Dark Justice

By: Brandilyn Collins
A Novel

Author’s Note

While this story is fictional, it is based on the terrifying reality that terrorists could target America’s electrical grid. In 2011, the consulting firm Pike Research issued a report stating that security for the electrical grid was in “near chaos,” giving attackers the “upper hand” since many attacks could not be prevented. The problem centered on aging infrastructures with no built-in security. And the security that was present could be bypassed by a “$60 piece of software.”

The shutdown of just one local grid could cause a “cascade effect,” said Pike, causing an entire region to lose power.

I first learned this information when I saw a CNN report of an experiment conducted in 2007 by the U.S. Department of Energy. In the experiment, a replica of a power-plant control system was hacked and damaged by remote. The generator shook and released steam, and soon went out of control. The entire video lasts about a minute.

In 2010, a unique and sophisticated computer worm spread through Iran, India, and Indonesia. Named Stuxnet, the worm looked for very specific settings, then injected its own code into that system. After a few years of studying this worm, security researcher Ralph Langner concluded he was 100 percent certain Stuxnet was specifically targeted to wreak havoc in Iran’s uranium-enrichment facility in Natanz. “This stuff is so bizarre,” Langner told a reporter in an e-mail, “that I have to make up my mind how to explain this to the public.” Later Langner said that now Stuxnet was “history,” the current problem was “the next generation of malware that will follow.”

That was more than enough to set my imagination running.

This novel is set in real towns, naming real law enforcement agencies. But all the characters are fictional. None is intended to even remotely represent anyone in real life. What’s more, wielding the power I have as a novelist, I may have tweaked some of the policies and procedures within these agencies to allow my story to flow more smoothly. At some point, it becomes necessary to jump from the cliff of reality into the chasm of fiction.

But I will look to the LORD;

I will wait for the God of my salvation.

My God will hear me.

Do not rejoice over me, my enemy!

Though I have fallen, I will stand up;

though I sit in darkness,

the LORD will be my light.

(Micah 7:7–8 HCSB)

Chapter 1

Sunday, February 24, 2013

“When I was in fifth grade, three kids in my class swore up and down they saw a woman with a baby fly by the window.”

This statement, out of the blue, from my eighty-two-year-old mother.

I glanced at her. She was looking out her car window, veined hands folded in her lap. Her ever-present Annie-Hall-style purple hat sat at a rakish angle on her white head. As usual, she wore no makeup, but her cheeks still tinged a faint peach. That coloring was a source of pride for my mother, as was her perfect eyesight.

“Interesting. Why do you suppose the kids said that?”

“Because it happened, of course.”

“People don’t fly, Mom.”

“Well, they did that day.”

Here we go.

“Maybe the woman just walked by, and the kids thought she was flying.”

“Our classroom was on the second floor.”

Mom had me there. “Maybe they made it up.”

“Absolutely not! One of them was my good friend, Julie. She was straight as an arrow. Never lied about anything.” Mom’s voice carried that decisive ring that signaled she’d dug in her heels. Happened more and more often these days. Many times I just let it go. But when her words defied logic, something within me wanted to fight the dementia that had begun to nibble at her mind. My mother had always been so independent. If elderly women were supposed to wear red hats, Carol Ray Ballard’s would be purple. If they attended classical concerts, she’d go to a nightclub and dance to every song—by herself.

Of all people, my mother should be able to beat this.

“Okay, maybe they were just mistaken.” I kept my tone light. “Maybe a big bird flew by, and somehow the kids convinced themselves they’d seen flying people.”

Mom sniffed. “Birds so often look like a woman with a baby.”

My heart twinged. Now she’d descended into just plain stubbornness. Why did I insist on pushing her? It was pointless. This life-stealing illness was so powerful. Yet I kept acting as though I could beat it back. I couldn’t. It just came on and on, a slow-rising tide. I was a fixer, but I couldn’t fix this.

I should take cues from my twenty-seven-year-old daughter, Emily. She handled her grandmother far better than I did. Emily was known for speaking her mind and not taking flak from anyone. Yet she was so patient with her “Grand.” So willing to just let the woman be.

“Honestly.” My mother folded her arms and huffed. “Sometimes you act like I’m just stupid.”

“Mom, no! I’ve never thought you’re stupid. Not for a second.”

I negotiated a curve on Tunitas Creek Road, off Highway 1, a little south of Half Moon Bay, California. We’d set out from our weekend at the Ritz Carlton on the ocean to return to our home in San Carlos. Instead of taking the more popular Highway 92 over the hills, I’d taken a detour, choosing to follow the little-used Tunitas up to Skyline, then hook up to 92.

An off-the-cuff decision that would change our lives.

It was a beautiful drive on this afternoon in late February. The weather was unseasonably warm and dry, the month known for bringing rain to the Bay Area. Mom and I wore coats, but they were much lighter than usual. We’d both dressed in casual clothes for our trip home, I in jeans and a blue sweatshirt, Mom in her pull-on knit pants and a long-sleeved blouse. Our weekend had done Mom a world of good, or so I’d thought. She’d had fewer episodes of disjointed conversation or misplacing an item. I’d hoped that could last. Maybe I just needed to get her out more. Maybe . . . something.

“Anyway, I’m sure your friends were right, Mom, the woman and baby must have flown.” I tried to keep the defeat from my voice.

Mom made a point of continuing to look out her window. “You don’t really believe me.”

“Yes, I do.”

We rounded another curve, admiring the scenery. I hoped Mom would let the subject drop. The wild pull of the ocean had given way to an open field. “We should call Emily when we get home. She’ll want to hear—”

“Look!” Mom’s finger jerked toward her side of the road. My gaze flicked to follow her gesture—and landed on a small gray car, gone some distance off the pavement and flipped onto its passenger side. I gasped.

“Oh, dear, there’s a man!” Mom’s voice quivered.

He lay on his back in the grass. Unmoving.

It happened so fast, we’d passed the scene before I could react. My foot hit the brake. I steered our car off the road and onto grass, carving to a halt. Turned off the engine and grabbed out the keys. I couldn’t leave them in the ignition with my mother around. “Mom, you stay here, okay? Don’t move. I’ll run back and check on him.”

I bounded out of my Ford Escort, dropping my keys in the pocket of my coat. Then I remembered my cell phone. I whirled back and opened the rear door to fish it from my purse.

“You think he’s okay?” Mom was turned around in her seat, her face pinched.

“Don’t know, I’ll see.”

My cell phone fell into the same pocket as my keys. I ran toward the man and sank to my knees beside him. He looked to be in his late seventies, his face gray. On more than one occasion a patient in the cardiologist’s office in which I served as receptionist had collapsed in the waiting room. I was used to helping the infirm and elderly. My heart ached for every one of them, even as I snapped into a no-nonsense, medical mode.