Chapter Seventeen.

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory was nestled in the

foothills of Pasadena at the head of the Arroyo Canyon, near Devil’s Gate Dam. The buildings were a mixture of styles, from Old California Mission architecture to a collection of two-story, no-frills additions that resembled giant air-conditioning units because of their boxy shapes and huge perpendicular louvered windows. The complex sat protected in the shade of a hundred oak trees, under the looming San Gabriel Mountains.

Herman thought Dr. Gino Zimbaldi was too lean, too intense, and, okay, too geeky. He stood in front of his tiny office in a white JPL lab coat, complete with plastic penholder. He was a “buzzword” specialist, and Herman had to constantly interrupt him to find out what the hell he was talking about.

Example: “Sorry I kept you waiting, but the BDB working our APOGY program was bit-busting and came up with garden salad.”

“Huh?” Herman said. Gino gave him a tight little grin before translating.

“The brain-dead bozo who wrote the program we’re running on the satellite screwed up and wrote some bad code.”

“Oh.” Herman handed him a disk containing fifty pages of encryption. “Roland asked if you would decode this for him, Dr. Zimbaldi.”

“Everybody calls me Zimmy,” the nervous little man said, then smiled. “So how is that oP placenta head?”

“Not very good,” Herman said sadly. “He was murdered in San Francisco while he was retrieving this. I guess I should warn you it may be dangerous for you to even work on it.”

“Murdered?” Zimmy repeated. His expression caved in. His cheeks and eyes went hollow.

“It happened yesterday morning.”

“How? How did he…” Now blood drained. His face went as white as his lab coat.

“He was attacked in his hotel room and was sort of…” Shit, Herman thought. He didn’t want to tell him this, didn’t want to scare him off. But he owed it to the doctor to at least give him the scope of the problem. “He was mutilated,” Herman continued. “More or less shredded. The police up there don’t know what could’ve done it. It was something with superhuman strength.”

“Shredded?” The buzzwords were gone. Panic hovered. And then, while Herman watched, Dr. Zimbaldi visibly pulled himself back together. “Fucking unbelievable,” he wheezed, color slowly returning.

Then Zimmy surprised him. He squared his scrawny shoulders and said, “If Rollie died getting this, then we damn sure gotta find out what it means. I’ll get rid of the NCG who’s on the workstations right now and get going on it myself.”

“The who?”

“New college grad. He’s the one who snarled up the system by writing all those spaghetti codes.” He flipped open the sheaf of paper, and began riffling through the fifty pages packed with encryptions. “It’s a lot, but if I get lucky I’ll have it done by tomorrow night.”

“Here’s my new number and a private e-mail address.” Herman handed him one of his cheap Institute cards.

Zimmy shook Herman’s hand. “You know what I always liked most about Roland?” he said unexpectedly.

Herman waited.

“Absolutely no phase-jitter, y’know? He was never afraid to throw it over the wall.”

But that was Zimmy.