“Your ghost stories don’t scare me…”
Jamie Silicon’s voice betrayed a certain lack of confidence, and his older sister seized on it like a wolf lunging for a rabbit. “Did you know that one night, not so very long ago, around a campfire just like this one, during a full moon just like this one, three children were devoured by a giant man-beast?”
“They were not!” Jamie wasn’t going to fall for it this time. The last time the Silicon children went “camping” (really just two blocks away from their house in Schenectady, New York) he didn’t get any sleep at all. That time it was some silly story about a poltergeist or something, and Jamie had since hardened himself to a belief that ghosts didn’t exist. But his sister appeared to be trying a different tack this time, one he wasn’t so sure about.
“Yes, they were. If you don’t believe me, you can check the newspapers in the library.” Of course, it helped Sarah’s case that the library was currently closed. But Jamie was forced to give her the benefit of the doubt – for the moment. “It all started with an eerie wolf howl, in the distance, just as they had sat down around their fire to roast marshmallows. But it was far away, and they paid it no attention. A wolf wasn’t going to travel all the way to them, it was sure to find prey before then. And so they laughed and joked and ate their marshmallows.” Jamie winced. There was always a ‘but’.
“But, an hour later, there was another howl, closer. The children were drinking hot chocolate, much like we are now, and once again, felt confident there was no way the wolf would get to them before happening on a rabbit, or a fox. The hot chocolate started to make them sleepy, and they began to nod off.”
“Yeah,” interrupted a drowsy, annoyed Pippin. “I’m sleepy. Could you please be quiet?”
Jamie laughed. “‘Out of the mouths of babes…’”
“Go to sleep then Pippin,” Sarah said dismissively, “I’m almost finished. So, as the children were falling asleep they heard a howl, even closer. But they were sleepy, and had already convinced themselves that there was no likelihood of the wolf reaching them, and so they drifted off to sleep without a care.
“They would never wake up again.”
There was silence then, for several seconds, while the fate of the fictional children was pondered, and imagined to be quite gruesome indeed. Jamie laughed, “You really had me going there! But there’s no way they would have been that complacent. Surely they would’ve taken it seriously before they got eaten!”
“You know how you boil a live frog to death? Slowly.”
Jamie didn’t know how to respond to that. But a wolf howl punctuated the silence, then, and the frog was instantly forgotten. Even Sarah’s face went white with fear at the unexpected embellishment to her tale.
“That’s not funny!” Pippin shouted, unimpressed.
“Uhh, Pip, it wasn’t…” Jamie was interrupted by his sister before he could finish.
“Yes, Pippin, that was just part of the story. Neat, huh? Nothing to worry about.” Another howl, slightly louder, shattered the night air a second time. “Actually, I just remembered I forgot… umm. I forgot spare batteries for the flashlight, and I don’t know how long these are going to last for. It wouldn’t be safe to be out here without extra batteries, so I’m afraid we’re going to have to go home.”
“I don’t have a problem with that!” Jamie began collecting their belongings.
“I don’t care. Carry me!” Pippin demanded. Sarah picked him up, and after pouring water on their campfire, they made their way out of the local woods and back to suburbia. Once Pip was safely home and in bed, Jamie became insistent about his need to go back out and investigate.
“I just realised, there’s no wolves around here! And I don’t like my camp-outs interrupted like that. Whoever’s responsible has to pay.”
“It’s midnight, Jamie.”
“Fine, stay home if you want.” Their father Steven was out of town on business, and with no parental authority to stop him, Jamie was firm in his plans.
“I’ll call John if you go out again.” John was the local cop.
“No you won’t. If you do, Dad will find out about our little camping trips…” Sarah frowned and started formulating a suitably foul retort, but before she could reply there was another howl.
“Okay, fine. Pip’s out cold, let’s go see what it is. But only for a few minutes!” Jamie grabbed his baseball bat for protection and they set off into the night.
Happily the creature was accommodating with subsequent howls, and the Silicon children quickly narrowed down the property that was the source of the noises.
“Go away,” a man shouted from an upstairs window. “Leave me alone!” Sarah hoisted Jamie up so he could peek over the fence from the alley behind the lot in question, and he saw the “wolf”, a very hairy, but naked man. Other neighbours must have had enough, because a police siren joined the wolf-man in chorus then, and he made a hasty retreat, leaping over a side fence and disappearing into the darkness.
“The police must not really want to deal with him,” David, the man shouting from the upstairs window the night before, lamented to the Silicons after they showed up that morning eager for an explanation. “I don’t blame them. He seems quite deranged.”
“Do you have any idea why he’s doing this?” Sarah began her questioning. “Why howl during the full moon? And why at you?”
“I have no idea.”
“Are you sure…? Maybe if you thought about it a bit more…”
“No, I assure you, I have no idea. I don’t care who he is anyway. I just want him to stop! It’s driving me crazy. This was the third full moon he’s done this on, and I’m starting to get really anxious every time another one approaches. But I’m not leaving – I’m not going to give him the satisfaction, even if I end up jumping out the window!”
“For someone who doesn’t know who’s harassing him, this seems a bit personal.”
“You don’t have to know your tormentor to hate him.” The middle-aged man was firm on this.
“Okay, well, we can help you, but you need to be an open book. Because there’s no way this ‘wolf’ picked you at random. There has to be a motive.”
“Fine, whatever you need. Just find him!” Sarah and Jamie began by trying to learn what they could about David, and try to extrapolate likely suspects but that information turned out to be extremely limited. David Johnson didn’t think revealing details about himself was useful to the case, and dismissed any attempt by Sarah or Jamie to pry anything out of him. “If you’re as good as you say you are, you won’t need to violate my privacy to track down your man.”
Public records and a search at the library didn’t yield anything either, aside from a deed for David’s property, which listed his middle name as Aaron and his year of birth as 1935, making him 53 years old. He had only bought the property three years earlier, and didn’t seem to have any other history in Schenectady – or anywhere, for that matter.
David Aaron Johnson, 53, owned a house, and that was all. No job, no family, and nothing to say. The Sliced Salami Society had never had such a hostile client before. But Sarah was undeterred. They monitored David’s comings and goings, and identified a suitable time to search his property.
“Sometimes you have to investigate your client to investigate the case” – Sarah had read that in a detective novel, somewhere. Jamie, the little delinquent he was, had no qualms about a little break-and-enter himself. Extreme? Perhaps. But necessary.
David went out to play bridge on Tuesday nights, and this left a decent period wherein Jamie could, under the cover of darkness, sneak in through a basement window, and ransack David’s belongings.
“No, ‘discreetly search’,” Sarah corrected him as they stood across the street. “Discreetly!”
Jamie sighed, and after verifying nobody was watching, went through David’s side gate and slid through an unfastened window. He unlocked the front door and beckoned his sister within.
The house was surprisingly free of nostalgia. That is, there was nothing more than a few years old. No albums of photographs, no old records, no correspondence of any kind. It was as if David arrived in Schenectady with the clothes on his back and nothing else. “Maybe he’s in witness protection,” Jamie mused. “If I was in witness protection (perhaps one day he would be) I wouldn’t keep anything that would let a nosy little brat like myself figure out who I was.”
Sarah stifled a laugh at Jamie’s surprising self-referential insight. “Maybe our wolfman is part of whatever he’s hiding from?”
Jamie wrinkled his nose. “Nah, if he was, why go through all that trouble? He’d just pop him.” Jamie pointed his finger as if it was a pistol and ‘fired’. “Pop… pop… pop…”
“You’ve made your point. Still, we’ve committed a felony for nothing.” Sarah sighed.
“Well, we haven’t searched everything yet.”
“I’m not digging up the back yard.” Sarcasm.
“Well, if we were to dig up the back yard, what would we need?”
“Which we would get from where?”
“The garden shed. Is there a point to this?”
“The night of the full moon I noticed the garden shed had a big padlock on it. Who padlocks a garden shed? This guy doesn’t even lock his storm windows. There’s gotta be something in there.”
“We need to find the key.” The search of David’s house resumed in earnest, but the key was seemingly nowhere to be found. The children stood in the living room, frustrated.
“Just let me break a window,” Jamie implored, but Sarah wasn’t having it.
“We don’t want to risk facing trouble ourselves. Hm.” Sarah scanned the room. “Notice anything unusual?”
Jamie looked around. “Not really.”
“Look at the television.”
“Looks like a television.”
“But it’s missing something.”
Jamie glared. “Now it’s your turn to get to the point.”
“Dust. There’s dust everywhere; David obviously doesn’t dust. But the TV is much cleaner, despite being several years old.”
“Maybe he’s recently had it repaired?”
“It’s solid-state, so that’s less likely. Let’s look inside.”
“I saw a screwdriver in the kitchen drawer.”
“Get it.” Jamie returned with the screwdriver and the children carefully took the back off of the TV, being careful not to touch any high-voltage components or the fragile picture tube. Taped to the inside was a key. Obviously, David didn’t enter the shed very often. He probably wouldn’t miss the key any time soon, so the children returned the back onto the television, and put things back the way they were as best they could.
Sarah decided a foray into the shed would better occur during daylight, and so they returned home, to a restless night’s sleep in anticipation of the wonders they might discover the next day. After school, the three Silicon children staked out David’s house, waiting for him to leave. Impatient, Jamie eventually ran to a payphone, calling David and, impersonating a police officer as best he could, attempting to convince the man to travel to a police station on the other side of town and make a report about the wolfman.
David resisted the bogus demand over the telephone, but a few minutes later he emerged from his house, got in his car and drove away. The children emerged from the bushes across the street and ran into David’s yard, rushing to the shed and hurriedly unlocking it.
It was full of junk. Old junk. At least to Jamie. Oddly oversized electric typewriters, gigantic reel-to-reel tape machines, cabinets whose fronts were covered with switches and lights… the junk looked like refugees from a 1960s science-fiction movie, and Jamie said so.
“It looks like old mainframe components,” Sarah said, “from the 1960s, I agree. Why would David have all of this stuff…?”
“Maybe he was in to computers?”
“I’d say that’s a fair assessment. But how does all of this connect to our wolfman? It’s too bad the computer itself doesn’t seem to be here. Then we could hook all of this up and read these tapes.”
“What about this?” Jamie motioned toward a box about one foot (0.3m) square, with wires coming in and out of it. “Is this a computer? It looks like it’s connected to this control-pad thing.” Jamie held up a smaller box containing an LED readout and a keypad.
They heard an automobile approaching, then. “I don’t know, but let’s take it for analysis.” Jamie grabbed the mystery box and control-pad while Sarah hoisted Pippin, and they fled the shed and subsequently the yard, returning to the Silicon house to examine their treasure.
They descended to the Silicon workshop in the basement, a screwdriver was obtained and the metal case surrounding the box was easily removed, revealing the contents within to be banks of transistors. A survey of the appropriate electronic components revealed the voltage and amperage required to power the box, and a supply was fashioned from parts strewn about the somewhat disorganised workshop.
With the flip of a switch the box came to life.
The control pad also illuminated into operation, displaying some sort of numeric code on the screen. Jamie pushed a few buttons, which led to different numeric codes, but there was no immediate rhyme or reason to it. “We need a manual”, Sarah lamented.
There had been no paper of any kind in the shed; David seemed to be allergic to printed materials full-stop, and perhaps for good reason; but still, it made the Sliced Salami Society’s task more difficult than Sarah would’ve liked. They ventured to the library, but there was nothing in the computer section that indicated what the mystery box was – its description didn’t match that of any known mainframe or minicomputer. It looked as if the children had reached a dead-end.
But Sarah wasn’t ready to give up yet. Returning to the workshop with a stack of electronics books, the box was completely dismantled and its components catalogued. It all seemed like pretty standard stuff, with nothing to give away the box’s purpose or identity, but Sarah soon zeroed in on one particular component, a long strand of intertwined wires which ran in and out of a series round metal loops. Her books called it “rope memory”, meant for non-volatile storage of computer code – and Sarah became determined to read it.
This rope memory seemed more advanced than the memory described in the library books, with many more wires, but it also appeared to be connected to some kind of ‘controller’ that had three external ‘serial’ plugs that looked like it might be compatible with the Silicon’s IBM PC.
Some quick experimentation soon confirmed they weren’t. But diving deeper, Sarah started applying appropriate voltages to each of the pins on one plug, and reading the voltages from pins on the other plugs, and soon patterns began to emerge. By applying voltage to combinations of certain pins in one connector, voltage appeared in various pins in the other connector – patterns that Sarah identified as binary code, a series of zeroes and ones.
By sequentially working her way through the ‘control’ pins in a binary sequence, she was able to read and record the binary sequences returned by the “output” pins, creating a matrix of memory ‘addresses’. However, rather than the 8 bits Sarah was accustomed to, each output sequence contained 16 bits! If there was any identifying text information hidden in the memory, Sarah had no idea how to decode it – she didn’t know of any character set that mapped to 16 bits. Sarah was stumped.
“ASCII is only 7 bits,” she lamented to Jamie. “On 8-bit computers you can ignore the 8th bit, but I don’t know what to do with the other 8 bits.”
“What if they stacked two ASCII characters together side-by-side?” Jamie offered. “To use all the bits.”
“But the computer this connected to wouldn’t have worked that way. It would have worked with all of the bits at once.”
“Maybe, but that doesn’t mean the programmer didn’t leave an Easter egg, like Atari 2600 Adventure.” You could count on Jamie to squeeze in a videogame reference somewhere.
“Well, it’s worth a shot.” Sarah and Jamie began to read the bits from the rope memory, splitting them into blocks of 8 and then looking them up in an ASCII table printed in one of their computer books. It was gibberish, or so Jamie declared once they had gone through a thousand bytes or so. “There’s no recognisable words in here.”
“Let me see.” Sarah looked over Jamie’s translation. He was right, it was just a jumble of characters. But there were the occasional groups of three letters. Some, like ZXQ, didn’t make any sense. But some, like MIT… that rang a bell with Sarah somehow. And after it was COL, LOS and USA… Colorado? Los Angeles? Maybe that was where it was programmed?
“Hey, where’d you kids find that?” Steve Silicon said after coming down the basement stairs. “Oh, I know what that is. That’s rope memory, like they used in the Apollo missions.”
Of course! Sarah smacked her forehead. It wasn’t a location, it was COLLOSUS, the name of the software that ran on the Apollo Guidance Computer. The rope memory must be from NASA. But why did David have it in his garden shed? They would’ve asked him, but Sarah didn’t expect David to be any more forthcoming than he had been previously.
But it didn’t take a genius to connect the Apollo lunar missions with werewolves howling at the Moon.
Sarah decided it was safe to assume that if David was associated with Apollo somehow, their ‘wolf’ was too. Armed with that information, the wolf might be easier to unmask than David was. After giving their father a quick hug, it was off to the library again.
It wasn’t easy, though. But while scanning through microfiche of 1960s newspapers, Sarah finally hit on a promising lead. The Apollo I mission never got off the launch pad – during a test run, the oxygen in the command module caught fire, killing the astronauts. There was an article on the front page of the local newspaper about it.
But there was also a quote from a local resident, Bob Jenkins, who was a cousin of one of the astronauts! If there was anyone in Schenectady that could have a grudge with someone connected to the Apollo project, it was Bob.
The Sliced Salami Society paid Bob a visit, and while Bob was very surprised to see them, he was not shy about admitting his guilt.
“Yes, I’m the werewolf.” Bob declared, with a hint of pride. “‘David’, or whatever his real name is thinks he can hide away from his part in killing my cousin, but I used to work at the post office and I’ve personally put letters from NASA into his PO box. But my connections at NASA have never heard of him, at least not by that name. I wasn’t entirely sure he had anything to do with the Apollo program, but why hide if he didn’t? I figured if I howled at him someone would connect me to him if he was – I just didn’t expect it to be a couple of kids!”
Bob refused the children’s request to cease his endeavours, insisting that David had to come clean and apologise if he was in any way responsible. The Silicons then left Bob and went to David’s house, and told him they had found the werewolf and knew why he was howling, but didn’t tell David the details, hoping he would crack.
“So someone found me. I thought that was probably the case, but why reveal myself if I didn’t have to?” David sighed. “The Apollo I fire wasn’t caused by my mistake – I didn’t design the door, or pressurise the cabin with pure oxygen, those were other people’s decisions. But I did sign off on them. I trusted my engineers.
“And when there were hearings in Congress I was at the bottom of the totem pole and so the buck – and the blame – stopped with me. I was ruined. I wasn’t fired but I lost my management position and never got another one. I’ll explain it all to Bob.”
After Sarah and Jamie put on their coats, David stopped them at the door. “One more thing. The other night someone called, someone who knew who I was. He said if you solved my case to tell you to take a break, it was finally time to play. Whatever that means.” Sarah knew. The game was afoot.
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