CIPHER - First Chapter Sample


“...for truly I say to you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there,' and it will move; and nothing will be impossible to you.”

-Matthew 17:20


Chapter 1.
Rumpus, Begin

Dead bodies didn’t look so damned heavy when people dragged them on TV.

With arthritic hands, Felix Meidner struggled to control the wobbling laundry cart as he tipped it to the side. Even in the darkness, the crumpled sheets covering the corpse did little to obscure the familiar contours bulging from the sides of the bag — knees and elbows and feet.

He tilted the frame a few more degrees, to the apex of its balance. Slowly... Slowly... The cart lurched, pulling his shoes along the carpet until the top rim thumped against the floor.

He froze, panting. In the hallway outside the front door, clomping footsteps approached. Felix drew in deep and trickled out the breath. One of the wadded topsheets flopped onto the floor, followed by the sweep of a lifeless arm.

But the noise was only a drunken student stumbling back to his dorm. It faded down the corridor.

Felix used his cane to kneel, then cleared away the filler. He tugged on the arm still inside the bag, using its balled fist as a handle. He tugged again. The body tumbled out, its face focused to eternity, by way of institutional carpeting.

A few hours ago, he had called the face by a name: Good luck, Eric.

Eric’s legs were starting to stiffen, and he had to press the knees to straighten them. Felix reached under Eric’s arms and heaved him to sitting, then grunted to drag him.

Damn it — Move!

It didn’t work.

He sat and scooted his legs on either side of the body, wrapping his arms around the chest, then leaned back. Eric slid this time, but continued keeling atop him, pinning Felix under dead weight. Beaten, Felix dropped his shoulders to the floor.

This was all backward. His own hands, painted with unnatural shades of orange by the outdoor sodium light leaking through the window, were all liver spots and papery skin. Eric's were young and sleek and beautiful.

It made no sense. Everything should have worked.

But then again — who was Felix Meidner to second-guess the Judgment of the Lord?
The apartment door swung open. A slender silhouette nestled within the column of yellow glow.

“Get in here,” Felix whispered. “Get him off me.”

Bianca shut the door, slipping out of her pumps before she tiptoed over. Grabbing Eric’s feet, she pulled. For a moment the lifeless abdomen held its bend, but then relented to gravity and uncurled to the floor. The two of them rolled Eric to the bed, and with a few minutes’ exertion, used a sheet as a litter to hoist him onto the mattress.

Felix went to rest against the bedroom door frame, panting, while she stripped Eric to his underwear. With leverage and motion she manipulated uncooperative joints, moving with the efficiency she employed in the lab — her adjustments not to sensors and wires, but flesh and sinew. She swirled the sheet around arms and legs, a chef plating an entrée.

Her easy proficiency gave him hope — perhaps they might still continue their work. Felix had never dared consider Bianca for what Eric had done. Not to go inside the machine. Yet maybe...

She looked his way, a shadow against the window. “You’ve already forgotten him, Doctor,” she said.

“Am I so easy to read?”

“I know how you think. You’re itching to try again.”

“But without Eric?”

“With me.”

When she said it, he wanted to. Dear Lord forgive him, he wanted to.

“It’s out of the question.”

It came from his mouth as a hiss. Did she shrink at his harshness? Her bearing like a little girl now. He hadn’t meant to be cruel… just firm.
She held a pallid arm and a scrunch of the sheet, pausing until her posture recovered. She straightened up. “Then I suppose you’ll need to find the one who is responsible for this.”

Yes, of course. The question was: how?

Bianca tucked the fabric under the body. “The Lord will provide.”

She grabbed the clock from the nightstand to change the alarm setting. She had even thought to check the time of Eric’s first Tuesday class.

What would he ever have done without her?

She spun the heating blanket’s control to high, so the body would stay warm until discovered. Cause of death: ‘heart failure’. Time of death: undetermined.

Eric would have wanted it this way.

She righted the cart and began to steer toward the door, but paused and returned to the body, to pry something from its curled fist.

On her way past, she dropped it in Felix’s palm: a fuzzy green pod, the plump outer husk of a sweet almond.

Felix stared at it. “Is this…?”

“It’s just an echo, Doctor,” Bianca said. “Not what you’re looking for.”

In the darkness, he could barely perceive the velvety emerald color change to deep brown, then bleached gray — but the blurring at its edges was unmistakable. Soon the thing had no weight at all. It vanished from his hand, an echo.

She was right again.

As he watched her stoop to slide on her heels, Felix Meidner thanked the Lord for blessings like his daughter.

His little miracle.


No one was above Nick Ravell.

He looked down on the gathering college students, assembling in clusters beneath the glare of temporary light towers. Preoccupied with locating their friends, it was impossible for them to recognize his position over them.

Concrete waited sixty feet below. Nick crept along a narrow ledge of eroding cornice stones capping Wellsburg Hall. On the other side of a jutting brick pediment, a campus security guard drew nearer. Someone must have reported sounds on the roof.

Nick crouched, his fingertips balancing him on an unsteady block beneath. A dozen feet away, the guard’s flashlight beam traced the corners of the niche Nick had just evacuated. The light turned and sprinted along the ledge. As it leaped to touch Nick’s feet, it transformed to shadow, blocked by the façade.

“Hello? Anybody there?”

A single finger pinched the cell phone against Nick’s palm. He felt the device sliding, but didn’t dare shift to reposition it. He squeezed harder. Behind the bricks, the guard’s boots approached, crunching against gravel. They meandered back and forth. Nick lifted his foot to reach the previous stone. Solid. He tested with his fingers, shifting weight from the loose perch.

An edge crumbled to dust. His fingernails dug to grip as Nick slammed his back to the bricks.

One foot dangled over open space. His palms pressed against cold limestone. He waited to make sure nothing moved.

The footsteps stopped.

“Is somebody there?”

Nick’s hand was empty. The phone—where was it?


The boots scraped a hard pivot. The flashlight danced along the building’s edge, receding with the guard toward the east corner. When the sound was swallowed by the steady drone of talking and yelling and partying from below, Nick breathed again and found the phone, balanced on the precipice near his leg. Not eager to pull his shoulders from the bricks, he stretched his arm to pinch the plastic case and drag it close until he could clench it with a reassuring fist.

He had almost lost the detonator.

Nick let his head fall back to stare up at the ornate brick and marble frontispiece that had shielded him. For the first time in two hundred years, the ugly thing had actually served a purpose.

The exaggerated grandeur of Wellsburg Hall suited its role as namesake of Wellsburg College, a school whose promotional materials boasted its rank ‘proudly among the top sixty percent’ of the almost near-Ivy League schools. The decaying architecture was courtesy of the college’s benefactor, Charles Wellsburg, a man to whom the honorific ‘Founding Father’ would have been bestowed — if he had been a dash more exceptional, a trifle more bold, or a pinch less prone to fits of coughing up blood. The hall was his monument in the spirit of a Jeffersonian masterpiece, lacking only Jefferson’s eye, talent and ability. Wellsburg lived just long enough to see part of the foundation laid.

Nick shimmied sideways, testing each weathered capstone, until he dropped back into the safety of his hideout, which dug like a wound into the building’s forehead. He rubbed his hands together for warmth. Despite the mild winter, the cold had crept inside his clothes during the motionless hours spent in wait.

“Is he gone?” whispered a voice.

“Yeah,” Nick said, pulling his backpack from a narrow overhang that ran the length of the nook.

From deeper in, Bobby emerged. “That was crazy, Nick. What the hell were you thinking?”

Nick tossed the cell phone atop his backpack. “I was thinking I should have gotten under there before you did.”

“Screw that — no way would I have gone out there. I would have just let him catch me.”

“I was thinking that, too.”

Bobby’s face was blunt and earnest. The earnestness congenital; the bluntness perhaps from one too many lacrosse sticks to the face.

In the distance, the guard's shouts crested above the crowd noise. “No students on the roof... Anybody up here?”

Six stories below, the pace of arriving bodies had picked up. The unseasonable weather was generating a healthy turnout for Rumpus Night, that winter bacchanalia Wellsburg students had celebrated every February 18 for nearly a century. It began each year within the heart of Charles Wellsburg’s original design: The Gon, an enormous grass and brick-pathed common two-football-fields across, a series of concentric hexagons arranged into broad, shallow levels, stepping down to a large central lawn. It nestled between the college’s six original Federal-era buildings.

“This is going to epic,” Bobby said.

“I think the guys will be pleasantly surprised.” Nick peeked around the pediment to check the roof. Dark now, the guard gone.

“Yup.” Bobby’s mouth curled to a smile. “You too.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

From below surged a rip of drums, a blare of horns, and a crescendo of hoots from the crowd as the Wellsburg Marching Band began to play the alma mater, ‘O, Wellsburg’.

Bobby flashed an eager grin. “You’ll see.”

From the edge of The Gon, the band stomped and bellowed through a cordoned-off aisle, parading toward the innermost hexagon. The formation lost its practiced cohesion as students ducked under bunting and between musicians, but its shape somewhat recovered near the middle of the central field, where a stage had been erected beside a precarious stack of pallets and construction cutoffs.

To the last strains of ‘O, Wellsburg’, the uniformed columns opened for the Brother of Brothers of Omega Epsilon Phi. His stumbling route testified to the quantity of beer he had already consumed, and seemed to inspire an even more enthusiastic chorus of cheers. He held a lit bronze torch, and tripped onto the dais. All around The Gon, more torch-bearing Brothers shambled into position, each beside their own stacked woodpile.

“Man, I hate these jerks,” Bobby said.

Nick checked the phone for the time. 5:33pm. Cramer Hall should be nearly empty. Especially on Rumpus Night.

Behind the podium made from a rum keg, the Brother of Brothers leaned forward into the microphone and slurred,

“Rumpus, begin.”

He plunged his torch into the woodpile, lighting a pan of kerosene prepared within.
The assembled students roared. Impromptu toilet paper streamers flew, the marching band exploded into raucous triumph, and the stationed Brothers of Omega Epsilon Phi lit their stacks on cue. Soon, the yellow glow of crackling wood reached up and filled The Gon. The warmth radiated even to Nick’s high vantage, raising the hair on his neck.

The marching band lulled and a flourish of brass announced the ‘Wellsburg Fight Song’ to another volley of toilet paper.

“Oh, look,” Bobby said. “Here comes the ‘bask-ball’ team.”

Nick chuckled.

The basketball team bounded through the cordoned-off path and took the stage. The team captain, whose jersey read Martinović, leaned into the microphone and yelled in a thick Serbian accent, “Fighting Warchiefs!”

It sounded like Vorcheeves.

The assembled hollered cheers and hoots. “When I join team—” Martinović held his hands out, Moses over the waters, but the noise refused to part. “When I—”

He raised his voice. “When I join team, who believe? But never give up! Today, I am six-best free-throw in college baskball!”

While another player strutted up to take the mike, Nick unzipped a side pocket on his backpack and pulled out a travel pack of wipes. He methodically cleaned his hands, watching Martinović block and herd Number Forty-Two back to the other ‘baskball’ players and then address the crowd again: “Vellsburg official rank sixty-six!” Martinović raised his hands high, fingers in exultant ‘V’s, with his team as a backdrop.

Bobby shook his head. “I hate that asshole.”

Nick smiled and picked up the phone using a wipe. While he scrubbed it down, he wondered how much further he could have pushed its processor, given more time. It was hardly the best technology available, being a prepaid version of a smartphone, but it had enough power for tonight.

Forty-Two pushed forward again, but Martinović shoved him aside and announced the team's win record, “23 - 13! 23 - 13!”, urging the crowd into a chant. When Forty-Two finally seized the mike, the noise overwhelmed his words.

Nick gave the touchscreen a final pass before replacing the phone atop the backpack pinched with a wipe like a baker might handle a pastry.

Number Forty-Two gave up, so Martinović claimed the rum keg once again, introducing one-by-one the varsity baskball squad to accompanying bursts of music and cheers.
Evidently, Forty-Two was Chet Broddick.

“I can’t take this jerk,” Bobby said. “When are you going to be ready?”

Nick shrugged. “Whenever.”

“Then… now! What are you waiting for?”


The horns ceased. The music settled into rhythmic drumming.

“And now,” Martinović said, “one more introduce.”

Bobby glared back, impatient. Nick pointed to the phone. “You do the honors, Bobby.”

“Can I?”

“Just press the icon.”

Bobby scooped up the phone and jammed his thumb onto the touchscreen.

From Martinović: “Here comes… One and only… Pride of Vellsburg…”

“It’s not working,” Bobby said, tapping repeatedly.

“Patience. It’s loading.”

“… Chief Runamok!” Martinović bellowed. Chief Runamok was the school’s shirtless, warpainted mascot — a tiny guy who wore a big foam head with a feather warbonnet.
Bobby stared at the screen. “It says SEND.”

“Then… Send.”

Bobby pressed it.

The tiny signal surfaced in the Ukraine, bounced through Singapore, entered the United States via San Francisco, then zigzagged through fiber optic trunklines and core routers until it trained upon a small college on the eastern seaboard. A series of sharp booms sent brilliant sparkles into the air from two dozen mortars. Crackling fountains erupted in green and white shimmers. The crowd exploded into cheers, not questioning why Rumpus Night’s grand finale was beginning so uncharacteristically early.

Goran Martinović’s face tinted a shade close to Wellsburg maroon. He yelled at his teammates, “Who the fu—” but hearing his voice amplified, stifled the rest.

“Epic,” Bobby said. His face tilted skyward as another fusillade launched, airbursts lighting The Gon in flashes of radiance, Bobby alight with strobed glee. “Freakin’… unbelievably… epic.”

Bobby set the phone on a capstone, and Nick moved to join him at the edge. “Not bad,” Nick said, looking down to the control booth staging, where the event engineers scrambled panicked over their boards, desperate to locate which electrical short or misplaced connection had hijacked their controls.

Nick pinched the phone with a wipe and slid it into the pocket of his hoodie.

It occurred to Nick that the pyrotechnics contractor probably shouldn’t have chosen for a password tonight’s venue and date: ‘we11s0218’. And, no — by replacing the “L’s” with “1’s” they hadn’t made it more secure. A simple rootkit gave Nick absolute sovereignty over everything planned for the event.

He had cracked their account a week ago, in the vulnerable spot where it routed through the school's internet servers. Yesterday, his software feelers had made a final nudge into the wireless hub that linked their mixing board to the effects relays. He hadn’t shared details with his lacrosse teammates of how someone like Nick Ravell might do all this. He mumbled something, about knowing somebody, who worked somewhere. That was sufficiently technical to satisfy their drunken reasoning. He didn’t talk about the hours involved, about how sophisticated the school’s encryption had turned out to be. He didn’t talk about CAM table overflows, or packet sniffers, or federal crimes, nor did they ask. Nobody ever asked about what Nick did at night. Nobody knew how little he slept.

Across The Gon from Nick and Bobby’s bivouac, on scaffolding erected up the brick face of Chalice Hall, a sizzling crackle ignited an incendiary cord strung by workmen the previous Thursday.

And that in this morning’s predawn, Nick had redesigned.

In coursing flame, burning letters spelled out ‘L a X’ across Chalice Hall, below that, ‘5 0’. He hadn’t changed the flaming cartoon of the Warchief forming its base. Nick murmured his own chant: “5 and 0. 5 and 0.”

Unlike the basketball team, Wellsburg lacrosse was headed for an undefeated season.
Bobby was still smiling, but maybe a little less. He looked back to Nick. “Are you sure this isn’t too much?”

“It’s perfect,” Nick said.

“I think maybe it’s too much.” Deep thumps rumbled from all directions, met by bursting answers in the sky. “Shit, Nick, did you have to make it say ‘lacrosse’? This is just, maybe… too much.”

“Chill, Bobby.”

“How do I stop it?” Bobby looked around for the phone.

“You think the campus cops are likely to ‘bust this case wide open’?”

“This will be the last straw with my parents.”

“Bobby. Relax. They’ll be an investigation — we knew that. A lot of scary noises. And then nothing will turn up.”

“But how can you be—“

“They’re not going to punish the whole team. Not without proof. We’re two players out of fifty-four. Besides, lacrosse has the best boosters. It was probably them.”

“But the computers. Can’t they… trace something?”

Like a computer was a magic box. Nick did have to give Bobby some credit, though — actually a decent piece of reasoning for once.

“Nah. They’re not going to worry about that.”

Why should he concern Bobby that the computers were the only thing they’d worry about, not some stupid fireworks launched off-schedule. Someone breaking into the school’s servers meant more than just noise and lights — it meant access to student records, grades, professor’s salaries, sealed disciplinary reports. All kinds of embarrassing things. Not just a Rumpus Night prank — a real scandal. The sort of thing the alumni wouldn’t be happy about. Which meant rather than making a fuss, Wellsburg would quietly call in a forensic investigator to find who had cracked their system.

Exactly what Nick wanted.

And on the off-chance they hired someone good enough to get close? Well… Bobby should have been more careful what he touched.

“Except it’s four,” Bobby said, peering over the ledge.


“Yeah. Four of us, out of fifty-four.”

Two broad pinwheels lit astride the entrance to the cordoned aisle leading to the stage, beginning a steady acceleration of sizzling white sparks. From inside thick smoke, Nick glimpsed hints of the elaborate warbonnet of Chief Runamok. The feathers moved lower to the ground than normal, with a gait panicked, and not… human. The headdress emerged, duct-taped to the head of a three-hundred-pound hog. Painted across its sides in red, the words ‘Chief Runamok’. Across its ass was scrawled ‘Martinović’.

The sight pulled Bobby from his angst. He choked on a cackling bray, his tongue hanging out, gripping his stomach.

“What the…” Nick said.

“Sam and Jim! They kidnapped the guy who played the chief!”

“You—” Nick ground his jaw tight.

The squealing hog bounded toward the central lawn, the warbonnet catching and unzipping the bunting along the path, pulling it like a kite’s tail.

Bobby spluttered through laughter. “Don’t sweat it, Nicky — they wore disguises. Bro, you should see the look on your face.”

Erupting glitter poured moments of daylight over The Gon. The pig headed for the platform, to where Martinović stood paralyzed at its advance. Then, as if a guy-wire tensioning him had snapped, Martinović lunged, clawing past teammates. As players tumbled, their captain pushed off two jerseyed shoulders and sailed into the crowd.
Bobby put his hand up for a high-five. Nick looked at the raised palm, then forced his lips to curve into a smile. He slapped Bobby’s hand. Gripped it tight.

“Good job, bro,” Nick said.

After all, it was only fair that the investigators should get a fighting chance.

The pig dove into the crowd, its path marked by parting bodies. Someone in the closing wake jerked to the ground, taught a quick lesson about the relative mass of a hog and a sophomore.

Bobby fumbled out his own phone to snap a picture, but Nick put his hand in front of the lens. “No.” Nick stared icy until Bobby backed down.

The crowd had reduced to chaos, and students now swarmed onto the dais, fighting over the microphone to shout-out their friends, shoving the basketball team from the stage.

“Get to the party,” Nick said. “I’ll catch you there later.”

“Yeah, okay.” Bobby crawled out of the nook to start across the roof.

“And don’t let anybody see you,” Nick said. Bobby nodded and hurried away.

Nick checked the hollow to confirm he hadn’t left anything behind. Below, the pig had reached the crowd’s periphery.

Now fire followed it. The plastic bunting must have passed through a bonfire; the tail had transformed into a burning pursuer. Laughing or overreacting students cleared the way as the animal charged.

The pig pushed out of The Gon to scurry towards Euclid Court, the wide, tree-lined wedge between Wellsburg Hall and the Library. Nick grabbed his backpack and scampered along the roof’s curb to follow its thirty-foot tail of vinyl-coated string and pennants. The last fifth burned.

Groups of students still headed for The Gon and some tried to corner or slow the animal. One guy pounced on the bunting, but melting plastic ripped through his grasp, and he rolled on the ground clutching hands to his chest.

The pig headed beyond Euclid Court, into the vast concrete yard that fronted the largest building on campus: WELSlab. In architectural defiance of its historical surroundings, the broad, five-story glass-and-steel face of the National Research Institute at Wellsburg College poured harsh light onto its plaza. The linear particle collider within ran twenty-four hours a day in seven-month stretches, generating a steady inflow of Federal grants that in no small way provided for Nick’s generous athletic scholarship. The building forever hummed with construction activity, tower cranes lowering loads into the drab gray cube that lay beyond the imposing entry. The pig bolted away from the light, pursued by a posse a dozen strong.

As the animal rounded a chain-link fence enclosing an electrical tower, the bunting snagged. The pig jerked, front legs rearing as its haunches swung under. It flopped on its side, then scrambled to its feet, head thrashing, until it at last freed itself from the headdress. The stretched bunting and warbonnet skidded into a pile against the chain-link. Just as the animal’s pursuers arrived, it escaped into shadows.

A few people stamped on the flames, but only angered the burning plastic. The rest of the bunting, and with it Chief Runamok’s headdress — part of the Wellsburg College endowment for the last ninety years — shriveled within a yellow-orange pyre. The flames ignited dry grass under the electrical tower, forcing back the gathering crowd. Soon, fire licked high up the metal legs.

The blaze grew, igniting bare shrubs in the beds surrounding the chain-link enclosure. The students surrounding it were yelling now, some on their phones, others running for help. A black haze drifted across the yard fronting WELSlab.
Nick slunk back, feeling exposed at the edge. He shook the phone from his hoodie, grabbed a loose capstone and crushed the device with several blows. Pulling sleeves over his fingers as makeshift gloves, he picked through sharp plastic to yank out the circuit board. He tucked electronics and wires into his pocket until only the fingerprint-smudged shell remained, then flicked the shucked oyster over the side. Pieces of the case fell or fluttered sixty feet to the ground.

“For the greater good, Bobby.”

A piercing alarm sounded and all the lights in WELSlab went dark. The fire was raging now.

It suddenly seemed very important to know how well Sam and Jim had concealed their identities when they tied up the guy who played the chief.

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