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Flee The Darkness
By Grant R. Jeffrey Angela Hunt
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 1998 Grant R. Jeffrey
All right reserved.
Chapter One4:15 P.M., Thursday, November 5, 1998
As a chilly autumn wind blew across the silver surface of Trout Lake, Daniel Prentice jerked on his fishing line and crouched lower inside his heavy jacket. He'd been sitting at the water's edge for nearly an hour, his thoughts centered more on problems at the lab than on the lake, but at least his body was participating in this forced sabbatical.
Rest and relaxation, the doctors called it. A change of pace. And though eight years ago he had resented having white-coated professionals tell him how to order his life, Daniel had to admit that his occasional retreats here at the end of the world brought clarity and freshness to his thinking. Obstacles that seemed insurmountable at the office looked smaller when viewed against the backdrop of the wide Canadian wilderness. In the silence of this lonely place he had found the insight to solve more than one perplexing puzzle.
And, occasionally, he even caught a fish.
Something—probably a frog—splashed into the water from the tall grass at Daniel's right hand, and he shifted his attention to the epicenter of the rings spreading over the glassy surface of the water. That splash was the only sign of life he'd seen all day. His uncle had once told him about a huge northern pike that lived in this lake, longer than a man's arm span and sneakier than a cat. "They call him the monster," his uncle had explained, "and they say he killed the fellow who built the cabin up on the ridge. Seems that old Henry disappeared one day, and rumor has it that he managed to hook that pike, only to get pulled into the lake and drowned for his troubles. While lots of people have seen the monster, no one else has been able to hook him. They say he can't be caught."
Daniel circled his finger, slowly winding the reel in a jerky motion that would set the bait to dancing in the clear water. He liked to imagine the huge fish lurking below, sneaking through shadows and the fading stalks of summer reeds. He wanted to believe that the monster waited for him, that the beast had been destined to snag itself on his hook, but the reel clicked in an easy, syncopated rhythm as the unclaimed bait floated through the water.
Daniel hunched inside his coat, ignoring the cold numbness in his hands. Few sportsmen were foolish enough to enjoy sitting on a damp rock; this weather was more suited for hunting than fishing. But the stark, quiet, solitary lake suited Daniel's mood.
A faint wind breathed through the trees as he considered the problem that had sent him scrambling for the serenity of this place. His company, Prentice Technologies, had just been handed a multimillion-dollar challenge. Faced with the realization that their aging mainframe computers would not function properly in the year 2000, First Manhattan Bank of New York had hired Daniel's company to check, adapt, and test over 400 million lines of binary computer code. Such a gargantuan task would ordinarily employ four hundred programmers for ten years and cost at least one dollar per line of code. Confident of his people, however, Daniel had signed a contract guaranteeing that his team of fifty code warriors would complete the job by December 31, 1999, a scant thirteen months away. If they succeeded, Prentice Technologies would earn a bonus of $400 million. If they failed, First Manhattan Bank would owe Prentice Technologies only $30 million, barely enough to cover his costs. Furthermore, Daniel would lose his reputation, and in the highly competitive technology business, reputation was everything.
Daniel turned the handle on his fishing rod, absently counting each distinctive click of the ratchet. Last week's Newsweek had splashed his face across its cover beneath the headline "Daniel Prentice—Fool or Phenomenon?". The Newsweek coverage had made it clear that every computer expert in the world was betting against Daniel, laughing at him, or both. No one could believe that the board of directors at First Manhattan would trust their entire operation to an unorthodox team headed by a Johnny-come-lately sprung from the wilds of Canada instead of Silicon Valley.
Last week, as the news leaked to the press, the executives at First Manhattan had come under fire from the bank's stockholders. The resulting turmoil made the front pages of the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. The furor grew so heated that the bank's CEO, Ernest Schocken, left for a hastily-arranged European vacation not twenty-four hours after formally announcing that he'd placed the fate of his bank in Daniel's hands. Schocken had flown to Paris; Daniel fled to the lake.
A heavy splash ruffled the waters to the south. The monster? Daniel reeled in his line, then shifted his weight and expertly tossed the lure toward the widening circle. If the pike wasn't lurking in the north sector, he'd fish in the south. A man found success in trying new things, seeking new approaches. Whatever worked.
He knew the answer to First Manhattan's problem would not be found in the painstakingly slow solution favored by every other computer company. People had been talking about the coming Year 2000 Crisis—Y2K, for those in the know—since 1990, though at first few people believed it could truly cripple companies and governments. But as experts considered the implications and likely repercussions, panic set in. Like mountaineers intent on conquering Everest step by upward step, programmers had tackled the challenge using the most elementary approach, attempting to unravel the long strings of computer code digit by digit. Daniel and his team didn't have time for trudging uphill.
There had to be another way—some means of flying to the summit.
A sharp beep shattered the stillness, and Daniel frowned in annoyance as he shut off the alarm on his watch. Four-thirty. He had promised himself that he'd return to the Range Rover and check his e-mail before five in case something came up at the lab. He had hoped that he'd be able to send the kernel of an idea to his associates, some brilliant insight that would put Prentice Technologies well on its way to solving First Manhattan's Y2K problems. Unfortunately, inspiration didn't operate on a dependable schedule.
"You got lucky today, Monster." Daniel's voice rang over the silent water and echoed among the barren maples as he reeled in his line. "Catch you next time."
He half-expected to hear an answering splash, but the lake remained smooth and glassy as he worked the slab of bait from his hook and tossed it into a bed of weeds. He wrapped the hook around the end of the pole, then picked up his tackle box and headed up the hill to the Range Rover. It sat beneath a tall pine tree, only a few feet from the ramshackle log cabin that had belonged to the unfortunate Henry.
Daniel opened the car door, tossed his gear into the backseat, then leaned in and picked up his Nokia 9000 personal communicator. He flipped open the lid and punched the power on, then scrolled down the menu and selected the "received e-mail" function.
He grinned as the list flashed across the screen. The first message was from his mother, who'd given herself the screen name Hipgrani despite the fact that Daniel had not yet found the time—or the woman—to provide her with a grandchild.
Sinking back into the vehicle's leather upholstery, Daniel highlighted his mother's note, then pressed the enter key.
All is sunny and delightful in St. Pete. I wish you were here. Mrs. Davis, from the townhouse next door, has invited her daughter for the week. She's thirty-ish and very charming, from what I hear. Bright, too, and pretty—just your type. She'll be here for a week, so if you can get away, I'd love to have you drop in. Just surprise me if you want to, and we'll think of some good excuse to meet Mrs. Davis's daughter.
I know what you're thinking, and I can almost see you rolling your eyes at me. I know you don't want me to worry about you, but that's what mothers are for. I know you have a great company and a fancy car, but I want more for you, Daniel. Not more things—more love and life. And I know a wife and family would make you very, very happy.
Trust me. Mothers always know best.
A quick flood of guilt washed over Daniel, and he made a mental note to set aside an hour for a nice long telephone chat with his mother. Her birthday was November 16—less than two weeks away. If the brain cells weren't percolating and he hadn't yet come up with an answer for his Y2K problems, he could even fly down to Florida, stay overnight in his mom's condo, perhaps even meet the neighbors. Daniel was certain nothing would come of his meeting Mrs. Davis's daughter, but at least he'd make his mother happy.
Satisfied with that decision, he tapped the enter key and highlighted the next message.
Saw your grinning mug on the cover of Newsweek! If I had known that I was rescuing a future poster hunk when I pulled your bacon from the fire, I'd have left you in Baghdad. Even my own darling Christine was quite taken with your picture. She kept saying, "This gorgeous fellow is going to be your best man?"
I'm warning you, Prentice. If Christine gets a good look at you and calls off the wedding, I'm coming after you with every weapon at my disposal—and maybe a few that aren't.
So get into a fight or stop showering, will you, so you're nice and ugly when you come for the rehearsal. And make sure it's on your calendar—December 22, 7:00 P.M., Washington Cathedral.
Be there ... or be very afraid. I will come after you.
Daniel rubbed his hand across his face and grinned. Brad Hunter had to be getting nervous as his wedding date approached. Like Daniel, he was thirty-eight, and, like Daniel, his career had always held precedence over any romantic relationship. Both men were well past the age when most women thought they should be faithfully and lawfully espoused, but they never would have met had one of them been married. The military didn't send married men on missions like the one that had introduced Daniel to Brad Hunter.
After the Desert Storm mission, Daniel and Brad recuperated together in a Washington hospital. With nothing else to do, they played cards, ogled their pretty nurses, and made a pact—the first to succumb to marriage would pay for the more resistant man's honeymoon. Brad had sworn that he'd be able to remain single for the rest of the century, but then a young elementary schoolteacher named Christine had walked into his life and changed everything.
Now Brad was suggesting that Daniel consider a vow of celibacy.
"Marriage isn't for everyone," he told Daniel the last time they spoke. "Okay, I'll admit it, I'm the weaker man. But you, Daniel, are going to bankrupt me if you get married! You move in lofty and expensive circles, you date rich women, and you'll want to honeymoon in Tahiti or some other exotic place. Remember, I'm just a lowly civil servant—"
"Right," Daniel had interrupted, laughing into the phone. "Lowly like Henry Kissinger. Give it up, Brad, you'll be running Washington in a year or two."
Though he had blustered his way through the compliment, Brad couldn't deny that his heroism in Desert Storm had placed him on the fast track to success. He had transferred from the elite Navy SEALS to the National Security Agency, and now he served as a deputy assistant to the president for national security affairs. Daniel wasn't exactly certain what Brad did in Washington, but he knew his friend was an official mover and shaker.
Daniel touched the save key, consigning Brad's message to a storage folder. He'd respond to it later, when he had time to think of some witty comeback. Perhaps he'd reply that he was dating a European princess and would need extra security if he brought her to the wedding.
He smiled devilishly. Brad would be so distressed by the thought of Daniel's dating a high-maintenance woman that he wouldn't have time to worry about his own wedding.
Daniel pressed the receive button one final time, then frowned as another message flashed across the gray screen. This one, from HKriegel@ Prenticetech.com, was heralded by one word in the subject line: "Eureka!"
Daniel pressed the enter key and the message filled the screen.
A breakthrough! Have devised a program to flag category II and III date codes in need of modification—decided to underline them. Color not compatible with monochrome monitors.
Daniel felt a surge of excitement flow through him. The most difficult and time-consuming aspect of repairing COBOL and FORTRAN computer code involved finding the hidden category II and III date codes. To the human eye—trained or untrained—binary machine code looked like nothing more than a long string of zeros and ones in random sequences. Computer experts had accurately compared the manual search for hidden date codes to looking for needles in haystacks. If Dr. Kriegel had indeed been able to write a program to find and flag the hidden codes—why, this capability alone would speed their work beyond calculation!
Daniel snapped the Nokia shut, tossed it onto the passenger seat, then slammed the Range Rover's back door. This wilderness retreat hadn't paid off in the way he had hoped, but it had pulled him out of the office and away from Dr. Kriegel. And that gifted eccentric, thank goodness, had used the quiet hours of Daniel's absence to once again prove his genius.
Daniel climbed into the car, closed the door, and smiled in satisfaction as the powerful engine roared. Though the sun had begun to set, the future seemed much brighter than it had an hour before.
* * *
The jet touched down at 9:00 P.M., and Daniel promptly took a cab to his office in Mount Vernon, New York. He'd chosen to establish his company in Westchester County because the area was close to Manhattan without being in the thick of things. With a population of just under seventy thousand, Mount Vernon offered schools, playgrounds, and community spirit for the few employees of Prentice Technology who had time to care about such things.
Daniel had little time for family or community, but he wanted his employees to be happy. So he bought a dilapidated block of buildings scheduled for demolition, brought in the wrecking ball and explosives crews, then watched a gleaming white stone edifice rise from the rubble. The Mount Vernon Urban Renewal Agency adored Prentice Technologies and demonstrated its affection with low taxes and various community perks.
The taxi driver pulled over to the curb, then twisted in the seat and gave Daniel a dubious look. "You sure dis de place, man?" he asked in some indistinguishable accent. "Nobody here dis time of de night."
"This is the place." Daniel ripped three twenties out of his wallet and dropped them over the front seat. "There's always someone here."
He fumbled for a moment with the broken door handle, then stepped out onto the curb. A bitterly cold wind whipped down the deserted street, and as he moved toward the entrance he was grateful for the warmth of his wilderness clothes.
A pair of deceptively simple glass doors and a small black box marked the entrance to the sparkling white building. Daniel lifted the lid on the biometric security system's sensor pad and pressed his thumb to it. The pad immediately glowed with a green light, then a husky female voice poured through the concealed speakers. "Good evening, Mr. Prentice. You are cleared to enter."
"Thank you, Roberta."
The locking mechanism inside the glass door clicked, and Daniel opened it and stepped inside the vestibule. He would face three more checkpoints before reaching his office, and each time his unique thumb-and voiceprint would serve as the entry key. The security system at PT was neat, tidy, and precise, shunning external cameras, guards, and guns in favor of cutting-edge technology.
Sophisticated technology guarded the interior of the building as well. Soft recessed lamps lit the windowless offices and computer labs; rubber-lined drapes covered the cafeteria's wide windows to absorb vibration in the event that an industrial spy might try to use a microwave laser to read conversations off the glass panels. Complex combination locks guarded each filing cabinet behind the assistants' desks, and a shredder sat atop every waste container except those in the cafeteria. The state-of-the-art personal computers at each desk lacked floppy and zip drives, so no information could be copied to disk and carried out the door. A secure network of Daniel's own design governed the sharing of information, files, and e-mail. Finally, Daniel banned photocopy machines and required that paperwork be kept to a minimum. Any sensitive reports were printed on flash paper, which burned in an instant and left no ashes.
Excerpted from Flee The Darkness by Grant R. Jeffrey Angela Hunt Copyright © 1998 by Grant R. Jeffrey. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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