This is Not a Love Story: the Hacker and His Hero

AE Lawless

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Ever since Gran’s death, Zander’s been using his skills as an elite computer hacker to help put criminals behind bars. Surprisingly enough, there’s also another vigilante running around his city helping folks out in the more...
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Ever since Gran’s death, Zander’s been using his skills as an elite computer hacker to help put criminals behind bars. Surprisingly enough, there’s also another vigilante running around his city helping folks out in the more traditional way. The press likes to pretend they’re rivals, but Zander likes to think that he and the Night Angel are working together; they want the same things at least.

When a tough case forces the two vigilantes to actually work together, Zander’s insistent fascination with the Night Angel becomes powerful attraction. It wouldn’t be a problem, except Zander’s also fooling around with his boss at the day job, Reese. They both give him something the other can’t, but both of them are also holding something he needs back from him. Zander knows he has to choose, but he just doesn’t see any way to make a good choice.

A break in the case reveals not only the master plot, but more about Zander’s true nature than he ever expected to learn. Afterwards, Zander is seeing the world in a new light and realizes he may not have to sacrifice anything he needs; he may not have to make a choice after all.

  • Note:
    This Is Not a Love Story: The Hacker and His Hero
Excerpt
Zander backed out of the police station’s system, the video-feed images going dark, and hacked into the dispatch system. Abruptly, gravelly audio burst from the speakers, “All units be advised…” He lowered the volume and only listened to the rest with half an ear. He wasn’t interested in the specifics, just needed to know if there was a problem. Turning his attention back to the video feed from the traffic camera, he pulled up the real-time feed on the main monitor. He hated this angle; it wasn’t anywhere near good enough to see what was going on. Irritated, he searched quickly to see if the storage facility had its own camera system. He needed to be able to watch, to see the moment the cops raided the unit and found out if they’d been in time, if he’d been in time.

After about a minute of fruitless inquiry, he finally hit pay dirt. Jackpot. It wasn’t a very high-tech system, but it was there. The pitiful firewall barely stood a chance against him, and within seconds, images from eight different cameras appeared on Zander’s screen in evenly divided boxes. The images were blurry and indistinct, even after he applied every filter he could, but it was enough to see what was going on. Careful evaluation and consultation of the facility’s schematics showed him which cameras were focused on unit 417. He sent the traffic cam picture to a side screen, along with the video feeds that monitored other parts of the facility, and put the camera that pointed at the block of units where Jorge’s locker was on the main screen.

Nervous anticipation thrummed in Zander’s blood, and he found it impossible to simply sit still and watch the real-time feed and wait for the cops to show. Changing the monitor to a split-screen, he called up the saved footage for the same camera starting at the time stamp when Jorge’s truck had shown on the traffic cam.

There was a minute or two of no activity before Jorge’s pickup pulled into the frame and he parked right in the middle of the shot. As soon as the vehicle stopped, Jorge climbed out of the truck.

Mesmerized, Zander leaned forward in his seat, tired eyes glued to the scene in front of him, barely even able to pay attention to the live feed on the other half of the screen.

Jorge was clearly trying to look nonchalant, but his behavior after exiting the truck should have stuck out to anyone who might have seen him. Instead of going straight to his unit and opening it, he made a few circles around his truck, hands in his pockets, obviously looking around for observers.

To Zander, Jorge looked guilty as hell, and he really hoped that the only reason no one had questioned his suspicious behavior at the time was because no one had been around to witness it. His fingers hovered over the keyboard, twitching with the urge to make the images move faster, to make them reveal more of the story of what had happened to Rosalind.

On the screen, Jorge was apparently satisfied that no one was watching him, because he moved to the door of his unit. The camera angle was good enough that Jorge’s whole locker was still in the frame, but just barely, Jorge standing at the very edge of the shot, looking small and slightly distorted due to the angles. He pulled his key ring from his pocket and flipped through the keys on it for several seconds. Finally locating the right one, he unlocked the padlock and bent to open the roll-up door.

Watching raptly, Zander felt his breathing speed up, and his heartbeat sounded like a loud drumbeat in his ears. His limbs twitched intermittently with either caffeine or adrenaline, and his eyelids felt like they were made of sandpaper. He easily ignored all of that, focus completely centered on the images on his monitor. There was absolutely nothing that could have made him look away right now. It felt like he was holding a vigil for Rosalind, like watching this moment that had to have been so terrifying for her, was terrifying for Zander now because he didn’t know what was going to happen next, like just being a party to it even in retrospect was some sort of silent solidarity with her. The idea was jumbled and didn’t really make much sense, but Zander was tired and desperate to save her, and he knew that watching this monitor, witnessing this in any way, felt like something he had to do for Rosalind. What kind of person would it make him if he couldn’t even watch this and that poor girl had been forced to go through it?

Storage unit open, Jorge made his way back to his truck, opening the passenger door after one more thorough look around, and then there she was—Jorge was pulling the limp form of his niece from his truck, cradling her in his arms.

Letting out a shaky breath, Zander squeezed his eyes shut and just breathed for a few seconds. When he opened his eyes, it wasn’t to look up at the screen again, but rather over at the pictures on the edge of his desk. “Please,” he whispered in a hoarse voice cracking with disuse. It wasn’t really a prayer—he mostly didn’t believe in any higher powers; it was more like opening a release valve for his desperation. It was impossible to tell with the grainy, out-of-focus picture if Rosalind was still alive and simply unconscious or not, and Zander didn’t know how to feel about being able to see, about having found her and still not knowing what had happened to her. His stomach rolled and threatened to spill its meager contents with the idea that he might have been too late, that all of this—the sleep deprivation, the frantic searching, the skipped meals—might have been for nothing, even as hope swelled in his chest at the realization that there still wasn’t any concrete evidence to suggest that she wasn’t alive.

Jorge disappeared into the dark maw of the open storage unit, taking Rosalind with him, and the recorded image remained unchanged for minutes more after that.

Teeth grinding together, Zander stared at his screen and waited for more than that, anything else to give him a clue about what had happened to poor Rosalind, but there was nothing. He’d thought his anxiety and anxiousness would have started to dissipate some at having seen her, inconclusive though the image was, since all he’d been telling himself for the last two days was that he just needed to find her, just needed to know where she was and everything would be okay. But if anything, it only got worse, his heartbeat still way too fast at its jackrabbit pace, his vision blurry, and his limbs heavy and uncoordinated between the trembling. The lack of useable information was going to drive him crazy.

Exactly one minute and thirty-six seconds after taking Rosalind inside, Jorge exited the unit alone, hastily shutting the door and locking it. He returned to his truck and pulled out. The entire thing, hiding his niece inside, took less than five minutes total.

Coming to terms with the fact that those images were all he was going to get wasn’t easy, but Zander shoved aside his disappointment in favor of action. He needed to move on; he could seethe in impotent anger while he worked. It was easy enough, barely requiring much conscious thought for him, to save the portion of the video he’d just watched to another file to send to the cops for evidence. Zander saved the video on autopilot and mostly concentrated on the real-time feed, willing the police to move faster, willing them to be in time. Once he’d saved what he needed, he brought the live feed back to full screen and stared hard at it, fingers squeezing into fists to keep from bringing up something else to distract himself with. He didn’t want to get sidetracked and miss something important.

In the darkness of his apartment, staring at the unchanging image, the strain of the last forty-one hours started weighing on him. Zander could feel his body shutting down—fingertips going numb, eyelids slipping closed, vision blackening around the edges and tunneling. Only his brain stayed sharp, thoughts whirling and processing as efficiently as they ever did. Sometimes he thought he understood computers so well because his brain functioned like one—rapid processing, eidetic memory, and no loss of function, no matter what he put his body through. He willed his tired body to hold out just a few minutes longer, just long enough to see the job through, and then he could fall into sleep and reboot.

Zander couldn’t be sure how much time passed like that, with him watching the screen and his body threatening to forcefully shut down on him, but it couldn’t have been long before movement on one of the secondary cameras caught his eye. He realized it was the camera showing the front gate, and he hurriedly switched the view on his main screen to show that feed. The blurry image of a motorcycle and its black-clad rider filled his screen, and he realized that this was not going to go as planned anymore. He didn’t have to see a clear shot of the rider to know exactly who it was or why he was there; he was incredibly familiar with this rider and his habits.

The press had dubbed him the Night Angel, like he was some sort of superhero, and he was Zander’s, or rather Z’s, unofficial rival—another guy tired of watching Grand City crumble around him and the police standing on the sidelines with limbs handcuffed and eyes blindfolded by the very laws meant to protect. Or at least Zander assumed that much. He and Night Angel had never crossed paths directly, only ended up working on the same cases from time to time, so he could only make educated guesses about Night Angel’s personality and motivations. Maybe the guy just got off on being hailed as a hero, but Zander got the feeling that it was more than that, that he felt the city crying out for help like Zander did. Z hacked and Night Angel got his hands dirty. Zander always felt the pressure to find the answers before Night Angel did in a sort of friendly competition, and he liked to pretend Night Angel did the same, even though he had no way of knowing. The press hailed them as heroes, and the police called them dangerous vigilantes and swore to arrest them, and Grand City was safer with every case that they picked up where the law left off. It was a complicated, yet simply effective system.

The motorcycle stopped just at the edge of the frame, and Night Angel hopped off and kicked down the stand in what looked like one familiar, fluid movement, heading toward the gate at the front of the storage facility before the engine had even died.

Zander knew what was coming even before Night Angel started digging through the bag strapped to his back, and he gritted his teeth in resignation. The guy was so low tech; it galled Zander. If he had any idea how to get it to him, Zander would build him a code breaker just to not have to watch this anymore. It was starting to become physically painful for him. This was definitely not the first time Night Angel had showed up on a feed Zander was monitoring and expected to get in and out of wherever he was with nothing but brute force.

Night Angel finally found what he was looking for. The security camera was too low resolution and too far away to pick up exactly what it was he used, but he attached it to the front gate and then took a few steps back. Seconds later, the flash of a small, controlled explosion filled the video feed, and when the flash died out, the metal gate hung listlessly from where it was now barely attached to the automated rail. Night Angel ducked through the opening he’d made and ran toward the back of the complex.

Anxiousness curling in his gut like razor wire, Zander forgot all his irritation about the man’s methods and watched the video until Night Angel disappeared. Then he switched his view to the camera right outside unit 417. He kept his eyes glued to the picture, waiting for something, anything. The oppressive sense of urgency, of pressure and the reality of what it meant if he had failed, had only been a low-level buzz in the back of Zander’s brain while he’d been searching, held at bay by his determination to just find her. But now that there was nothing to do, no system to crack, no hidden information to ferret out, it all came crashing down on him, and he felt like he couldn’t breathe under the weight of so much fragile hope.

There were several tense, terrifying minutes of nothing, picture remaining unchanged on Zander’s monitor, before Night Angel appeared at the bottom of the screen, creeping along against the side of an adjacent building, barely visible among the shadows. Zander probably would have never seen him if he hadn’t known what to look for and where.

Night Angel continued to creep along the building until he reached the end of the wall. Slowly, he peeled out of the shadows and crossed the open aisle between buildings to move to the one with unit 417.

This wasn’t the first time Zander had watched Night Angel do his thing, but it still struck him the way he was able to move, the way he easily melted in and out of the shadows at will, like he was part of them. It filled Zander with a weird mix of curiosity and envy that he really didn’t want to examine too closely. Despite the fact that they were often working toward the same goal, or at least Zander assumed they were, Z and Night Angel were so different in their methodology. Zander wanted to know what made Night Angel tick—how he’d learned to be part of the shadows, why he did what he did, where he got his information. All of it fascinated Zander.

Moving more deliberately now, Night Angel shuffled along the wall until he was right in front of Jorge’s unit.

Zander expected another explosive device like the one Night Angel had used on the front gate, but what he got was completely different, and Zander didn’t know if he was impressed or irritated—so typical for most of his run-ins with Night Angel. It felt like the guy was showing off just for Zander, but Night Angel had no way of knowing that Zander was even watching.

Night Angel struck out quickly, hitting the lock on the unit with the heel of his palm, breaking it with a combination of force and precision. He pulled it out of the latch impatiently and threw the door open.

With bated breath, Zander watched Night Angel disappear inside the unit in much the same way Jorge had. All thoughts of Night Angel’s ingress tactics and their rivalry faded, and the only thing Zander could focus on was his need to see Rosalind Perez walk out of that storage unit alive. He let out a slow breath and then drew in another one to hold while waiting. The shaking that had abated momentarily washed over him full force, sending tremors to his extremities and shivers up his spine and causing his teeth to chatter slightly.

Not more than forty-five seconds after he went in, Night Angel was running back out, a small girl in a torn and dirty dress tucked against his chest.

Rosalind didn’t appear to be moving, or doing anything to actively hold on to Night Angel, just limply hanging in his grip.

Zander’s eyes burned and his breath caught in his throat. He still couldn’t tell if Rosalind was alive or not, but he chose to think that Night Angel wouldn’t be cradling a corpse so carefully. It was a frighteningly optimistic and frighteningly fragile line of reasoning, but it held Zander together marginally. He’d felt close to shattering while he’d waited, and as soon as he’d seen Night Angel run out, hope had swelled in his chest, whispering that she just had to be alive. He didn’t think he’d be able to breathe again until he knew for sure, though. His lungs burned with the lack of use.

The chatter on the dispatch line increased in intensity, and then Zander could see the rhythmic flashing he’d learned to identify as approaching police cars just off screen on the traffic camera out of the corner of his eye. He barely glanced at the change on the other monitor, heart racing and fingers frozen over his keyboard, determined to make Rosalind show any sign of life with only the power of his mind.

Night Angel moved much more quickly with his cargo than he had been before, and much more directly, not bothering to stick to the shadows. It wasn’t long before he moved out of frame on the camera.

Without much effort, Zander switched to a different camera and pulled the front-entrance view onto a split screen. Zander tracked both Night Angel’s progress and the police’s, but both of them told him nothing for the next tense minute.

On the front-entrance camera, there was nothing, and more nothing, and then an explosion of activity—police cars speeding into the picture and skidding to a stop, surrounding the entrance of the storage unit.

After that, everything seemed to happen at once. Zander had been on the other side of a bootlegged video feed from fast-paced action enough times to be familiar with the way time seemed to both slow down and speed up. His brain always seemed to process things faster than everyone else’s—side effect of being a genius—but in these moments, not only was Zander’s brain functioning at lightning speed, but so was his sensory perception, and his observational skills felt expanded; it made everything outside of his own head feel like it was happening in slow motion. He’d always thought he’d hated the way his body always felt like it was lagging, like his brain was always four steps ahead and he had to dumb himself down just for his own physical presence to keep up; he hadn’t known what it meant to hate the speed of his mental capabilities until he’d started watching law enforcement agencies act on the information he sent them.

By his calculations, there were about sixty-eight different ways for this to go, variables packed on top of variables—and really, the possibilities could be endless under certain conditions—and his brain insisted on trying to process every single one and chase actions to their logical conclusions all at once. The cops on screen looked like they were trying to wade through drying cement. And somehow, everything still seemed to sync up and appear simultaneous, even though Zander knew that was just an optical illusion, an anomaly even his heightened perception couldn’t combat.

Uniformed officers and plainclothes detectives swarmed the screen, most with weapons drawn, and then Night Angel’s blurry figure froze on the other screen. An ambulance streaked into the corner of the picture, followed by a fire truck, quickly enough that it almost looked like they just appeared out of thin air.

While the cops continued to file out, Night Angel turned his head and dipped his chin to put his face right next to Rosalind’s temple. Half a second later, he was crouching and setting her down and then stepping back hurriedly to fade back into the shadows.

Zander was torn between trying to follow both Night Angel’s retreat and the shaky figure of an eight-year-old girl stumbling toward the gathering knot of police.

Really, it wasn’t much of a contest. Zander couldn’t hold back the small sob of relief—Rosalind Perez had been found alive—and he squeezed his gritty, raw eyes shut and just breathed for a few seconds. He stopped trying to fight down the violent shudders humming in his muscles and just let them roll over him, body going limp and virtually useless. The entire time he’d been working, hacking, and combing through years of records and information, he hadn’t let himself feel fear or doubt, hadn’t let himself give in to the terror that he might be looking for a body already gone cold. But now that possibility was all he could think about. Now that he knew that she was safe, all his brain would process were increasingly horrifying scenarios of just how differently this could have gone. It was a strange reaction to the steady waves of relief rolling over him, and Zander really didn’t know what the fuck was going on with him.

This was the first time he had tried to solve a missing-persons case, and now he understood why cops always talked about these being the ones they never let go of or the ones that burned them out. If Rosalind Perez hadn’t been found alive, it might not have broken Zander, but he wouldn’t have been okay for a long time. He was just grateful that he didn’t have to find out how long. Grand City couldn’t afford for Z to be unavailable for any length of time.

There was a flurry of activity among the gathered police presence when they realized that Rosalind was heading in their direction, an instinctive surge forward coupled with a wave of lowered weapons.

Zander watched the police long enough to see Wilkins swoop in and carefully pick Rosalind up and carry her at a slow run to the waiting ambulance before his attention flickered away to scan the scene for Night Angel. Rosalind’s location and health were a mystery solved now; Night Angel was not. He wanted to know what his rival’s next move was going to be.

Night Angel must have been waiting for the same thing Zander was, because as soon as the EMTs took Rosalind from Wilkins and laid her on a stretcher, he hopped from where he was sitting atop the fence and went for his motorcycle.

Jolted into action again, Zander pulled up the feed from every traffic camera in a half-mile radius. The burning excitement of pursuit, the wild thrill of a frantic chase, stole over him and drove the exhaustion back. It was weird, his obsession with Night Angel. He didn’t feel the burning need to “unmask” him like the press did or the zealous determination to see him behind bars like many of the police force expressed; Zander respected the guy’s right to anonymity since he was coming from much the same place. He just couldn’t help his fascination. He didn’t want to know “who” or even “where”; his questions all started with “what” and “why.” He felt a need to understand, to see things the way Night Angel did, to understand how he selected his targets, why he started in the first place, what drove him the way Gran’s murder drove Zander. He wasn’t going to follow Night Angel to pull him out of the shadows he hid in; instead, he wanted to jump into the shadows with him.

Night Angel’s motorcycle roared away from the scene, causing a few of the officers clustered there to point and start in that direction, but they were already too late and seemed to know it. None of them pursued Night Angel.

Still riding a wave of adrenaline and relief, Zander was back in the zone. He easily switched from one traffic camera to the next, following Night Angel’s departure. He kept up easily, delighting in the hunt as he watched the video record of Night Angel’s flight. A crazed laugh rattled up from somewhere deep inside him and echoed pleasantly in his apartment. This was fun. He often felt a sort of self-righteous, sadistic glee in closing in on the criminals he hunted, but it wasn’t often that the feeling wasn’t tainted by grief and fury and determination because of who and what he was stalking. This was a much more pure contest, colored only by Zander’s irrational desire to just have more of Night Angel than what everyone else got.

He tracked Night Angel for thirteen minutes and twenty miles, and then he simply disappeared. Night Angel had been heading steadily toward the outskirts of town, where traffic cameras were less prevalent, and suddenly there was an intersection without a camera and Zander lost him. Incensed, he scrambled to pull up all the cameras in the immediate vicinity, but there were none close. He pulled up a map and charted all possible courses from the last-known position and located a few other cameras on the route, pulling up their feed as well. All of that was, of course, an extremely long shot. Zander knew he’d lost the trail; it didn’t make it sting any less though, didn’t make the obsession with his prey any less manageable. He watched all of the feeds for another five minutes, but Night Angel never showed on any of them. He was unequivocally gone. Zander slammed his fist down on the surface of his desk, keyboards and other tech rattling with the force. “Dammit!”

He grabbed the edge of his desk with both hands in a white-knuckled grip and slumped forward, pressing his forehead to the surface and closing his eyes. He breathed in and out in a slow, rhythmic pattern a few times before sitting upright again. It was stupid; figuring out where Night Angel was headed probably wouldn’t have told Zander much. Night Angel had managed to operate in Grand City for years without being exposed; clearly the guy wasn’t stupid enough to go right back to his house or anything, but Zander couldn’t help but feel like he’d just missed a huge opportunity, that something vital had just been taken away from him. The quick surge of anger flared and then died, incinerating the last of his energy spike; now he just felt used up and numb. The emotional rollercoaster he’d been on and the physical deprivations he’d inflicted on himself for the last two days slammed into him all at once and with a vengeance.

Understanding that Rosalind’s case was over for him but not for the legal system, Zander made copies of all the files he’d uncovered about Jorge’s finances and the storage unit, as well as still shots from the traffic and ATM cameras, and dumped them all in a file he e-mailed to Detective Hastings, no message other than the single letter “Z” and the attachment. More than likely, most of it wouldn’t be admissible in court coming directly from Zander, but it would give them a direction to go looking in.

That done, he slumped back in his chair. Unerringly, his attention skittered sideways to the framed photo. “I found her, Gran. She’s going home.” He imagined he felt a brief flash of warmth on the back of his neck where Gran used to squeeze him affectionately when she was proud of him, and he smiled, wrung out but satisfied. Standing up, he stretched, his spine popping, and scooped his cell phone off the desk. He staggered toward his bed, setting the alarm for the morning as he walked. It was currently 2:18 a.m., and the alarm was set to go off at six thirty; not nearly enough sleep after being awake for two days straight, but Zander had managed on less before. He fell into bed fully clothed and was asleep within minutes, sleeping the sleep of the just.

Copyright © AE Lawless

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