Book Review: The Untouchable

Cover of The Untouchable
Cover of The Untouchable

A few weeks ago, I wrote about reading recommendations, including two from David Coggins. I hadn’t read the books he listed in his newsletter… on a whim, I bought two, “The Untouchable” by John Banville and “A Month in the Country” by J. L Carr. The Untouchables was fantastic. Banville (who I need to read more) creates a world filled with memorable characters in England before, during and after WW2. It doesn’t check my usual boxes, but the writing overcomes any limitations.

Victor Maskell tells the story of his life as a spy. Not a James Bond type, but as an academic adjacent to upper-crust English society. The story begins with Victor revealing he was outed as a Russian agent but still lives freely in London. A young reporter interviews him about his life for a book and the rest of the story is Victor retelling his past.

I admit, I almost dropped this book twice… after twenty pages, and again after ninety. I couldn’t find the plot or the hook. Those first pages were a mishmash of characters and grievances. The Untouchable violated one of my main tenets… it didn’t have a strong and discernible plot. Rather than putting it down, I committed to fifty pages one weekend. Then I recognized the brilliance of the novel.

Banville, through the device of an elderly man recounting his life as a spy, places the reader in a world swirling with characters. Unlikable people… I can’t think of one character I rooted for or admired. But they were interesting, scheming, opinionated and memorable. A plot evolved through these characters… just hidden a few levels beneath the surface.

Also, hiding below the old stories and characters, was Victor Maskell’s double nature. He’s English and works on the war effort and is a trusted consultant of the King, and a Russian asset. He’s married with children and gay, a member of English society yet an Irish Catholic, etc. This dual nature is present in other characters as well, and, by the end of the book, the title “The Untouchable” also has double meaning.

This is a slow burn of a read, plot-wise. But Banville’s writing is compelling and his characters memorable. Sometimes when I read a book, I can’t wait to finish. I didn’t want “The Untouchable” to end.

More Thoughts on Originality

Tombs of St Michans
Tombs of St Michans

Last week I wrote about originality and the retelling of a classic tale. My current story begs a similar question; when is an idea original? Are there any original ideas?

As per Neil Gaiman’s suggestion, I have a Compost Heap in my writing tool… a collection of incomplete ideas, characters, images, situations for use in a future story. Most of these are a character in a situation. One of my entries described a pill that would fast-forward time. I riffed on the idea and a clear plot and characters followed. Great. But isn’t this covered ground? Hasn’t this concept been beaten to death?

The short answer is yes. Stories about taking pills or treatments that seem too good to be true, with terrible second and third-order consequences aren’t new. And, my premise is the pill doesn’t really fast-forward life… the user just doesn’t experience or remember any of the parts they choose to skip. This is like Severance, where people’s work and private lives are completely separate. But should I care?

While pondering, I remembered a trend I noticed on Song Exploder. Song Exploder is a podcast where artists deconstruct a song they wrote, complete with origin stories and production. Many artists start with a song they liked (to be clear, someone else’s song). And they would riff on it and change the time, add/remove things… and, through a process of revision, create something new.

A sentiment I’ve seen shared many times also applies. “There are no original story ideas, only original ways to tell them.” Basically, the thought is even if a story/idea/situation has been used before… it shouldn’t stop the artist from pursuing the work. Each telling of a story is unique. Only you can tell your story, and since you haven’t told your story before, original and worthwhile.

I still have reservations. Not necessarily because it isn’t original… any story, told truthfully, is unique. But the bar has to be higher… what is it about this story or idea that is so interesting, so different as to make it worthwhile, especially in when so many other versions are out there?

Something Old, Something New

Citi Field, May 2022
Citi Field, May 2022

I re-told a classic story in the “After the Second Wave” world. The original is from Edgar Allan Poe, The Cask of Amontillado. Poe’s narrator lures an enemy into his family catacombs under the guise of inspecting a cask of Amontillado. Once in the catacombs, slightly drunk and coughing badly because of nitrates, the enemy is chained to a wall and entombed while still alive. The tale is spun by a cold, manipulative, and unreliable narrator… very Poe.

Writing a version of this tale in my world was interesting. As written, the story stays true to the original plot. And writing it was… easy? Fun? I didn’t have to spend cycles worrying about what should happen.

Poe’s style bled into my writing. He was from a different era, with a flair for the dramatic, a love of exclamation points and adjectives. In trying to emulate the feel of his narrator, an unstable man who committed a terrible act years ago, I wrote like Poe. It felt natural.. and one character is quite pompous, so this style befits his speech.

After completing a first version of this retelling, I’m worried it’s not interesting enough… and is just a copy, not a re-interpretation. Sure, the details are different, with new characters in a post-apocalyptic future (opposed to the nineteenth-century Italian setting of the original). But it doesn’t have any deviation from the original plot. Does it need… a different, more shocking outcome? When a story is “re-imagined”, how many does it need to deviate to be a unique work?

Often, when a story is said to be re-imagined, it’s just swapping the gender of characters, or setting the story in a different time and place. What is the dividing line… can updated details make the story new, or does the plot and ending have to differ as well?

In the end, I want to revisit this piece after a few weeks or months. I’ll pick up the story new and edit with fresh eyes, rather than trying to match how Poe set up his story.

Finding the Right Headspace, Part 2

Dun Luiche mid-morning
Dun Luiche mid-morning

Part 1

I designed my morning routine to combat context switching. Morning pages allow me to empty my mind. At its best, MP does two things; removes the nonsense swirling around my mind out and onto a page and lets me concentrate on writing. Plot issues are solved, characters embellished, endings proposed… while letting the pen move constantly, stream-of-motion style.

In Daily Rituals, How Artists Work, solitary time for creators was nearly universal, as was a distinct separation between writing work and other items (most of these were artists from another era… they spent a lot of time on correspondence and mail). One example, the composer Gustav Mahler, stuck with me. Mahler was maniacal about silence…

“He woke at 6:00 or 6:30am and immediately rang for the cook to prepare breakfast… which the cook carried to Mahler’s stone composing hut in the woods. (Mahler could not bear to see of speak to anyone before settling down to work in the morning, so the cook had to take a steep, slippery path to the hut rather than the main walkway, in order to risk not running into him)” (Daily Rituals, page 42)

Of course, Mahler is extreme… but I understand the urge. The longer you can keep out the noise of everyday life, the more your mind can create.

The return of hectic life has dominated the morning pages as well. Sometimes I can’t get through the nonsense banging around in my head before I finished my two pages (I get 850 words into two large pages… MP says three pages but 850 is the target). This is when my mind wanders to the imaginary cabin in the woods, maybe with a light snowfall, a wood-burning stove and fireplace and no internet or cell reception. Though I suspect I’d find plenty of things to obsess over in seclusion as well… schedules or food or feeling the urge to spend more time hiking or enjoying nature instead of cranking on stories.

Finding the Right Headspace

Dun Luiche, the mists of Donegal
Dun Luiche, the mists of Donegal

Currently, in mid-September, my great mojo has ebbed. The book project and writing are still top priorities; what changed? Just the calendar.

September is the return of school and sports for my children and the official kick-off of the busy season at work. It’s exciting and fun and exhausting. My morning writing time is safe (I’ve engineered my life to allow for at least 45 minutes most mornings for pecking away at the keyboard). Now this time feels rushed, like another task in a very long list.

Programming and writing share common attributes. Both are creative and need planning and, well writing (it’s called “writing” code). And the head space required for doing this work (Cal Newport calls it Deep Work, others call it flow) is the same. When I wrote code daily, I sought deep concentration where the minutes and hours would fly by while I locked into the problem. Same with writing… my best work comes when I know what the story is doing and let the words rip. I rarely have a lyrical writing style, but in these states, the words pick up a distinct rhythm.

The biggest blocker to entering this Deep Work/Flow state? There are a few, such as not being in a good place, distractions, insecurity, or lack of direction. But my biggest blocker is context switching. When I wrote code, it was hard to go from meetings or conversations about larger topics, big objectives, etc. to worrying how to set up a web form and optimize the database connection. It is the same with writing.

I hoped setting up my primary writing time in the early morning, before I open my work email or confront pressing home issues, would reduce the shifts. This month, I find my thoughts upon wake-up, focus on work and home items. To-do lists, meetings, workpeople and their reactions, college applications, evening driving schedules, soccer and band performances. I’m starting the day in one head space and trying to shift over to a creative zone for writing. In the summer, I wouldn’t wake up with these thoughts. I reflected on my dreams and quickly thought about characters and writing.

Part 2

Recommended Recommendations, Part 2

New Grange, Ireland
New Grange, Ireland

Read Part 1

Podcasts are another source of book recommendations. They often feature an author pushing a current non-fiction book. It is easy to ignore these, especially when the guest is a business leader sharing their career or investing advice… these podcasts have become so tiresome I usually skip them altogether. But I do like when interesting guests recommend their favorite books; the way they enthusiastically describe why they love a certain book is infectious and I often check out said book at once. Or the author themself… I had heard of Neil Gaiman before hearing him on the Tim Ferris Show but never watched or read any of his work. Tim strongly recommended the audio version of The Graveyard Book… which was magical. Since then I’ve read and watched a ton of his work and tried, unsuccessfully, to write something in the vein of The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Any recommendation from the host carries more weight; as a listener, I already agree with their taste. One of my favorites is Marginal Revolution with Tyler Cowen (a super-smart economist and polyglot). He, through his daily blog posts and podcast often discusses books he likes and reads. Tyler is on another level, though… I can’t read with his speed, focus, or ability to wade through dense text. So I know I can’t blindly follow his recommendations… the last one I followed was for a non-traditional book, Modern Ireland in 100 Artworks.. (side note, one of his recommendations is not to skip big picture books as they are often fun, enlightening and artistically done). From a different of blogger/podcaster, David Coggins, I’ve purchased three of his personal recommendations in the last few months. Everyday Drinking disappointed… it’s a collection of newspaper articles and is fairly repetitious. And very dated (which I thought would charm, but it really takes away from the work). I thought it’d be a treatise, and it’s more of a how-to manual. I have higher hopes for two other recommendations, The Untouchable and A Month in the Country. When I read them, I will post brief reviews to my Now page.

Other forms of entertainment lead to recommendations as well. I read the SOIAF (Game of Thrones) books after watching season one. I had read David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten when it first came out… but not until Cloud Atlas was released in the theaters that I picked up on his name again and went back into his work. Another combination recommendation was reading Adventures in the Screentrade by William Goldman. I had heard it mentioned many times on the Bill Simmons Rewatchables, but only thought it worth reading after re-watching Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

Friends and family are another source. I certainly recommend a lot of books to people in my life, and I have a few people who reach out when they read something interesting or discover a new author. Some of the most off-beat books I’ve read have come through this channel. An old coworker recommended The Dice Man and The Power of One. I wouldn’t have found those books on my own.

Recommended Recommendations

St Patrick
St Patrick

Part 1

I read a surprisingly disappointing book and reflected on how strong the recommendation was for the book. This disconnect made me ask; where do I get my reading list? A few sources… classic, ye-old “must read” lists. Recommendations from writing books. Podcasts and friends. And a broad, other category that includes movies and shows.

I’ve read books on most must-read classics lists (reading Anna Karenina, based on seeing Tolstoy listed for years). Depending on the list (especially US centric lists) I’ve read maybe thirty percent. These lists are useful because they are evergreen, unlike so many other lists (“New York Times Editors Recommend This Month! Today! Right Now!”) that reflect current trends or hot authors… or release cycles. Instead, these lists contain books that stood the test of time. I wouldn’t read the entire list; sometimes books appear for the wrong reason. I remember selecting from a list of classics in junior year of high school. I selected The Jungle by Upton Sinclair because I recognized the title. Only after I finished (and didn’t enjoy) did my English teacher note it wasn’t a great work of literature… it was “important” because it exposed working conditions in stockyards, which led to a ponderous treaty at the end of the book about workers’ rights and socialism. Other classics seem unappealing… Jane Austen, etc. I remember hating Dickens in high school, although I’ve read so many glowing descriptions of his work I may have to revisit (can I trust my fourteen-year-old self’s take on an author?)

An added benefit to the classics is free content for analyzing the story. I’ve listened to a few podcasts that discuss Anna Karenina. Earlier this year, on my Hemingway short story jag, I’d read a story and search the title for analysis to make sure I was getting the full picture. It added to the experience.

Another avenue is writing about writing. On the non-fiction side, many of the books I’ve read on writing were recommendations from authors like War of Art, On Writing, etc. Most interesting are the literature recommendations. But the most useful, in recent memory, came from George Saunders as part of A Swim in the Pond in the Rain and accompanying Substack. We read short stories he provides… none of which I would have read on my own. And he de-mystified the Russian masters and made them approachable and… fun? I picked up a lot of recommendations from interviews with authors as well; I have the Paris Review author interview series. Authors, especially those from post-war through the eighties, discuss their contemporaries and the people they read and admire. Ended up with books from John Cheever and others this way.

Part 2

Updates on Everything Writing

Donegal Town
Donegal Town

I’ve been in a good groove for the past few months, writing and editing my upcoming short story collection, “After the Second Wave.” It’s given me great focus and I love writing the stories. I want to create a collection of interconnected stories set in the same world, but where each story could stand on its own.

The collection should contain roughly seven stories with an extra story or two. The extra stories could be bonus pieces or maybe an addendum… they won’t involve main characters but set in the same world. I’m enjoying the ease with additional story ideas are flowing… I could write twenty stories for the collection.

Which leads to a good mix of daily writing options. Five days a week on new words for ASW. One to two days on blog posts. And one to two days (apologies for my Yogi Berra math) on what I call major edits… edits that require re-writing, not tweaking. If I’m tired or feeling burned out, I’ll hit the backlog of George Saunders lessons and exercises. Everything seems fresh and I can’t wait to get started in the morning.

As part of putting together ASW, I’m working with an editor. She is fantastic and full of great ideas and feedback… and is a professional and knows what to do about publishing and pulling a book together. I produce a short story every few weeks for her to review and receive a marked-up story. This has a pleasant flow and provides one of the key elements I’ve been missing since I started writing; real, honest (and professional) feedback. And I have a partner to help put the project together.

In addition, I am giving this website more attention. I’d like to evolve it to not only a home for my writing and thoughts, but a hub for books and a way to collect and attract readers… getting more people to read my work is the primary goal. Improvements to the site will include (non-annoying) collection of emails for newsletters and behind-the-scenes work to spiff up how it appears to the world.

The missing part is getting work published in journals. I went a long time (most of this year) without submitting. But that game is as much about volume as quality and I need to make up for lost time. Haven’ found any go-to publications, but hope to soon.

Last, I’m back to reading the classics. As I’ve mentioned before, I never read the Russian masters before working through GS’s A Swim In the Pond in the Rain. His selected examples of Russian masters were approachable and fun, so I picked up Anna Karenina by Tolstoy. So far, I’m enjoying the writing/prose. I’m trying to find other, interesting books to read at the same time… but the point is, I’m reading challenging classics. Hopefully, a little bit will rub off on my writing.


by Daniel Chawner

Download .epub file

Megs tried not to throw up on her keyboard, zero-early o’clock on Labor Day weekend, the morning after Margarita Madness. She swallowed hard and tried to focus. Her logins weren’t working, not the regular account, not the super-all-powerful admin account, nor the test accounts. She couldn’t get into the company’s main app.

Bobby, from over her shoulder, said, “See? See? We’re totally screwed. How did this happen?” He pounded the desk, sending Megs keyboard flying.

“Bobby, calm down. Now that I’m here, walk me through it again. You weren’t making sense on the phone.” Bobby had sounded hysterical, said she needed to come to work right now, and it didn’t matter she was at her friend’s lake house, two hours away. Hung over.

“It’s like I told you, I got this weird email. Then I tried to get onto our app and couldn’t.”

“Show me the mail.”

“I’ll send it to you.”

“No,” said Megs. “Let’s assume your emails are toxic.” More toxic than usual. “Show it to me, on your phone.”

Bobby thrust his oversized iPhone in Meg’s face. She pushed it away until the text came into focus and read it twice to comprehend the broken English.

“Robert Ugnaught, You have been pwned. App at Ugnaught Construction and Engineering are mine. Follow instruction below to buy and transfer $100,000 Bitcoin. You get 48 hours. Or delete everything.” Below the text were step-by-step instructions for buying Bitcoin.

“How did they do this? How did they get into UFA? I thought you and Ravi had locked everything up.”

“We secured what we could, but you wouldn’t let us lock down our system, remember? I wanted to buy those tools and restrict access to non-work-related sites?” Bobby loved to spend his afternoons on SnapChat, Among Us and other non-work sites.

“So is there something we can buy now?”

“No.” Megs rubbed her temples. Explaining technology to Bobby, the youngest brother of the family business, was hard under normal conditions. Talking to him through a pounding headache and dry mouth seemed impossible. “It’s too late. We should contact the FBI, or a firm that specializes in emergencies like this.”

Bobby stopped pacing and leaned on Meg’s desk. “We can’t let this get out. I mean, if we talk to the FBI or whoever, it will be public. And it will take too long to hire someone else, right? We basically have two days; we need everything perfect for Tuesday morning.”

“Or you could, you know, pay them and hope this all goes away.”

“I’m not paying ransom to a bunch of Russian kids. No way. And besides,” he said in a lower voice, “I don’t have that kind of money.”

Outside the window of their suburban office, Bobby’s Model S blocked the fire lane. In his reserved spot was his other car, a fully loaded Cadillac SUV. Bobby’s house, which Megs was forced to visit every Fourth of July for the big company party, was at least 5,000 square feet and had two pools.

“You hide it very well,” she said.

“What’s that?”

“Bobby, they aren’t looking for you to pay, right? It’s the company that got hacked, not you personally.” As long as we ignore you’re in charge of technology and security, and fired the CIO for disagreeing with you last year and never replaced him. “We should call Brad.”

“Listen,” Bobby said, “I think this is best if we just keep this between us. Don’t involve my brother. So, what do we do now?”

“Coffee. Why don’t you get me some? In the meantime, I’ll call Ravi and see if he has any ideas.”

“You think you can get him?”

“I don’t think they celebrate Labor Day in Bangalore. So, yea. Make it large with a splash of cream.”

Bobby raised his eyebrow. This may be the first time anyone asked him to run an errand.

“By the time you get back, I’ll have some ideas. Go, there’s a Starbucks a few minutes away.”

“Yeah, I could use some coffee. Be right back,” he said and pushed through the heavy door separating IT from the rest of the office.

The caffeine would help but getting Bobby out of her hair would help more. Ugnaught Construction and Engineering had moved their most critical app, Ugnaught Field App (UFA) to the cloud, servers that someone else owned and maintained. It let them lower costs and move faster. It also meant if their accounts didn’t work, they couldn’t use their cloud-based app and data. The entire firm, field engineers, back office, and the CEO, needed UFA to do their jobs. Megs tried her logins again, just to do something. Same result.

Megs felt helpless; she usually solved problems and kept the app running. Now some hacker from thousands of miles away was threatening their company and potentially their livelihood. Did they target Ugnaught, or cast a wide net? Did the hacker need money to pay bills and feed a family? Was it worth ruining our weekend, our career, our lives over this? When she was with Microsoft entire teams stood ready to handle this type of crisis. Here, we didn’t even have a CIO or proper network engineer. These hackers had Ugnaught’s fate in their hands. Megs clenched her fists, then called Ravi.

“Hey Ravi, do you have a few minutes?”

“Hi Megs, thought you guys were off this weekend.”

“We were supposed to be.” Megs filled him in on the details.

“I just tried my credentials as well. No luck. Do we know how this happened?” said Ravi, polite and helpful as always.

“Could be phishing, or we left something open on a server and they found it during a scan, or one of the software—”

“It’s almost always phishing, someone clicking on a malicious link, right? I can run a scan on emails from the last week or so and see if there are any likely sources. Luckily for us, we still have our network and email local, not in the cloud.”

“Will a scan help?”

“At least we’ll know how the hackers got in,” said Ravi.

“Alright, let me know.”

Megs stood, stretched, and shuffled over to a blank whiteboard. If they couldn’t get into their system and Bobby wouldn’t pay, they needed to rebuild. From scratch.

She wrote “Source Control”, “Data”, and “Backups” across the top of the whiteboard. The best choice is the backups, copies of their entire server made on regular intervals. Megs hurriedly re-dialed Ravi.

“Ravi, my mind is mush this morning. We didn’t talk about the backups.”


“Ravi, did you hear me?”

“Yes, I heard you. Do you remember where we put the backups?”

Oh shit. “We back them up to the same servers, don’t we?”

“Yeah. We can’t get to the backups either. We intended to fix it over the summer, but…”

But there were issues over the summer. Instead of working on the backlog of work projects, like backups, cleaning up directories, auditing accounts and killing old, legacy jobs, she spent most of July and August with Mom and Dad. Megs had moved back to New Jersey from Seattle five years ago and gave up a nice career at Microsoft; she was on a Managing Partner track. But the weekly phone calls with Mom became more strained, and Rodger, her brother, cracked under the stress. So, she left the fast-paced world of high-tech and became a jack-of-all trades, part sysadmin, part programmer for a mid-sized, family-run firm.

In July, Rodger announced he couldn’t handle the daily visits to Mom and Dad anymore and was broke. Two days later, he and his family moved to Philadelphia, leaving Megs to buy supplies, drive to doctors, pick up medicine and arrange nurse visits. After two weeks of continual care, Megs found a local nursing home. Which solved one problem and created another: a $15,000 per month bill, payable in advance. In cash.

“Oh crap. But we have the off-site tape backups, where we write all the database information to a tape and mail it somewhere secure.”

“Let me check,” said Ravi, followed by the sound of typing on his keyboard. “Yes, but we only do full backups to tape once a month. On the fifteenth.”

“So, we didn’t lose everything, then. How soon can we get the tape sent here?”

More typing. “Thursday. Assuming they pull the tapes and mail them Tuesday morning.”

That’s better than nothing; that’s most of the data. “But the source code, that’s in a separate place. In GitHub, a different cloud system.”

“Yes,” Ravi said, “that’s true. But we do our builds, where we assemble and deploy the source code, on the main server.”

“So? That doesn’t change the… oh. We store our logins to GitHub there, don’t we?”

“Yup. In—”

“In clear text. Not encrypted, which was another thing on the summer list. If these hackers looked in there…”

“They could get to the source code and lock us out. Or wipe it. Or both,” said Ravi.

Megs jumped back in her seat and opened GitHub, furiously entered her login and password and held her breath while the icon spun. Then she exhaled; their source code was still there, filed neatly in branches. “I’m in Ravi, it’s all here.”

“Change your password, now. And disable the account that does the build.”

“Yep. You should login and do the same,” said Megs, smiling for the first time this morning.

“I may have found the phishing email,” said Ravi. “I’ll let you know when I’m sure.”

Megs leaned back in her chair. Like the tapes, something else tickled the back of her brain. Maybe closing her eyes would help.

The bang from the IT door jolted Megs out of her nap. Luckily, she fell asleep upright up in her chair, not face down on her keyboard.

“Here you go. Any luck?” said Bobby. He placed a large white paper coffee cup on her desk, light brown liquid escaping from the cap and rolling down the side.

“Ravi and I are working on it. Good news is we still have access to the source code.”

Bobby smiled. “We’re good, then? I meant to tell you, our app on my phone is fine.”

“They can’t lock that down. But, if you tried to connect to the server, you wouldn’t be able to. Remember how we have that set up?”

“Yeah, to let the engineers work offline. So, they have their own little databases on their devices.”

“That’s right. And, if they didn’t update anything, they could work for a day or two.”

“We could have some more time to repair this?”

“Kinda, it only solves the engineer part. The rest of the company, the execs, accounting, they all login to the portal which is on the cloud.”

“If I told Brad we were doing maintenance, and it went long, but the techs could still work… and we got it fixed by like Wednesday… then maybe they wouldn’t have to know.”

“Only if you hid the truth from them.” Megs shouldn’t have been so blunt. The best way to deal with this man-child was to nudge him in her chosen direction. She hastily added, “We can build the software, err, apps again. And set them up on a new server. But they won’t have any data. For that, we’d need to instruct all the engineers to upload their field data to the server and set up some rules for putting that stuff back in the database. If we get lucky, maybe we could restore half of the data. At least the most recent stuff. And then get the tape back by Thursday.”

“So that doesn’t help us at all. Shit.”

“It helps a little, it—”

“When the company comes into work Tuesday, when the engineers fire up their apps, when Brad sits his ass down at his desk and tries to pull up the monthly numbers, will any of that work?”

“The apps would be there, but no data.”

“So, they won’t work. Useless. I thought we had something in place to get backups. I see them on our monthly bills.”

“They got them, too.” No need to explain why they got them, at least not yet.

“Dammit,” said Bobby, flopping into a chair around the small conference table in the center of the room. “What else?”

“Ravi thinks he knows how they got in. He’ll let me know soon.”

Bobby pulled out his phone, slurped his mocha-colored iced drink through a straw, and turned away from Megs. Great, he’s going to stay.

“Are you sure we can’t call Brad and talk to him? Maybe he can negotiate with these guys?”

Bobby flinched at the mention of his older brother’s name. “No.”

“But we may not —”.

“No, we can’t let Brad or anyone else know. In fact, send out an email letting people know you took the system down for maintenance and they can’t access it today. In case some eager beaver logs in on their day off. Like Brad.”

An instant message from Ravi flashed on Megs screen.

Found out how they got it. Bobby clicked a fake FedEx link, and they got his admin credentials. Keyboard logger.

Megs opened her mouth to tell Bobby, then stopped. He was quiet. Better to keep him that way.

Great. Any other ideas?

No, will keep looking

Let me know, thanks.

What were the remaining options? Pay and get everything back. Maybe. Don’t pay and rebuild the system from scratch on the sly. Or come out with the truth and restore the apps with the company’s help.

Coming clean and telling Brad, CEO of the firm, made sense. He was an engineer; he’d see this for what it was, a puzzle.

“Bobby, this is where we are: we can rebuild the code. Probably take most of the day, but we could get the app stood up pretty quickly. We need to tell the users to connect to a different server… which isn’t hard.”

Bobby stared at Megs, expressionless. His hair looked matted, his eyes bloodshot and face puffy. Puffier than usual.

“And then we need to tell them to go into the settings of the app and do a one-way, err, push all the data they have to the new, empty database. Ravi and I could write some rules for what data to keep, what is most recent, that kinda stuff. But it won’t be 100%, and it may take us a few days to get the data straight. By then, we should have the tape backup. As long as it’s okay, we can piece together most of the data, probably with a few gaps from last month.”

“How long?”

“For which part?”

“Until everything is back to normal.”

“If everything goes like it should, and all the engineers followed the instructions… Friday, or early the following week?”

Bobby hung his head. “Not good enough. If I have to tell Brad about this… he’ll ask a lot of questions. And we’ll be screwed.”

“He might just choose to—”

“No chance. He’d rather shut down the company then pay a hacker. You know what he did the last time something like this happened? When a few computers and printers went missing a few years ago?”


“He ran a full investigation that cost more than the missing equipment. Questioned people for hours, put together a report, hired someone to help him. And got deep into everyone’s business. It was awful. Cost me a bonus that year also, ‘cus I run the office team as well as IT”

Megs stomach lurched again. Brad was intimidating; if he questioned how this happened, they’d have to tell him about the shitty backup plan.

“What else have you got?” asked Bobby.

“Right now, nothing,” said Megs.

He slammed his open palm on the table, rocking his latte. “Useless, you are useless. There has to be another way to fix this.”

“I’ll keep looking,” muttered Megs. She focused her attention on her monitor and randomly moused through her open windows. And tried not to shake.

This was Bobby’s fault. He clicked on the link and forced them to keep the system open. She could make Brad understand. But not having backups available was on her. Could she hide it? Brad, while analytical and fair, wouldn’t hesitate to fire someone over this. And he couldn’t fire his brother. Working at UCE wasn’t perfect, but the pay was alright and the hours, for IT, pretty manageable. And there weren’t a lot of other places she could work and still be near her parents. Megs now felt doubly trapped, by Ugnaught and these hackers.

Megs clicked on the window with the source code. Nothing new there. Clicked on the window with UFA. Her password still didn’t work. The only other system she had access to was email. Megs clicked on her inbox, her deleted mail, then on the separate folders she had in her inbox for something to do. Or at least to look like she was doing something. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Bobby drop his head into his hands.

One of Megs’ folders had 700 unread mails, named LegacyJobs. Great, another reminder of the work we didn’t do this summer. She clicked in the folder and gasped. There it was: “FullDBJob09032020-Complete”, the answer to her hung-over prayers, the thing tickling at the back of her skull. One of the legacy items, a job she set up when they first moved their data to the cloud, took a full backup of their database, compressed it, and sent it to their old server. The old server, the thing running in the almost-empty closet next to her desk. Here, all morning. The company’s data backed up as of two days ago sitting on a piece of hardware she meant to turn off weeks ago.

They could stand up a server in a few hours, quickly restore the database, and have a busy Tuesday morning tackling minor items. No one at the firm had to know. Bobby would get off scot-free again.

Megs sat up straighter in her chair. The buzzing headache receded and she felt whole, strong. They were going to get out of this mess. Or, at least, she was. Now Megs held the fate of the app, Bobby’s career and the health of the company in her hands. No one else knew about this legacy backup, not even Ravi.

If the hackers were going to extract a pound of flesh, why not Megs? The nursing home bills would ruin her finances for years, maybe for the rest of her life. But not if someone else picked up the tab. An extra $15k a month would change her life, for the better.

“Hey Bobby, we know how the hackers got in.”

Bobby raised his head out of his hands and looked over at Megs.

“You clicked on a bogus FedEx link, and they stole your password. You handed them the keys.”

Bobby, who was pale already, looked deathly as blood rushed out of his face. “I, uh, how…shit.”

“And they really got us. Too bad we didn’t have a CIO anymore to pin in on, eh?”

Bobby squinted at Megs.

“Maybe someone like that could get us out of this jam. And would have forced us to buy the right tools, earlier, and get serious about blocking phishing links. Probably pretty pricey, though.”

“What good does that do us? Oh my God, I’m so screwed. We’re all screwed.”

“Yea,” said Megs. She paused to pick her words carefully. Days later, while she admired her new office and nameplate, she’d wonder if the conviction of her next line came from deep inside or that fourth margarita.

More New Writing

New Grange Etching

I wrote “A Wasted Crisis” nearly two years ago, based on a prompt (characters try to repair something) from On The Premises. while upstate NY in the height of Covid. I loved writing the story and thought it came out okay.

Sadly, I didn’t follow the contest rules and included my name on the submission (different contests and journals have different rules for names, page numbers, spacing… it’s like a big game), so it wasn’t considered. For a small fee I had the piece critiqued. The editors implied it would have been a finalist had I followed the rules. This pushed me to work on the edits they suggested and resubmit elsewhere.

There is a moral question raised in the story, so I submitted to After Dinner Conversation. And it received an honorable mention… but wasn’t published. I submitted the piece to at least ten different pubs over the next year, but couldn’t find any traction.

Like the Wendig piece, it’s not edited… again, apologies for my writing ticks. I think it’s a fun read. Maybe it should contain a trigger warning for IT professionals?

Addendum: This piece got reads from the editors at On The Premises and 3 random readers from Scribophile (when I still posted work there). The editor and one reader were involved in IT security… and their comments were interesting. I tried to paint the picture of a family-run business, with a bare-bones, 2-person IT team… but they couldn’t get past the lack of big-corporate security teams and approaches. Is this a weakness in the story or an interesting example of readers’ experiences and biases? I wanted to debate them, as I felt their crits regarding the mechanics of small-shop IT were wrong… but they are the readers. Once it’s out there, it’s out there. An interesting lesson.

I hope you enjoy!