on Tiff's laptop: the home page of the American Christian Values people. Tiff clicked a button labeled, "God's Will Be Done."

"This was put up just this morning," Tiff said. "They're going after one of those vampire TV shows—and their sponsor." She paused and let everyone read the announcement—the lurid language, hyperbole, and lies that the Baker Street Irregulars had learned to expect from the ACV organization. It seemed that a currently popular sports drink was in league with a currently popular television show in a campaign to seduce American youth away from Christ. Vampires, the ACV asserted, were superstition, and superstition was a tool Satan used to cloud the mind…

"Enough." Tiff said and killed the feed from her laptop. "The thing is this—the lawyer they were going to send here? He's off to DC to lobby the FCC and Congress. We've got a reprieve."

After scanning the announcement, Mr. Hansen had pulled a PDA from his pocket and pushed a half-dozen buttons. "Tiff? Do you know exactly what time that announcement was made?"

Tiff pulled out her own PDA. "I've got a 'bot on that site…sends me an alert anytime anything changes…Yeah, 1445 GMT. Why?"

"That was fifteen minutes after the East Coast stock markets opened, and 14 minutes after someone short-sold 300,000 shares of the drink company's stock. After the announcement, the stock tanked. I can't be sure from here, but whoever short-sold has probably covered his or her position and made, oh, close to two million dollars. Tiff, I think you've found a line of inquiry—"

"Line of inquiry? Bloody likely she's cracked the case, Mr. Holmes," Gary said.

"Your Cockney accent sucks," Tyler said. Gary stuck out his tongue.

"I don't mean to belittle what Tiff did," Mr. Hansen said. "And putting a 'bot on the site was brilliant. But, one short sale does not an insider trading case make…and we don't yet know who is involved. However," he added, "we know what to do."

He outlined a strategy. Tiff was to watch the ACV site for any mention of any product, company, or sector that was traded on any market, anywhere in the world. Others of the Irregulars were to start looking through old newspapers, blogs, and web archives for anything similar. All this was to be fed to Paul and Larry, who would consolidate the information and pass it to Mr. Hansen who would compare it to stock prices, SEC filings, and—where he could get the information—stock purchases and sales. "This is a lot of work—a lot of tedious work," he said. "Are you sure you're up to this?"

"Thrice is he armed who hath his quarrel just," Toby said.

"You bet," his twin added.

Brenda put it a little more simply. She had come straight from Cheer Squad practice, and was wearing the mini-skirt and sweater of the squad's uniform. "Two bits, four bits, six bits, a dollar. Baker Street Irregulars, stand up and holler!" She was less than half-way through the cheer when all the others were on their feet.

"I prefer, Rah, rah, ree; kick 'em in the knee. Rah, rah, rass; kick 'em in the other knee," Joe said. Tony smiled, and kicked Joe under the coffee table.

Paul lay in Larry's embrace and in the half-world between asleep and awake. He felt Larry's heart beating against his side, and heard the boy's soft, sweet, burbling snore. A tinkle, as if a wine glass had broken, tried to wake Paul, but failed. The shrill whine of a smoke alarm did what the tinkle had not. Paul sat bolt upright. Larry stirred, but did not wake until a second smoke alarm vented its cry. The two sounds heterodyned in a bone-jarring sound. Paul shook Larry's shoulder, unnecessarily. "What?" Larry asked. His voice was crisp.

"Fire," Paul said, also unnecessarily. He grabbed a flashlight from the bedside table and shoved it into Larry's hand. "Wallets, PDAs…uh, clothes. Leave everything else. I'll go for Dad. Meet us at his room—" The sound of breaking glass interrupted him.

"What the hell?"

Paul's father was already in his wheelchair and at the door to his bedroom. He saw his son limned by the emergency lights that had come on with the first alarm. "Where's Larry?" he asked.

"Right behind Paul," Larry answered.

"To the garage," Mr. Hansen said. "The van…"

Paul grabbed the handles of the wheelchair, and hurried down the hallway. Larry pushed past him when they reached the kitchen, and opened the door that led to the garage. "Don't open the outer door, yet," Mr. Hansen said when he saw Larry reach for the button. "I don't know what's out there.

"Has anyone called 911?" he continued.

"Did it…" Larry said. "Shotgun."

"What do you mean, 'what's out there?' " Paul asked.

"The fire's no accident…security cameras…" Mr. Hansen said as he rolled the wheelchair onto the lift. "People around the house with fire bombs."

"I'll drive, Dad. It'll be faster," Paul said. It took a couple of minutes to get the wheelchair lift up. Paul had already started the engine. Larry slammed the rear door of the van, and was climbing into the front seat when Paul gunned the engine and pressed the remote to open the garage door. "Fasten your seat belts," he said. "It's going to be a bumpy…" he glanced at the dashboard clock. "…bumpy morning."

The garage opened onto an alleyway behind the house. As soon as the door hit the stops, Paul pulled out and turned hard to the left, and almost ran into a parked car. He whipped the steering wheel to the right, and skated by the car. The way to the street was clear, but there was movement to the side. Two bright flashes of light, and the windows beside Paul and Larry shattered. The safety glass showered the front seat, but did no harm. Paul held the wheel with both hands and pressed the accelerator to the floor. The supercharger whined and the van leapt toward the street.

"They're shooting at us!" Larry said. Two more flashes of light appeared in the rearview mirror. The van reached the street, and Paul turned hard to the right.

"Anyone hurt?" Mr. Hansen's voice came from the back.

"No, sir," Larry said after seeing Paul shake his head. "You okay?"

"Yes. Paul, head for the self-store lockers on the south side of town—the ones next to the scrap yard. First, however, make sure we're not being followed."

"What's going on, Dad?" Paul asked. He had to shout over the wind that rushed through what had been a window.

"Don't know," Mr. Hansen said. "But Larry's right. Someone was shooting at us."

Paul drove while Larry monitored the rear-view mirror. After about 20 minutes, they were sure there was no one behind them. Paul drove past the scrap yard and turned into a complex of low buildings, surrounded by a chain link fence topped with concertina wire. He stopped at the gate. "Enter 53-78-77-28-37," he said. Paul pressed buttons.

Larry looked at his PDA. "That spells out Jesus saves," he said.

"Yeah," Mr. Hansen said. "Probably the last thing they'd expect."

"Who is 'they', Dad?" Paul asked. He drove through the gate and into the complex of buildings.

"First right, and then the first left," his father replied. "You'll be pointing at a high-bay overhead door. Code is the same…think you can remember it?" He laughed.

Larry snickered. Then he burst out into whooping, gasping laughter. "Hey…anybody notice that Paul and I are still naked?"

Larry's question returned as Paul peeled his bare buttocks off the driver's seat. The high-bay door had opened to reveal a garage bay lit by florescent lights. A door was set into one wall. Paul took the gym shorts and T-shirt that Larry handed him. Paul's father, clad in pajamas, rolled his wheelchair to the door and pressed numbers into the keypad. "This one's simpler: spell 'backup' on the keypad."

Larry and Paul followed him through the door and into… "What is this place?" Paul asked, staring at the equipment racks and computer monitors that filled the room."

"Off site data storage; extra compute power…you didn't really think I was running all those mathematical models on PCs, did you? Parallel-processors, and a better firewall than we had at home." Paul's father paused, and then laughed. It was a harsh, brief laugh. "Firewall…" he said. "They broke through the firewall at home, found out who and where we were, and firebombed us…

"I heard the glass breaking, and caught some of it on camera. Larry? Use that phone, please—not your PDA. Call your friend at the sheriff's department. Tell him that we're safe…they must be wondering. Tell him we know that the house was fire-bombed, and that we were shot at while escaping. Tell him we'll come in to file a report tomorrow…I mean later this morning.

"Paul, use that terminal. Contact all the Irregulars. Tell them what happened. They need to be very, very careful until we figure out what's going on."

The next meeting of the Baker Street Irregulars was held in the county jail, and was attended by not only the Irregulars, but also fifteen parents, the sheriff, two of his deputies, the fire marshal, and the city attorney. "Folks," the sheriff began, "I know this ain't the nicest place for a meeting, but it's safe, and it's secure. In the event of a terrorist attack on Jacksonville County, this would become the command post, and it's been swept by the Department of Homeland Security for bugs and spy devices.

"First thing I gotta know. Did you folks know your kids were involved in this…this campaign to expose the American Christian Values people, and did you know what all it meant?"

"Sheriff, I'm not sure that's a fair question," Larry's father spoke. "I don't think even Mr. Hansen knew—"

"Now settle down, John. This ain't an inquisition, and the recorder ain't runnin'…You'll get a chance to talk in a minute."

The sheriff polled the parents. They confirmed: they had all had known that their children were working with Paul's father to get information about the ACV people; they all knew that this was to support a campaign to stop the ACV from attacking the local LGBT Alliance; they all knew that the ACV had a record of boycotts and were rumored to have used violence.

"Thanks," the sheriff said. "I just wanted that cleared up. Larry told me that each of the kids had been told to tell their parents all that was goin' on…I'm kinda glad you all did.

"Now," he continued. "Red? Would you fill us in on what you found out?" He turned to the fire marshal, whose white hair might once have been red.

"Thank you, Sheriff. The Hansen home was attacked at 3:15 AM by multiple gasoline bombs in glass bottles. What you might call a Molotov cocktail. Smoke detectors sounded within seconds, and the alarm monitoring company called us at 3:18. We were on scene by 3:24. The entire house was engaged, and, frankly, was pretty much leveled before we could get a hose unpacked. We sprayed down the rubble, and started looking for bodies when we got a call from Deputy Davis that the three occupants had escaped.

"We were puzzled about how fast the fire had spread, but the arson guys figured out pretty quickly that there had been accelerants…things to enhance the fire…throughout. Apparently, there were a dozen or more of those gasoline bombs. Deputy Davis showed up about fifteen minutes after he called us, and told me, privately, that the residents had been fired upon.

"We ran a Level One arson investigation after hearing that, and found the remains of at least 15 gasoline bombs. We also found one body."

The fire marshal paused to let that sink in before he continued. "That information has not been released, and I'm asking you to keep it that way for a while. This body was in the alley, more than 20 yards from the house. It was burned, badly. As near as we can tell, it…he…got caught in one of the bombs.

"An autopsy was done. Cause of death was burning. Identity is still unknown, but we're working with state and federal DNA data bases."

"Tried Mississippi, yet?" Larry said.

The sheriff frowned, but the fire marshal nodded. "Yes, we have. But they're not very interested in helping. Claim they don't have the money, and we don't have the jurisdiction."

"Mr. Hansen? You're up," the sheriff said. Paul's father rolled to the front of the room and nodded to his son. Paul started the slide presentation. Leave it to Homeland Security…if there's anything the taxpayers' money can buy, they're going to buy it, he thought as he fed his laptop signal into the high-def television system.

When Paul's father finished his presentation, he asked for questions. The room was silent as people digested what he'd said.

"What do you think happened?" the sheriff asked.

Toby stood up. "Sir, 'When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.' " He turned to Mr. Hansen. "Sir, you got hacked."

Mr. Hansen nodded. "Paul?" he said.

"There's only one explanation that works," Paul replied. "We hacked into the ACV web site, and then into their private email accounts. We found links between the soi-disant religious arm of the church and the financial arm. Those links would not stand the scrutiny of the Internal Revenue Service, and, if exposed, would likely not stand the scrutiny of some ACV supporters. The ACV people discovered the breach in their security, and hacked back. They found Dad's computers, and identified him. We may not be able to prove that they mounted the attack," he concluded. "However, the evidence points to their having motive to do so."

"What's soi-disant?" Joe whispered.

"It's what smart people say instead of wanna-be," Tony whispered back.

Mr. Hansen fielded several questions, but had nothing more to add to what he'd said. The sheriff nodded to the police chief, who spoke next.

"This is an arson investigation, and Red has jurisdiction. The Hansen home is right on the city limit line, and the body was found in the county; that's why the sheriff has the lead on that. But, we're going to do everything we can to help. We've already downloaded all the red-light cameras hopin' we'll find something. We've also started visitin' all the all-night gas stations and convenience stores, and the diner. Lookin' for anything that might help. Mr. Hansen has a contract with the Bureau of Indian Affairs. That's enough that the FBI in Cheyenne is going to send a couple of technicians and a special agent to help. Oh, and they'll take care of any jurisdictional problems the folks in Mississippi might have."

"Sheriff?" Mr. Hansen said. The sheriff nodded, and Paul's father turned to the Irregulars and their parents. "I intend to continue this investigation. On the other hand, I cannot risk you, nor can I allow you to risk yourselves. The investigation could never have gotten as far as it has without your hard work, your inspiration, and your enthusiasm—"

"Excuse me, Mr. Hansen, but I think you just contradicted yourself," Deputy Davis interrupted. "If the investigation relied on the Irregulars, then it must continue to rely on them. Sheriff? This command post is vacant all the time…it's got some pretty powerful computers, and high-speed links; and, the DHS people say it's hack-proof. I'm just saying, you understand."

"Hmm, probably ought to ask the mayor, but he's right busy bein' re-elected. I'll get around to tellin' him, someday. How we gonna explain all these kids…sorry, young people, comin' in and outta the jail?"

"Sir, something I've been thinking about, but wasn't ready to tell you. I guess now is the time. You know that Auxiliary Deputy program we have for adults? How about a Junior Auxiliary Deputy program? Sort of expand on that drug awareness program, kick it up a notch, mix in some of the NRA marksmanship, and stuff. Deputy Santos and I would be willing to supervise…Uh, with the kids, we'd need at least one other person. Somebody who wasn't gay."

"Sam Davis," a blue-haired woman, too old to be a parent, spoke up. "I have known you since you were Tony's age. I know what you are worried about: people talking about a couple of gay men associating with a bunch of gay kids. Well, if anybody does, you just send them to me. And…if it's okay with the sheriff, I'll help." Mrs. Lillian Goodman looked around the room, catching the eyes of the other adults. "And I expect there's at least a couple of parents here who will help, too. Aren't there?" Four hands shot into the air. Lillian Goodman had been teaching English at Central High for 40 years, and almost everyone in the room had been in her class.

When she sat down, Tony squeezed her hand. "Thanks, Grandma, this is really important."

"I know," she said. He's growing up so fast. I just hope that he finds what he's looking for…and Joe…I hope Joe is the one Tony has been looking for.

The first break in the case came when two of the Irregulars managed to access a government database that tied a Swiss company to an American company that owned a controlling interest in one of the ACV family of companies. Mr. Hansen took that information, and documented a dozen violations of SEC regulations. The next meeting of the Irregulars was a jubilant one: Mr. Hansen announced that it was time to "…pour some poison down the drain, and flush out the roaches." Larry's father had reviewed the documents, and added a couple of legal touches.

"Tiff? It was your discovery that started us on this path," Mr. Hansen said. "Would you do the honors?"

"Yes, sir!" Tiff said. She stood by Mr. Hansen and pressed the enter key.

The email with the legal documents attached reached the Securities and Exchange Commission at the speed of light. It took the SEC a little longer to understand what they had received, but it was only about 30 minutes later that an SEC employee on his lunch break made a cell phone call to Switzerland.

Paul's Journal

The next break in the case came from the arson investigation. They still hadn't figured out who the dead man was, but there were twenty-two identifiable fingerprints on fragments of the firebombs. Six of them were from the same person: a man who had been arrested after a violent demonstration at a boutique clothing store in a mall in Hickory, North Carolina. No one was surprised that he was from Tucker, Mississippi. The police chief accepted the FBI's offer to arrest him and get him extradited. That contract Dad had with the BIA sure helped this case. Larry's dad said that there was no way to make the firebombing a federal crime, but until somebody challenged that in court, the FBI was on a roll.

Being a Junior Auxiliary Deputy had a lot of perks. One was that we got to watch this guy being interrogated. Oh, and by now, we had a bunch of new kids as Auxiliaries, too. The sheriff kept it to the Irregulars as a "pilot program" for three months, but more and more people found out about it, so they opened it up to anyone. Deputy Davis got a promotion out of it, too. He's a Senior Deputy, now…sort of like a Lieutenant on the police force. He's really hot!

The suspect had a lawyer who came with him from Mississippi. Dad had the Irregulars trying to tie the lawyer back to the American Christian Values family of companies, but they hadn't found anything, yet. Somebody was paying him, though, because the suspect, his name was Vernon Simms, was 'as poor as dirt.' That's what Gary and Toby said…and I guess they would know. They're from Mississippi, and until their dad got a job here in Wyoming, they had been poor as dirt, too. Anyway, a few of us were watching when they brought this guy and his lawyer into the room. We sure didn't cut him any slack. On our side, the FBI had sent a psychologist from Quantico. Larry's father was there; so were the sheriff and Deputy Davis. I still get shivers when I hear Sam speak; I suspect the guy from Mississippi thought it was his god talking to him.

The perp's lawyer looked and talked like a hick, but he wasn't. I could tell from the way he talked. He was smart-clever, and well educated. If he hadn't been defending one of the scumbags who had tried to kill Dad and Larry and me, I'd like to have talked with him. It didn't take long for the lawyer to go along with Mr. Bowen's offer: the State of Wyoming would accept a guilty plea in return for life in prison; otherwise, they'd go for the death penalty. The Mississippi lawyer said they had no charges to justify capital punishment, but Larry's father pulled out some bit about the dead guy, and how they'd tie that to the commission of another crime. He also reminded the lawyer that my dad was confined to a wheelchair. He didn't say that would get a lot of sympathy from a jury, but he implied it.

After the wheeling and dealing were over, the guy's lawyer left with Larry's dad. Everyone else left, except Deputy Davis who was going to take the guy back to his cell. We were about to leave the room where we'd been watching behind one-way glass, and listening on an intercom, when I heard Sam's voice.

"What about 'thou shalt not kill'?" he asked. "You must have known that people could have died."

"The commandments were given by God to the Elect," the man said. It was the longest sentence I'd heard him say. I stayed to listen. "The Bible was written by God for his chosen people. The law applies to the Body of Believers. It don't apply to non-believers, and it sure don't apply to queers."

"You believe you can kill anyone who isn't a member of your church?" Sam asked.

"We have to…when we are told…" The man realized, perhaps, that he was about to say something he shouldn't, and stopped talking.

"But isn't killin' a sin?" Sam asked.

"It's only a sin to kill a member of the Body of Believers. Reverend Willis has declared war on queers and in war, any member of the Body may kill any queer. When I accepted Jesus as my personal savior, I was born again and washed of sin. My place in Heaven at the side of the Lord is guaranteed."

"No matter what you do after?" Sam asked.

"No matter what," the man said.

"What about your family?" Sam asked. "Is there anyone you want to call? Write?"

I was surprised that Sam asked this question. The man's answer was halting, his speech patterns changed dramatically. Then I realized: All he said about sin and salvation, he was parroting what he'd been told! It's not the way he normally speaks. Sam had drawn him out to make a comparison. Sam's not just hot, he's smart, too.

Paul's eyes flew open, his fists clenched, and his toes curled. His breath caught as if he'd been struck in the solar plexus. He forced himself to breathe. Larry raised his head. "Happy 18th Birthday, Big Buddy."

Paul reached down and pulled the smaller boy to himself. He tasted his own essence on Larry's lips. "Thank you, Little Buddy. That was the best birthday present, ever."

Larry grinned. "Yeah, but it's your birthday, and I got the present." His smile faded, and he looked into Paul's eyes. "I love you."

Paul returned Larry's gaze. "I love you, and I will love you as long as we live."

Larry smiled. "I will love you forever, and even longer."

Paul and Larry walked hand-in-hand to the kitchen where Mr. Hansen was chopping peppers and onions. "You two already celebrated, huh? Well, my gift is going to be western omelets—and champagne. Larry, would you open the bottle?"

Paul successfully argued that he should be allowed to make toast, and sat on a stool by the toaster, feeding it slices of bread and sipping champagne while Larry cracked eggs and Mr. Hansen made a huge omelet that he split three ways. At the table, he toasted his son. "Paul, in medieval times, boys of noble families often were awarded their majority and inheritance at the age of 16, some even earlier. In our society, where we lack any real rites of passage, a boy's 18th birthday has come to mean a great deal. You are a man for all legal purposes—in this state, anyway. You are now fully enfranchised and in charge of your own life. You are also fully responsible for your own life. I am so very proud of you."

"What you going to do this afternoon?" Mr. Hansen asked.

"Uh, did you forget? We promised to help Deputy Adams wash the sheriff's plane…we'll be at the airport most of the day. Uh, you're still going out to supper with us tonight, right?"

Mr. Hansen nodded, and the boys were gone.

The J'ville airport was on a plateau just west of town. Larry's four-by made easy work of the road that led up the side of the hill. They found several of their friends, Irregulars and others in the Auxiliary Sheriff's Deputy program, waiting outside the hanger. "Where's Deputy Adams?" Paul asked.

"Right behind you, Paul," the deputy answered. When Paul turned, the deputy tossed him a key ring. "Here, open up, won't you?"

Paul unlocked the control box on the front of the hanger, and threw the switch to start the motors that slid open the doors. His attention was on the moving door until he heard the gasps of the others. He looked up. Beside the sheriff's plane sat a red and white DHC-2 Beaver, a brush pilot's airplane, and one of the sturdiest made, anywhere. The variable-pitch prop was festooned with a blue ribbon, and a sign hung from the Pitot tube: "Happy Birthday Paul."

Larry nudged his friend. "Here, you dad said to give you this." He handed Paul a key ring with a single key. "He knew you want to fly search-and-rescue, and figured this was the absolute best plane for that. Oh, the pontoons and skis are in the maintenance bay."

Larry watched Paul as the boy digested what he was seeing. "Still think I gave you the best present?" he asked.

Yes, but not what you think, Paul thought. The best present was when you said that you loved me. I can't tell you that, here. Everybody knows it, but like Sam said: don't flaunt your relationship any more than you hide it.

Larry and I are so different, and so much alike. He's grown, but I'm still four inches taller than he is. I like that, and I think he does, too. I like to call him 'Little Buddy.' That's the nickname I gave him when we were kids…12, I guess it was…and were just starting to learn about ourselves. I like it when he calls me 'Big Buddy,' too. Of course, we don't use those names except when we're alone.

Larry's still skinny…even though he's gotten some muscles from swimming. I like that, too, and he likes to touch the muscles I got from wrestling and weight training. We complement each other in that way.

He said he would love me forever and even longer. We've talked about religion, and life after death, and I think we agree that this life is the only one we'll have, and that if we're going to have any happiness, we have to make it for ourselves in this life. Does he think…maybe hope…that there's something after? I know he doesn't believe in the Judeo-Christian god. Hmm. Guess we've got to talk about that.

I love you, too, Larry. Whatever makes you happy makes me happy. When you're happy, your face seems to brighten and your voice becomes husky, and you are so beautiful…

"Hmm? Still think I gave you the best present?" Larry asked, again.

"Yes," Paul said. "I'll tell you, later. Come on…let's check her out."

Pickup trucks were common in Jacksonville, Wyoming. Even a "dually," with four wheels on the rear axle was not unusual. However, the one parked in front of the police station attracted a couple of stares. Its roof sported small forest of radio antennas and a light bar with red, white, blue, and yellow lights. On the door, gold letters read "U.S. Marshall's Service." The man who drove the truck, and who now stood in front of the desk sergeant, was unremarkable: cowboy boots, denim jeans, and a leather jacket. Except for the badge he wore, he could have passed without notice anywhere in town.

"I've got a warrant to serve, he said. "But the address they gave me ain't there, any more. Just a slab. From the looks of it, there's been a fire."

"Can you tell me the name on the warrant?" the desk sergeant asked. When she heard the name 'Hansen,' she frowned. "You need to talk to the chief," she said, and picked up the phone.

When the chief returned to the station, he found the marshal in the chief's office, drinking coffee and admiring the trophy bucks that hung from two walls. After introductions, the chief said, "I hear you're on the Hansen case. We're glad for all the help we can get. What's the Marshalls Service angle on it?"

"I'm sorry, Chief, I really don't know about that. I just got a warrant to serve on Mr. Hansen."

The chief frowned. "What kind of warrant?"

"Federal judge in Cheyenne issued it for the US Attorney. It's a complaint from the Securities and Exchange Commission. I'm supposed to arrest this Hansen and take him to Cheyenne. Do you know where I can find him?"

"Actually, I do," the chief said. "He's at the county jail. It's a mile straight down the main street goin' west. I'll call the sheriff and let him know you're coming." The sheriff shook the marshal's hand and ushered him out the door. As soon as the door closed behind the marshal, the sheriff picked up the phone and made two calls.

Mr. Hansen's class in money-laundering—actually, in how to detect it—was popular, especially since he used real examples from the headlines in the case studies. The Junior Auxiliary Deputies who attended gained a new respect for their classmates whom they'd labeled geeks. The class groaned when the sheriff stuck his head into the Emergency Operations Center and summoned Mr. Hansen from the room. They groaned, again, when Mr. Hansen asked his son to take over the class for him.

"What's up, Sheriff?" Mr. Hansen asked when they were in the hallway.

"Chief Kelly just called. A US Marshall just showed up at the station looking for you. He's got a warrant on a complaint from the SEC. He's on the way here to arrest you and take you to Cheyenne.

"Uh, Mr. Hansen, there ain't nothing to the complaint, is there?"

"Sheriff, we've seen just how incompetent the SEC is, and how corrupt some of its people are…I mean, look at the Madoff Ponzi scheme." Mr. Hansen paused. "Sorry, that doesn't answer your question. No, I'm clean. They could call me as a material witness on that complaint we filed, but that wouldn't require an arrest warrant, I wouldn't think. Besides, the case hasn't reached that point."

"I figured," the sheriff said. "The chief's called John Bowen, and he'll be here in a minute. You let John do the talking, you hear?"

"Marshall, pleased to meet you. I'm John Bowen, Mr. Hansen's lawyer," Larry's father said. The marshal did not appear to be happy to find his perp's lawyer present. "May I take a look at that warrant?" Bowen continued.

"Let me get a copy of that for you," the sheriff offered, taking the warrant from the marshal's hand. He walked to the door of his office. "Grant? Take this to Deputy Davis, please, and have him make a copy. He's in the EOC."

"Sure, sir, but I—" Something in the sheriff's eyes stifled whatever Deputy Grant was about to say. He nodded, and took the document from the sheriff.

Before the door closed behind Grant, the police chief walked in. After exchanging pleasantries, he asked, "Marshall? What you got to transport Mr. Hansen in? He can't climb up into that truck of yours, and his wheelchair won't fit. It can't ride in the bed, either, unless you can lift…how much that thing weigh, anyhow?"

"About 300 pounds," Mr. Hansen replied. "However, there's no reason I can't travel in my lift van, is there? My son will drive…" He waved off the marshal's objection. "The weight of the wheelchair and the lift, and the gearing of the differential, give the van some unusual handling characteristics. My son will have to drive."

"Um, I can send a deputy along, if it will make you feel better," the sheriff offered.

Agreement was reached: Paul would drive his father to Cheyenne; a deputy sheriff would accompany him; the marshal would follow in his truck. John Bowen gave Mr. Hansen a slip of paper on which he'd written the name of a fraternity brother who practiced law in Cheyenne. "He's cleared his calendar; call him when you approach town, and he'll meet you at the courthouse. He'll have an order that you be put up at the hospital, rather in the jail…there are no suitable facilities for you, there." Paul was sent for, and given the news. The marshal was taken to an office where he could make some phone calls.

"Dad," Paul said when the marshal had left. "They got to you, somehow! It's got to be the American Christian Values people behind this, doesn't it? What are we going to do without you? We'll never…"

"Easy, son," Mr. Hansen said. "I put my name on the complaint that we sent to the SEC for this very reason. They haven't gotten to me; they've made their first mistake. They've revealed themselves. Well, they will, as soon as the Irregulars get a copy of the indictment…it should be on the court's web site…public record. Then, the hard part: finding out who's behind it. The odds are very good they didn't put a name on their complaint."

Mr. Hansen was in a private room at the hospital. Two marshals were stationed outside his door. John Bowen's fraternity brother was there. He and Mr. Hansen were on a conference call to a New York law firm. Paul and Deputy Davis, who had accompanied him, had been dismissed, and sent to a motel. They'd visit the hospital the next morning before driving back to J'ville.

"Match you for who gets the shower, first," Davis said, tossing a coin from hand to hand.

"Nah, you go first," Paul said. He grabbed the TV remote and found a cable financial news channel. "I want to see if they say anything about Dad."

Fifteen minutes later, Davis stepped out of the bathroom wearing only a towel around his waist. Paul's eyes widened; he may have gasped. In any case, he stopped breathing. A few drops of water glistened on the deputy's hair. His torso was firm; every muscle was sharply defined. Paul's eyes flickered from deltoids to pectorals to lats. He felt himself growing hard.

"See something you like, Ace?" Davis asked, grinning. Paul blushed. He started breathing again, but his face contorted into a frown.

"Shit, Paul, I'm sorry. I didn't mean it that way," Davis said. "It was a joke, a bad one. Look, you know I'm in a committed relationship…and you are, too. Aren't you?"

Paul nodded, unable to speak. Davis sat on the bed opposite Paul. They were separated only by the narrow aisle between the two beds; their knees nearly touched. Paul grabbed a pillow and put it in his lap. I hope he didn't see that, Paul thought as he tried unsuccessfully to will his penis to detumesce.

"I'm nervous as hell spending the night in a motel room with you," Davis said. "The Marshals Service said they'd only pay for one room, but, if you're uncomfortable, I'll get another and pay for it, myself."

"Uh, no. Please don't," Paul said. "Uh, look, I like you…you're a friend… that's the only way I think about you…most of the time, anyway…and Owen, too. The first night we met…at the meeting? I thought you were really hot. Larry noticed, and said if I wanted…if I wanted to, you know, have sex with you, it would be okay. I told him no way, 'cause…I loved him. But you are really hot…and seeing you like this…I've never seen you without a shirt." Paul involuntarily stretched his hand toward Sam's chest, but jerked it back.

"So, if I put on some clothes, you'll be okay?" Davis asked.

Paul grinned. "There's no way I'm going to be okay, at least not for a while. And I'd better turn around before you get dressed."

Paul's sleep was broken. The bed was uncomfortable; traffic noise and a couple returning late to the room next door woke him. He lay in the quiet that followed, and tried to close his mind to the discomfort, and sleep. He felt the sheet being pulled back. He felt a hand pulling at the waist of the nylon running shorts he'd worn for pajamas. He lifted his hips, and felt the shorts slide down his legs. He felt a warm wetness cover his straining penis, and he felt release, pulsing, pulsing release.

The alarm wakened Paul and Sam the next morning. Paul sat up. "Oh, shit!" He threw back the covers and tugged at the nylon running shorts he'd worn for pajamas. "Ewww!"

"What's the matter?" Davis asked.

Paul blushed. "Uh, wet dream."

"Oh," Sam said.

"Oh? Is that all you can say? It's your fault, you know!" Paul said. Davis was startled, and then saw the grin on Paul's face. "If you'd had the good sense to dress in the bathroom, it wouldn't have happened."

"Uh, did you really dream about me?" Davis asked.

"Uh, no, not really. I dreamed about Larry," Paul grinned, again.

That's good, Davis thought. I don't think I could have dealt with a teen-aged boy's emotional attachment. His frankness is good, too. I'm glad that we can continue to be friends; that's going to be good for him and Larry, and for the rest of them.

"You've got to use your dad's computers," Larry was adamant.

Paul was just as adamant. "He said not 'under any circumstances.' Those were his exact words.

"But—" Larry began.

"He as much as said he expected this," Paul said. "So these are still 'circumstances'."

"Okay," Larry grumbled. "But only if you'll tell me about sleeping with Deputy Sam."

"I didn't sleep with him, you goof. We shared a motel room—just like you and I do with Toby when we do cross-country flights."

"Yeah, except that Toby always manages to find something to do for an hour after supper…" Larry laughed. "Do you remember—in Casper—he came back early? You pushed me off and nearly broke your—"

"Yes. I remember," Paul interrupted. "Every time we do it that way…"

"So, anyway," Larry continued. "Did you shower with him?" It was an apropos question: Paul and Larry were standing in the shower at Larry's home. Paul was already hard, and Larry's question evoked the image of Deputy Davis wearing nothing but a few drops of water and a towel, Paul moaned.

"Don't ask!" he said.

"You did! You did!" Larry answered. "I'm so glad…What's wrong?"

"Nothing," Paul gasped. "But it will be if you don't stop." He grabbed the faucet handle and spun it to cold. "Shit!" he yelled.

"Shit!" Larry echoed. "What was that for?"

"Come on to bed," Paul replied. "And I'll tell you all about it."

"And he was really cool about it." Paul and Larry were cuddling after a round of extremely athletic sex. "He said we weren't in a hurry, and for me to take a shower. And, he left $5 on the pillow of his bed. 'It's not like they've never seen stained sheets in this place,' he said. 'But it's a nice gesture.'

"He asked me if I'd dreamed about him, and I told him, no, I had dreamed about you."

"Really?" Larry asked.

"Yes, my somewhat insecure Little Buddy," Paul said, and hugged Larry especially tightly. "I still think Deputy Davis is hot, but I'm afraid you're stuck with me—I can't be unfaithful to you even in a dream."

Two days later, the sheriff walked into the EOC and called for everyone's attention. Beside him was a young woman whose severe appearance was not softened by her tailored business suit or her patent leather briefcase. "Folks, this is Miz Mira Kaufman. She's from the Denver office of the law firm that is representing Mr. Hansen."

Oh, great, all but two of the Irregulars thought. She'll take over and screw up everything. Of the two, Tiff thought not in words but in a sudden inchoate feeling: She's what I want to be. Toby thought not in words, either, but in an electric feeling somewhere between his stomach and his knees.

"Thank you, Sheriff," Ms. Kaufman said. She extended her hand in what became a clear dismissal. The sheriff didn't know what happened, but Tiff noticed.

When the sheriff had left, the woman looked over the room. "Ladies and gentlemen, my firm offered to send computer specialists; Mr. Hansen said he had the best there were, right here. We offered to send experts in international money laundering, and got the same answer."

She smiled. It was a crooked smile. "So, they sent me. I specialize in US and international securities laws. I'm here to help. I will answer any questions you have, or find someone to answer them. If you will show me what you have done, and will let me, I will suggest avenues for exploration. I'm not in charge, and I'm comfortable with that." She looked around the room, again. No one reacted immediately and she seemed a little less sure of herself.

Tiff came to her rescue. "Welcome, Ms. Kaufman. I'm Tiffany Harbin and this—" She elbowed a paralyzed Toby, hard. "This is the leader of Team Mycroft."

"Team Mycroft? Who's the Sherlock Holmes fan?" the young woman asked. Either she hadn't seen Tiff elbow Toby, or she chose to ignore it.

"Um, my brother and I are, ma'am," Toby stuttered.

"Team Mycroft presupposes at least one other team," Mira said. "I don't suppose there's a—"

"Baker Street Irregulars," Toby said, completing the young lawyer's thought. "That was my idea, too. At first we were all Irregulars, then they opened the junior auxiliary deputy program to more than just LGBT Alliance members, and…" Toby finally became aware that he was babbling, and swallowed his words.

"LGBT Alliance?" Mira asked. "That's—"

"Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgendered," Tiff said. "Didn't they tell you? At least half…" Tiff paused.

"Yes, I know what LGBT stands for." She smiled to let Toby and Tiff know she wasn't offended by being lectured. "I'm a member of PFLAG…I'm sure you know what that is?"

"Sure: Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays," Tiffany offered.

"My sister…she's about your age, Tiffany…" Mira paused. "About half?"

"Ma'am? Our shift is over. Most of us are going to the coffee shop. A lot of the Irregulars will be there, too. They're not going to be on duty until Saturday morning. Would you like to go with us? You could meet them?" Tiffany offered.

Mira thought for only a moment before agreeing. If you're really serious about not being in charge, then you won't be afraid to meet them on their own territory. "Yes, thank you, Tiffany. Could someone ride with me and show me the way?"

"I will!" Toby said, before Tiff could speak.

When they reached the parking lot, Toby found himself torn between Mira and her car. The Porsche Carrera GT in the visitor's spot was as hot as it was impractical in a Wyoming snowstorm. Nevertheless, Toby was impressed.

"Wow! You drove this from Denver?" he asked.

"Faster than flying," Mira said.

Toby escorted Mira to the table at which Paul and Larry sat, and pulled out a chair for her.

"You were kidding about the Porsche being faster than flying, weren't you?" Toby asked. Mira had driven briskly, but legally, to the coffee shop. Secretly, Toby was a little disappointed.

Mira resisted the temptation to give Toby a flip answer. The boy's serious, I think. Shit. I've never been a role model, before. "When you take into account travel time to the Denver airport, security screening, and waiting for your luggage to arrive from Timbuktu where it was accidentally sent by the airlines baggage creatures, flying from Cheyenne to Jacksonville's not that much faster than driving. Besides, wouldn't you rather drive the Carrera GT than fly?"

Larry laughed. "Don't put Toby on the spot like that. He's in the flying club with us."

"What do you think of Mira?" Toby asked. The light on the table between their beds was still on. Gary was reading.

"The fair sex is your department," Gary replied. "Uh, are you serious about her?"

Toby sighed. "Hot, hard, and horny, yes. Serious? She's at least eight years older than we are, and probably has a boyfriend in Cheyenne. Nah, not serious. Just…shit."

Five years ago, I would have helped Toby with his little problem. Now, he's a lot bigger, and his problems are bigger, too. I wish…No. It's not right, Gary thought. "Hey, bro," he said. "I'm going downstairs. Watch TV for about an hour."

"Uh, sure, bro. Thanks," Toby replied.

"Hey! What's going on?" Tony's monitor displayed the blue screen of death, the default when the computer failed. He turned around and scanned the room—every screen was blue. Boys and girls pressed keys—uselessly.

Paul went from station to station, quizzing the Irregulars. He turned to Deputy Santos. "Sir, it was a virus…someone got through the firewall and shut us down. I think they've wiped all the hard drives: data, software, and operating system."

Deputy Santos picked up a phone: the white one with no keypad. He listened to a sequence of DTMF tones, and then the hashing as two modems talked to one another, loading the encryption keys. Then, silence. After a moment, a voice, tinny but understandable. "Homeland Security Command Post, Sergeant Ledbetter, sir."

"Sergeant, this is Deputy Owen Santos, Jacksonville, Wyoming Command Post. We've been hacked."

"Everybody? Eject your backup disks. If they won't eject, Tiff will be around with a paperclip to manually open the trays. Let her do it, please. We've pulled the fiber lines from the servers, and we're totally isolated, now." Deputy Davis had taken over. "Now, this is important. Was anybody doin' anythin' you shouldn't? Runnin' black software or watchin' porn or playin' games? If you were, we've got to make sure there are no traces—DHS will be here in less than six hours, and they can't find anything illicit."

The Irregulars conferred. "Nothing," Paul reported. "Everything anyone was doing could be justified as an exercise from the money laundering class."

"Okay," Davis said. "Now, take your disks, all your personal stuff—check drawers, under desks—and get home. Do not, I repeat, do not load the disks into your own PCs or at school or the library or anywhere else. Paul? I'll need you to stay."

"Paul? Paul?" Deputy Davis shook Paul's shoulder gently. The boy had been napping on the couch in the sheriff's office. "Wake up. Are you dreaming about Larry, again?" He glanced at Paul's briefs.

Paul's penis twitched when he realized where Davis was looking. "Damn it Sam, don't do this to me! No, I'm not dreaming—I've got to piss."

"Use the sheriff's washroom. Here. Larry brought your Auxiliary uniform. The DHS folks landed five minutes ago. I sent the prisoner bus—the one we use to take them out to pick up litter on the highway. They'll be here in 30 minutes."

Davis stood outside the partly open door to the washroom and kept talking. "The sheriff will be here by 3:30…a few minutes before the DHS people. Our story is this: you were teaching a class in tracing international funds transfer…money laundering and drug trafficking…when the computers went out. The sheriff will get some heat for that, but he will take it. That's all. Are you okay with that?"

Paul emerged from the washroom: bright eyed, smooth faced, and handsome in the black and bronze uniform. "Sir, yes sir."

Six days passed while the DHS replicated the searches that apparently had triggered the attack. While this was going on, the teams agonized: would the DHS figure out what was really going on? Had someone left a trace on one of the computers? Would Paul's father go to trial before they could crack the case? Paul called his father and asked to use the backup computers in the storage locker. His father had refused. "Not yet, Paul. Trust your old man, okay?"

Paul had sighed. "Yes, sir."

"Got it!" A DHS tech called. He pointed to one of the projection screens which displayed a nine-digit URL. "Source of the attack…it's in Switzerland…thought it would have been North Korea or Romania—" He stopped speaking abruptly.

"Deputy? You and this young man shouldn't have seen that," the team leader said. "This is Top Secret, National Defense information. You'll be required to sign a non-disclosure oath before you leave."

"Major," Davis said. "I'll be happy to sign…although I'm an Army reservist with TS clearance. Paul, here, is living with friends while his father is out of town. I don't think we can ask him to sign anything without a parent present, but I can personally vouch for his discretion. He wouldn't be in that uniform unless he were of good moral character. The sheriff will back me up on that."

The major frowned, thought, and then nodded. "Do you understand, son?"

"Sir, yes sir," Paul agreed.

"Sam? What can I do? I can't tell anyone that URL without compromising national security…and getting you and the sheriff in a lot of trouble. But I've got to find out who's behind that site to get Dad out of jail." Paul and Sam sat on the plaza behind the sheriff's station. In good weather, it was used for lunch breaks and informal gatherings. On this winter night, they had it to themselves.

"You didn't take an oath. I tried to be very careful about what I said to the major. I didn't quite lie when I said your father ought to be here before you signed a non-disclosure, but I came close. I'm not sure it would be a violation of National Security in any case. The major talked a lot…a lot more than he should have. He and his team were sent here not because they're investigators, but because they were responsible for building and maintaining the firewall. I'm pretty sure he classified a lot of stuff because it could embarrass him if it got out."

"Dad? Circumstances have changed. I need to use the backup. I can't tell you why over the phone."

"What's the weather going to be like for the next few days?" Mr. Hansen asked.

Paul was startled by the question. "I don't know…hang on…" He pressed keys on his computer. "Clear and cold, it looks like. Why? You planning on taking a walk or something?"

"No, but why don't you fly down here. We can talk face-to-face. Bring Larry, of course."

The next morning before first light the wheels of Paul's plane broke ground at the J'ville airport. Larry sat in the right seat, and filed their VFR flight plan by radio. In the back seat, Deputy Sam Davis snored. He'd managed to convince the sheriff that this was an official trip, and that some official supervision was required.

"The US Attorney is having some doubts about the validity of the case," Mr. Hansen said. "That's because of the work you've already done. I'm still under arrest, but they don't keep deputies at the door anymore. He's actually anxious to get this over with…the hospital room is costing him an arm and a leg." Mr. Hansen, Davis, and the two boys were sitting in an otherwise empty waiting room.

"Paul, I probably should have told you about the backup facility. It wasn't a secret; it just never crossed my mind. After I was arrested, I started creating a second backup. I couldn't tell you about that, because we had no secure way to communicate. I've fixed that." He handed Paul a USB memory stick. "Encryption software…I think not even the National Security Agency can break it. Load it on your laptop. It will work with documents, email, live chat, and VOIP. Yeah," he responded to Paul's incredulous look. "And, when this is over, I expect to make quite a few dollars selling it. But for now, it's for us, only.

"I've set up another off-site backup. It's in Kansas…an old salt mine. It's the same place that half the Fortune 500 companies back up their data, and is probably more secure than the Pentagon or Fort Knox." Mr. Hansen went on to describe the procedures Paul would use to dump a copy of the software and data to the new location. "As soon as you've done that, the backup is all yours. Oh…load the encryption software there, too."

"Sam? Aren't you going to shower?" Larry stood at the bathroom door wearing nothing but a few drops of water and a towel wrapped around his waist. Sam turned his eyes toward the sound of Larry's voice and found himself captivated. Larry had filled out some in the past year, but was still slender. His build was that of a swimmer, but without the extra subcutaneous fat that many swimmers developed. He was sleek like a seal and smooth like a shark. He tossed his head, and water flew from the dark hair that swirled around his head. He put his hands on his hips and spread his legs slightly. "See anything you like?"

"Hmm," Deputy Davis said. He tore his eyes from Larry and then said, "I figured Paul would have told you. But, did he tell you everything?"

"Yep," Larry said. "And I figure it's payback time."

Paul poked the mute button on the TV remote. "Sam, this was not my idea!" he said. "Larry, behave yourself."

Sam shook his head. "Larry, you know, you look a lot like Owen when he was your age…but if you think you're going to give me a wet dream, you're sadly mistaken."

The phone on the sheriff's desk rang. He picked it up. The conversation in the room stopped. He listened, and then said, "Hold on, Sam, I'm going to put you on the speaker phone…you start over." He turned to the others in his office. "Y'all listen to this."

Sam Davis' voice came over the speaker. "Sir, the Irregulars did it. They traced the SEC action to a complaint by a Swiss lawyer, who's tied to the people Mr. Hansen filed his complaint against. They've found positive links between him and the ACV people. And, positive links between the lawyer, the ACV people, and the site that hacked the EOC. That part of the information has already been sent to Homeland Security."

"Thanks, Sam. Y'all keep up the good work, and document the hell out of this, you hear?" The sheriff hung up the phone.

"Well, John, I think it's time you went to Cheyenne and got Mr. Hansen un-arrested."

Paul's Journal

It didn't take Larry's dad more than a few minutes with the judge to get the case dismissed. The people who were happiest were the Marshalls Service: they were so glad to get Dad out of that hospital room that they paid for two rooms the day Larry and Sam and Owen and I came down in the lift van to pick him up. Larry teased Sam, and offered to draw straws to see who would get to sleep with whom. We were 18, adults, and legal, and if Sam and Owen hadn't been so tight, and Larry and I weren't so much in love, I think we all might have taken him up on it. As it was, we had a terrific night.

Getting Dad un-arrested was just the first step, but it was the last thing Team Mycroft and the Baker Street Irregulars did. The federal prosecutor in Cheyenne kicked the case upstairs to his boss: the United States Attorney General. She shut down the investment advisors. A claim from the IRS for back taxes bankrupted the phony long distance service. The government left the church and their radio stations alone; they were too afraid of the religious right and their votes. The "reverend" Willis issued a statement disavowing all knowledge. Mrs. Goodman helped me do a semantic analysis that proved—to me, anyway—that he was either an arrant liar or an utter fool. His son did hard time in the Mississippi State Prison at Parchman, but only because the FBI found salable quantities of crystal meth in his bathroom, and an under-aged girl in his bed when they served a search warrant. Tiff wanted to hack their web site. She'd have changed the URL for all their links to some porn site, but Mira convinced her it was better to hold the moral high ground.

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