Chapter one?

Gordon Noth topped the stairs and listened for any sounds in the hallway. His eyes moved in silent, practiced patterns to best examine the contents of the small house's second floor. Along its dim, carpeted length were two open doors and one shaded window straining to keep the glare of the midday sun outside. At the hall's end was a closed door.

He moved quietly to the first open door. There was a preponderance of pink and powerful traces of perfume in the air. It was clean and orderly, with assorted framed pictures of the same boy at various ages distributed around the room. He felt something heavy lug for just a moment in his chest.

Noth continued down the hall to the second open door. There, he stepped into the cool darkness of a bathroom and again his eyes moved precisely in evaluating the contents of the space. The linoleum was blue and white and although the taps and drain sieves were polished, hard water deposits were encrusted on them. The little room was cleaned by someone with attention to order.

He paused at the broad mirror above the vanity. There were no surprises in the reflection. His hair was perfectly cut and combed. The tan face was hard and lean. It was a face that had experienced resistance.

Noth's whole body had the compact, tense fitness of a drill instructor. His wiry hands were sealed in blue rubber gloves which oddly complemented his suit. Strong, rubber sheathed fingers smoothed the crisp, creased Armani jacket. Tanned flesh covered the veins and cords that stretched from under the coordinated shirt collar and cuffs. He could not smell his cologne anymore; the only scent he could faintly detect was the rubber smell of the gloves as he adjusted the shiny silk tie.

To dispel the rubber odor he drew a fresh breath. As it filled his lungs he noted the smell of wintergreen toothpaste; it made him remember standing on a box to reach another sink long ago. He smiled at the recollection then exited the bathroom and made his way to the end of the hall.

When he arrived at the closed door he listened at it for a long time cataloguing the sounds of movement within: a chair rolling, a plastic keyboard being typed on rapidly, and a loud squeaking sound.

His hand curled around the knob and slowly turned it as he applied his weight. The door eased open to reveal a room with tasteful furniture and a vast array of electronic devices. A large, unmade bed was piled with clothes. Noth couldn't tell if it was dirty laundry or an unfolded clean collection. The walls were white, but covered with posters of muscled men with swords straddling half-clad buxom women.

At the far end of the dimly lit space a heavyset male figure sat at a desk with his back to the door. His headphones blocked out all sound except whatever was being played on the stereo. The figure faced a large PC monitor and the light from it cast a blue glow into the otherwise dark room. The desk was littered with soda cans, bags of Fritos, plastic wrappers and crumbs. The only window was both shaded and curtained to block the outside.

Noth surveyed the room thoroughly. It was just the two of them.

He walked toward the figure and stood behind it quietly. On the computer screen was a woman fellating one man while a large black man penetrated her from behind. Noth tilted his head to one side and watched for a moment as the sex act hesitated, froze and jerked to motion again. This repeated several times. There was no sound except the squeak of the chair. He glanced at the expensive watch on his left wrist and that seemed to cause his right hand to extend out and flip a switch lighting the room.

The overweight figure jolted upright in the chair. He made a sound like a tire being punctured and spun around sending the headphones clattering to the floor. Electric guitar as if from a tremendous distance could be heard spilling out of them.

As he faced Noth, his acne riddled face went from startled to furious to confused in what reminded Noth of an old film sequence of Lon Chaney becoming the Wolfman.

Gordon Noth surveyed the teenaged figure. He felt that weight again in his chest. He had been preparing for this day for some time. He regarded the tented front of the teen's shorts. "Thank goodness I arrived before this became even more embarrassing," he said, "You must be the Night Terror." His voice was friendly enough, as if he should be extending his hand to shake. A smile creased his hard features.

The teen was silent as he moved his head from left to right looking to see behind the man in front of him. "Who…who are you?" he stammered.

Noth continued to smile, "A messenger. More critical is the question, 'why am I here?'" He leaned forward in a confidential manner. "I don't mean that in an existential context; I refer more directly to the purpose of my visit to your garret." Noth exposed his gloved hands palms upward to indicate his surroundings.

The young man stared back as if he was trying to see something far away, "What?"

Noth eyed him, "Was it the use of the term 'garret' or 'existential'? Your test scores indicate low verbals."

The teen continued to squint at that faraway place. He repeated, "what?"

Noth sighed, "This is going to take a while isn't it? I really need to sit down."

The boy was wearing a T-shirt with the words, "Fuck Authority" printed on it. Reaching over, Noth clutched the words into a bunch and yanked him forward out from the desk chair. He unbuttoned his suit coat and sat down in the chair rolling it back to block access to the door. The motion was fluid, strong and confident.

He flexed his arms in a rowing gesture. "Goodness, it is refreshing to stretch." The dark blue suit followed his every move and although the young male could not recognize it, gave testimony to the skill of Noth's tailor.

Again the youth looked around the room and his wits seemed to condense like trapped steam into water. He appeared to find his reason.

"Who let you in? Where's my mom?"

"I let myself in, and running an errand, respectively."

"You let yourself in?"

"I believe you and I need to talk, Night."

The teen stared at him, "Why are you calling me that?"

"That is what they call you, isn't it? You are the 'Night Terror?' "Noth made little jotting motions in the air with his rubber gloved fingers as he said it. "Are you aware that 'night terror' is a sleeping disorder?" His efficient eyes took in the doughy figure and he answered his own question, "No, of course you aren't. Would you prefer if I called you Tyler?"

"No, I…" the confused look reasserted itself on Tyler's face.

As Noth sat back the chair released the loud squeak he had heard earlier when listening at the door. "Tyler, you have used your computer here to commit some harsh acts against people," He swept his hand out toward the equipment on the desk, then continued in a vaguely rhetorical tone, "Although I shouldn't try to focus on the humanity of it. I'm not here in the name of decency."

The teen's face curled into a knowledgeable leer, now he understood. "You're a cop," he said.

Noth moved his lips as if tasting some new flavor then shook his head, "No," he replied. "It's becoming clear to me that it's not just your technical skill that's limited."

Tyler's leer went dark and the teen's cratered face tightened into a scowl, "Limited? Who do you think…." He suddenly relaxed. "Oh, you want me to get mad, don't you? You think making me mad will make me make mistakes."

"No, I think you've already made mistakes."

Tyler clenched his teeth, "Don't piss me off; you won't like me when I'm angry," he warned.

Noth smiled. "I don't care for you now. I've spent a lot of time tracking you down, and I know you very well." With his left thumb he slowly rubbed the gloved index finger of his right hand. "I've learned a lot about Tyler Menlo Lewis." He ceased rubbing the finger and looked at the teen. "You are what is generally referred to as, 'a punk' If you wandered the streets or got out at all you would be stanching purses and vandalizing storefronts."

Noth leaned back and the office chair squeaked some more. "The reason for this visit is simple. You have used your computer to break into places where you have no business and you have to answer for that."

Tyler looked at him and smiled. His paunch trembled as he walked to pick up the headphones from the floor. "I've talked to cops before. You can't do anything to me. I'm a minor."

Tyler placed the headphones on the desktop, "Everyone lives on computers," he continued, "Even people who don't use them. People who understand how computers work rule the world." He pointed at the monitor on the desk. "You have no idea what I can do to you with that do you?" He asked it in a voice that displayed a snowballing confidence.

Noth nodded appreciatively. "I suspect that a firm understanding is indeed lacking in this room. I am well aware how electronic data can be harvested and used as a weapon. My own computer skills are well above normal and my reference to your 'limited technical skill' is accurate. I know that you did not write the programs you use to attack people. You're rude and unoriginal-a terrible if not infrequent combination."

"I don't have to say anything to you. I'm fifteen. Nobody can touch me," Tyler said and crossed his arms to punctuate the statement.

Noth looked straight at him with a thoughtful gaze, "I wish you were older."

"Mom!" Tyler cried out.

Noth pulled his arms from behind his head and steepled his fingers, not really looking at Tyler, but never taking his attention completely away. "Your observation about the impact of technology is not unfounded. But you are mistaken. We do not live on computers. Not really. No matter who we are we all live in a world of certain, old, universal truths that we sometimes forget. Modern technology," he turned the desk chair and glanced around the room at all of the electronics, "has dulled our appreciation of those truths. Civilization has made you forget the basics. For example, the supermarket with its unnatural availability of food has made true hunger, even the possibility of hunger seem unreal. We use the phrase 'I'm starving' when we truly have no real experience of starvation." He looked at the pudgy teen. "Look at you. When was the last time you got any sun? Have you looked outside? It's a beautiful spring day out there. You should be out talking to real girls not masturbating in front of an LCD."

"Mom!" the teen shouted even louder.

Something seemed to drain from Noth's face. "Tyler, I'm here to do a hard job. Your attention is critical."

The teen stalked forward toward the door, but as he came parallel with Noth, the man's left arm flexed out to bar his path. Tyler reached to yank the arm away but the man's gloved palm pressed flat into his chest. With what appeared to be minimal effort Noth pushed the 180 pound teen crashing backward into the desk.

Tyler glared at the man in his chair and hissed, "You can't touch me! You are in so much trouble…"

Noth raised his right index finger and spoke cutting him off, "Son, I have grown accustomed to trouble. This, however, is your first bout with it."

This seemed to spark some strange pride in the boy. He grinned at Noth, "No, when I was twelve the police came and took my computer away for a year."

"I know," Noth told him, "I've read your records. I don't believe that instance constituted the kind of trouble I suggest you are in now."

"In the eyes of the law, I'm a kid," Tyler said this with a smirk so profound that his face looked like it had a gash in it. "You can't do shit."

Noth's hard face relaxed in a kind of awe, "Your arrogant ignorance is breathtaking." Then, he reached inside his jacket and removed a dark automatic pistol. To this he added a silencer.

Tyler observed this with expanding eyes and stated again as if reminding Noth of the rules of a game, "You can't touch me. I'm not an adult."

Noth shook his head slowly. He spoke like someone very tired. "Of course I can hurt you. We live in a world where your father leaves you and your mother and is never heard from again. Is that right? No. Does it still happen? Of course. You are confusing physical boundaries with moral boundaries. Morally, your father should be here, raising you, protecting you, morally I should not hurt you; physically, it is very simple."

Noth leveled the nine-millimeter at the tubby youth. The right finger he had been rubbing earlier began to tense on the trigger and at the last second his hand flicked the weapon slightly to the right. Once, twice, a total of five times the silenced pistol spat. Each bullet made small round entries in the front of the computer tower and each exploded out the back, burying itself in the bedroom wall. The grouping was such that the hard drive mechanism of the computer was utterly destroyed.

The tower stopped humming and a "NO SIGNAL" banner displayed on the monitor.

"Hey! You fuck! That's mine!" Tyler's voice was a girlish shriek.

Noth nodded, "A stranger has entered your space and destroyed your property simply because he can." Noth's voice was flat, "How does that feel?"

"Cops can't do that!" Tears were pouring down Tyler's furious, crimson cheeks. The tone was one of someone in denial as if some huge and terrible monster were coming into focus.

"Of course they can, "Noth said calmly."They agree not to. They bind themselves with rules that you then use to your advantage. It's about rules, Tyler, not civilized rules that try to restrain the old truths, I'm talking about pay back."

Noth drew a long breath, and an artificial calm settled around him, "I have been paid an ungodly amount of money to find you and kill you."

It was like poking a hole in a wineskin. The defiance bled from Tyler in such a visible way that Noth said, "Ah, reality rears its head." He almost regretted it as the words hung in the air.

Tyler said nothing but Noth spoke as if someone had asked him "why?"

"You are fifteen so I don't expect you to have a sophisticated world view, but you know how many computers are out there. Do you think that only governments, schools, Fortune 500 companies and nice people use them? You broke into the computers of some not nice people." He stressed the "not" and "nice." I do understand the situation. You were simply doing what script kiddy crackers do, breaking into vulnerable machines and using them for your own purposes. You were stealing songs and other materials and storing them on other people's machines. Unfortunately one of the machines you cracked managed some very lucrative transactions for my employer. I don't know why it happened, but you destroyed the data that makes those transactions run. Millions of dollars were affected, trusts were broken, deals interrupted." Noth paused to let it sink in. "These people don't pursue retaliation in a civilized manner. They follow the old truths I mentioned earlier."

Tyler was gathering himself into a ball on the floor, but the posture did not seem to influence Noth who continued speaking. "Finding you took time, there are lots of punks using other people's computer code to crack machines, but fortunately for me you had the right amount of loud mouth bragging in hacker chat rooms combined with the details that only the guilty would know."

Noth looked straight at Tyler who was rocking in a ball shape on the floor; he wasn't looking at Noth perhaps hoping that not seeing him would make him not exist.

"I've been doing illegal things for a long time, son. One of the lessons I never had to learn was: Don't talk about it. Even if how you did it was brilliant. Maybe that's why I've been so successful—who can say?" Noth made an open handed gesture to indicate the mystery of it.

"Anyway, when I discovered that the guilty party was an unimaginative fifteen-year-old you can understand my ambivalence. Killing someone who is, as you are so to quick point out, a minor, is unusual for me. I brought this to my employer's attention and do you know what he said? It was really quite insightful. It probably explains why I'm not management in these sorts of operations. When I explained that you were just barely shaving and that your father ran off when you were a baby, and I recited all those things that seemed mitigating to me, he said, 'If some street kid who don't know who his daddy is accidentally burned down one of my warehouses full of H when he broke into it, I'd want him dead. What's the difference?'

"And I had to admit that I saw none."

Gordon Noth's face, so experienced in resistance seemed to soften for just a moment, "Part of this is about equality."

Tyler stopped his rocking motion but his entire body trembled with fierce vibrations.

Noth continued in a soft voice. "I normally just come up behind my targets and shoot them in the head in some parking lot." He mimed the gesture with the handgun as a prop. "Frankly they all deserve it. They are liars, cheats, persons that the world will not miss. But hunting you down I got to know your situation and so I needed to make things clear before the end."

"I'm sorry. Really sorry." Tyler said, tears spilling down his round cheeks.

"That's good," Noth swung the pistol towards him in a very deliberate manner.

"I'm just a kid," Tyler said, and the words wrecked into each other in his mouth.

Gordon Noth nodded. He had known that for some time.

Gordon Noth sat on a shaded bench watching birds fly in and out of the trees around him. The sun was warm and felt good on his bare hands. Spring was his favorite season, full of life and potential. He put the straw into his mouth and sucked chocolate shake up the length of it. The taste was rich and sweet. It reminded him of a childhood where he never imagined who he would become.

Although he left long before she returned, he considered the mother coming home, calling out to her son, looking for him.

Finding him.

He kept thinking about that clean bathroom and the orderly pink room with the pictures. Something about a boy whose father had abandoned him and a mother who had worked so hard to overcome it, the thought of her having to pull out the blood stained carpet and paint the walls in an effort to make things clean was too much to contemplate.

He looked around. The sun was shining brightly and a cool breeze was blowing in just the right proportion to the warm sun. He took another pull on the chocolate shake and the sweet taste was simple and real. It was a wonderful day for ice cream, he thought.