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Story Excerpt

Uncle Roy’s Computer Repairsand Used Robot Parts
by Martin L. Shoemaker

Roy Harris perched on a stool in front of his new shop door, very carefully filling in the letters that Martha had sketched out on the window. She had a steady eye for that sort of thing. He could stay within the lines, but don’t ask him to put the lines in the right places, at least not in the real world. His old hands shook too much.

Back in his old software design studio, every line had been meticulously placed. Customers found it easier to read the designs when he put in attention to detail.

Roy shook his head. He had no more software design customers. No more morning scrums, no more chasing the big defense contracts. No more of the daily rat race. He was retired now.

But he wasn’t ready to rest. So to take the place of the old design studio and workshop, all he had was this. As he filled in the last letter, he sat back and looked at the sign:

Uncle Roy’s Computer Repairs and Used Robot Parts

You Break It, We Fix It.

Martha stood behind him, arms crossed. “I still stay it’s a silly name,” she said. “No one in Milford Creek’s going to get it.”

“That’s fine,” Roy said, “but they’ll talk about it, and that’ll spread the word.”

Those words had hung over his workshop at Genod for over thirty years. It had started as a joke back when he’d been a young technician with an aptitude for assembling parts in unexpected ways to get unexpected results. Somebody had hung a hand-lettered sign with those words over his desk. Through the years, he had touched up that sign and framed it, and it had become a part of company lore.

And now, just because he had hit a certain number of days on the calendar, he was out. Gold watch, clap on the back, and “See ya.”

If Roy hadn’t been such a rationalist, Martha could have made him believe in telepathy. She stepped closer, put her arms around his shoulders, and said, “You’re going to do fine, honey. You’ll find plenty to do. Who doesn’t need computer repairs these days?”

Roy put his hands over hers. “I know, but after you’ve debugged satellites around Mars, helping some farmer clean the viruses off of his milking system just isn’t as much of a challenge.” He closed his paint can. “But I’ll have plenty of time to read my journals. Gina says they’ll have consulting work for me now and then.”

Roy did his best to sound positive. Thirty-four years of marriage was as good as telepathy, and he didn’t want Martha to think he was disappointed. He could have stayed in the Kansas City area closer to Genod, where it would’ve been easier to pick up side work now and then; but their whole married life had gone wherever his career had taken him, so he owed Martha this in retirement. They’d bought her parents’ old house in Milford Creek where she’d grown up. She knew everybody; she was related to half of them, whereas most folks still knew Roy as “that guy from Kansas.” No, small town computer repairs wouldn’t be a challenge; but maybe someday he would be happy not to be challenged every day. Not yet, but someday.

Roy looked down the Milford Creek Main Street. It was five blocks long, lined with the usual assortment of businesses for a small town like this: post office, pharmacy, small grocery, hardware store, two taverns (owned by two sisters who’d been feuding for as long as Roy had known the town), insurance offices, village offices . . . and a real estate agent: Johnny Mazur, the man who’d sold Roy and Martha this former pottery studio at the end of the business district.

Speaking of Johnny, he was coming down the street now, trailed by a tiny, gray-haired woman in a dark dress. “Roy,” he said, “good to see you, neighbor. I wanted to introduce you. Roy, this is Gladys Knowles, the Village Chair. Martha, you know Gladys.”

“I should,” Martha said. “She’s my third cousin.”

“Second, dear,” Gladys said.

“Oh, that’s right!” The women hugged. “It’s good to see you. I haven’t seen you in so long.”

“Well, that’s ’cause you moved away, dear. We’re where we’ve always been. You’ve always been welcome back. You could even bring . . . I’m sorry, what’s his name?”

“Roy,” Johnny said, “newest member of our business community. You finding everything you need, Roy?”

“I’m all set. Just finished the last bit here.” He waved an arm at the door.

Gladys pulled reading glasses from her purse, put them on, and read the sign. “Used robot parts?”

Roy winced. Martha just looked at him with a grin.

“It’s just a joke,” Roy explained. “I just do PC repair, cleanup, tablets, a little phone work, that sort of thing, just to keep me busy.”

“Jimmy’s not going to like that,” Gladys said. “Not one bit.”

“Who’s Jimmy?” Roy asked.

Gladys reached into her purse, pulled out a battered white card, and held it out to Roy. He looked at it while Martha read over his shoulder. Simple black text on white. It looked like it had been printed on an inkjet, cut by hand. It read:

Don’t know what’s wrong with
your computer?

Jimmy Knows.

Bring it to Jimmy Knowles, he can fix it.

Gladys pulled the card away and shoved it back into her purse. Martha looked concerned. “Oh, dear.”

“Your son?” Roy asked.

“Grandson,” Gladys corrected. “He fixes all sorts of computer things. I don’t understand what he’s saying, but he makes things work.”

Roy spread his hands. “I’m sure there’s enough work here for both of us.”

“Doubt it. Folks around here are happy with Jimmy. But you’re welcome to do . . . whatever you do here. If it doesn’t work out, maybe you could open a pottery shop.” Gladys turned directly to Martha. “Now don’t you be a stranger, Martha. You know where we are every Sunday dinner. Ma’s old house is our place now. Always room for one more.” She looked at Roy. “Or maybe two.” Then she turned and left.

*   *   *

Roy was still thinking about the encounter with Gladys as they went to lunch down the street at Aunt Betty’s Café. Martha had promised him that Aunt Betty’s was real home cooking, and he had to agree. He’d never been much of a cook, and it was just exactly like he might have made himself at home.

He tried to discuss the business situation with Martha, but it was just impossible. Half the people in the café stopped by one after another, sat down, and started gabbing about old friends or relatives. Roy couldn’t help smiling. Martha was so happy here, so much in her element. He hadn’t seen her this happy since the kids had moved out years back. He hadn’t realized she was unhappy, and she’d never complained; but now she practically glowed, and Roy forgot about the morning conflict. It made him feel so good to see Martha enjoying herself.

Most of the diners spoke with Roy as well; but it was just polite stuff about the weather, local sports (he still hadn’t figured out who the favorite teams were), the goings on at the village council, and the doings of the relatives. And farming more than anything, of course. That was still the number one industry around there. Roy had little to say on farming. He didn’t know about it, but he figured he’d better learn because a lot of his potential customers would be farmers. So he listened attentively, nodded, and made encouraging noises. A few times he tried asking questions based on what he’d heard and what he thought he’d understood, but he quickly gave that up. Every time he got that look, the look that said, What planet are you from, old man? I don’t know what you’re talking about. They never said so out loud. They were too polite for that. But he could see: he was still the outsider.

But if he tried—learned their needs, helped them put together better systems—he was sure he could win them over.

As for Aunt Betty’s, this was a simple retail establishment, noting special about it. (Certainly not the food.) It didn’t require a lot of expertise, and he had done restaurant systems back in college. He still knew the basics. When he got up to the cash register, he handed Aunt Betty the bill and gave a warm smile. She punched it in. He looked at her screen as she punched in the numbers, and he realized she was still using MenuCon3, software that had to be at least ten years out of date. There were apps out there that would track inventory better, help her keep her prices under control. Then he turned and saw that Aunt Betty was looking at him funny.

“You got a problem, Mr. Harris?” she said.

“Oh, no, just looking at your screen, seeing what you’re using.” And he looked down at her computer as well. “The system here is a little out of date. You know, something like this starts costing you money when the competition is using better, more efficient systems.”

Aunt Betty frowned. “Can’t say as I’ve got any competition around here. It’s the only café in town. The two taverns, yeah, they sell some food now and then; but they’re not open for breakfast through lunch, and I don’t sell beer, so we’ve got our territories marked out.”

“Still, the system is old,” Roy persisted. “It’s taking too long to do stuff. I could help you speed it up, and you’d spend a lot less time on the computer and more on your cooking. Just think what you could do with that!”

“Is there something wrong with my cooking?”

Suddenly, Roy felt all eyes in the place turn on him. He stammered, “No, no. No, fine lunch. I enjoyed it. I’m just . . .”

“Look, Mr. Harris, this system works just fine for me, just as it has since the day Jimmy Knowles set it up when he was in grammar school.”

“Grammar school?”

“He was a smart kid then. He’s a smart young man now. He keeps everything running just fine. If he tells me I need a new computer, I’ll get a new computer. As long as he’s keeping this one running . . .”

And Roy noticed the icon pattern. “You haven’t upgraded this operating system in ten years!”

“I wouldn’t know about that. Jimmy takes care of it.”

“But that’s not even a supported OS anymore. You can’t get security patches for it. You’re probably full of viruses.”

“If Jimmy tells me my machine is clean, it’s clean.”

Roy had been holding his credit card, ready to hand it to her when she gave him the total, but now he didn’t dare. An out-of-date computer operating system was just begging for malware that would steal credit card information. He put the card back and pulled out cash to pay for their lunch. Then valiantly he made one more try.

“Ma’am, I know Jimmy did good work for you in the past, but I really think for the sake of your customers’ confidential information, you should get this machine checked out by somebody professional.”

“And that would be you? Jimmy’s not good enough?”

“It doesn’t have to be me. Take it into Grand Rapids and have someone check it there.”

“Like I’ve got time to drive all the way to Grand Rapids. I have a restaurant to run.”


“Look, Mr. Harris, I don’t need you coming in from Kansas or wherever you come from, telling the poor old country girl what to do. Here’s your change. Have a nice day.”

Roy shrugged, took his change, and let Martha lead him out of the café. As soon as they were in the street, she whispered, “Roy Harris, are you trying to get me thrown out of Aunt Betty’s?”

“Martha, that computer is a lure for identity thieves. She’s probably got hundreds of malware infections. Please, promise me, don’t you dare ever use one of our cards in there until I’ve had a chance to talk her into an upgrade.”

“All right, Roy,” Martha said with a sigh. “But you’re going to have to be careful how you talk to folks around here. You can’t keep coming off all superior to everybody.”

“It’s not about being superior. I just know my field.”

“But you can’t hear yourself the way folks around here hear you. Learn a little humility, Roy. It will go a long way toward fitting in here.”

“Yes, Martha.”

*   *   *

The incident still worried him throughout the afternoon. It didn’t help that he had no customers, nothing to occupy him. He could only surf the web so much before boredom would put him to sleep. He had to have something to do, some challenge to take on.

Then he hit upon an idea. It wasn’t 100 percent strictly legal, but it was for Aunt Betty’s own good. If he could break into her system and show her what he had done, maybe then she would understand how vulnerable her system was. Maybe he would even identify some of the malware she had, and he could show where her customer’s information was really going.

So he set to work. Roy wasn’t a particularly good cracker. It had never been something he had done; but he had done plenty of working on securing systems, so he knew the techniques. First he had to identify her system on the internet. He figured that would be easy enough. He monitored local traffic and looked for packets routed to MenuCon. He knew the system made occasional checks for updates, so he set his server up as a DNS node in the region and tapped into local traffic using some scripts he knew.

But he found nothing going to MenuCon. Maybe Jimmy had turned off their updater? After all, MenuCon3 was so old, it probably wasn’t supported anymore.

Roy took several different stabs at possible sites that Aunt Betty’s computer might connect to before he found one with the right sort of traffic and the right sort of volume, sending out secured packets that were probably card identifications based on where they were routing to. He was pretty sure that was the right IP address.

Now it was time to exploit some of the known vulnerabilities of that old operating system. There were thousands catalogued in old security alerts. He started with the simplest, least damaging risks. All he wanted to do was frighten her a little bit.

But when Roy ran the exploit script for the first one, his script crashed out. It took him four tries to realize that the script was getting altered on the target system, putting it into an infinite recursion and crashing the stack. He had never seen that happen with that script before.

So he tried another common exploit. This time he simply never got an answer back from the script, not even a crash log.

Two more well-documented exploits also failed. Roy wasn’t stupid. There was protection on this system, just nothing like he had ever seen before.

Now he was curious. Just how strong was this system? He decided that to find out, he would need some stronger tools than he knew.

Roy set up routing through an anonymizing server—it wouldn’t do for authorities to see what he was up to—and he started researching serious hacks for the old OS. This was scary stuff, tempting but scary. If he used these tools, he would cross the line into enemy territory. What he had done before was shady, but these tools could get the Feds watching him.

He was still trying to decide whether to let his curiosity overrule his common sense when he heard the jingle of the front door. Martha was out there, and he heard her say, “Can I help you?”

“Yeah,” he heard a young voice with a bit of a sneer to it. “I want to see Uncle Roy about what he’s doing to Aunt Betty’s computer.”

Roy knew who that had to be. He left his office, went out to the entry, and saw a scrawny kid who didn’t even look eighteen yet. The kid wore long black hair in a ponytail, tucked through the back of an International Harvester cap. He was in a muscle shirt that didn’t show off any muscles. The kid couldn’t have weighed one hundred fifty pounds, even as tall as he was. “You must be Jimmy Knowles,” Roy said, trying to sound friendly as he held out his hand.

Jimmy looked at the hand in disgust. “You must be the bastard who’s trying to break into Aunt Betty’s system.”

“Roy!” Martha said.

“I’m not trying to break in, Martha, I’m just testing it to know what sort of risk the system is for her customers. Don’t they have a right to know?”

“They do know,” Jimmy said. “They know that Jimmy knows, and I promised her that system is safe. Nothing’s getting through it, and that includes you.”

“You can’t prove it was me. I worked through anonymous servers.”

“I can’t prove it, but you know it and I know it. The same day you open up shop and tell Aunt Betty her system is going to get broken into, somebody tries to break in. It don’t take no robot repairman brain to figure out what’s two and two. Once I tell folks you’re trying to break into computers, you are done here, mister. You might as well pack up and go back to Kansas City.”

“Jimmy, there’s no need to be hasty here. I was just testing the system; and I’ve got to admit I don’t know what you did, but it’s pretty good.”

“Damn straight it’s good. It’s the best. Don’t mess with me, mister, because when you do I know. Jimmy always knows.” Jimmy touched his cap to Martha, and then he left.

“Oh, Roy,” Martha said, sitting down at her desk with a morose look on her face.

“Martha, I couldn’t know.”

“And you couldn’t leave well enough alone, could you? Now he’s going to tell everybody that you’re some sort of a computer criminal.”

“They wouldn’t . . .” But Roy couldn’t even finish the sentence. He was the outsider. Of course everyone would believe it of him.

“Let me talk to Gladys,” Martha said, “and see if she can convince Jimmy not to start spreading rumors.” She picked up the phone, and Roy went back to his office.

*   *   *

The kid was good, Roy had to give him that. He wanted to know how Jimmy had done it, but he didn’t dare go back online and test Jimmy’s defenses again. That could lead to yet more trouble.

But then Roy realized that though he couldn’t test Jimmy’s systems, he had recorded all of the data from his earlier tests. He could look at that, look at how the scripts were supposed to run and they actually ran, and from that treat the system as a black box and reverse engineer how these results could have happened.

*   *   *

Roy was four hours into reverse engineering when Martha brought him a cold turkey sandwich. She knew better than to interrupt him when he was in a project like this.

*   *   *

It was 3:00 in the morning when Roy looked up from his screen and realized it had gotten dark outside. He’d pay for this the next day. At his age he just couldn’t do the all-nighters like he used to.

But it paid off! The first test, the one that had ended up in an infinite loop, gave him just what he needed. That little devil Jimmy had rewritten the script engine, replaced it entirely with one that took the same commands, but didn’t always implement them in the same way. Once Roy had that clue and the different failed runs, he started figuring out enough of a pattern that he knew he could break Jimmy’s script engine if he had to.

But he knew he didn’t have to. His original goal, which he had lost sight of during the day, had been to verify that Aunt Betty’s computer was safe. He had to admit it might be one of the safest computers out there. Nobody had an exploit for this system, because it was one of a kind. When Roy finally crawled into bed and fell asleep, he had a new respect for Jimmy Knowles and wondered if it was going to be quite so easy to set up business in Milford Creek.

*   *   *

Roy came downstairs the next morning to the smell of eggs cooking and the sound of Martha humming in the kitchen. He heard scratching at the front door, and he opened up to let in Beau, their big old sheepdog. Beau barreled in, all fur and energy; and Roy marveled at the change in the dog since they had moved to Milford Creek. Roy had thought Beau was old, over the hill, back on their small plot of land in Kansas City; but here on the farm with room to run, the dog was practically a puppy again. Roy patted Beau’s shaggy head and went into the kitchen where Martha was just serving the eggs at the small breakfast table.

“Good morning,” she said.

“Good morning.” Roy pushed Beau’s nose away from the table. “It’s a beautiful day, huh?”

“Yes it is.” Martha smiled. Just then the toaster popped, and Martha pulled out four slices and started buttering them. “Let’s see if we can keep it that way, huh?”

Roy didn’t know how to take her statement, so he wisely kept his tongue. Martha continued, “I talked to Gladys and she said Jimmy was willing to let the matter rest, as long as you don’t interfere with his customers anymore.”

“I wasn’t interfering, Martha.”

“I told her I’d make sure that you kept your nose clean. Gladys is my family, Roy. This is my town and we’re going to try to fit in.”

“Yes, dear.” Roy took a bite of egg and prevented himself from arguing any further.

*   *   *

Roy headed into the shop early so he could get ahead on things for the day. Not that there was much to get ahead on, but an early start was his habit from thirty years at Genod. So with nothing else to do, he spent some time reading up on security. The more he read, the more he could see that Jimmy’s script engine mod had no precedent in the literature. He could see a paper in this, if he could get the kid to work with him. It would certainly help Jimmy with college applications to have something like this on his resumé.

Martha came in, flipped the door sign to “Open,” and started dusting the shelves. They had a small collection of off-the-shelf hardware for sale, just to draw people in, but services were their business model. And service customers weren’t going to just walk in by themselves. Roy knew that. It was time to press the flesh.

“I’m going to go meet the community, Martha.”

“All right. Good luck.” Martha’s smile was strained as Roy kissed her. She expected trouble, and he would have to avoid it.

The store immediately next to theirs, part of the same building, was an investment advisor chain. Roy didn’t bother going in there: he knew through past experience that the chain strictly controlled all of the hardware, software, and service in every office. The local advisor could no more contract with Roy than she could rewrite the tax code.

Across the driveway from the investment firm was the Witford Insurance Agency. They weren’t open yet, but Roy made a note to come back there. It was an independent office, and Roy was sure he could interest them in his services. He’d already met Benton Witford and signed a business insurance policy with them. He felt like he had a pretty good relationship with Benton, and he could turn that into some business.

After Witford, he came to Jonas Hardware. Roy had met Kyle and Linda Jonas as well, and had been a steady customer since he and Martha had bought the store. They’d needed a lot of supplies and tools to get the place ready.

So Roy went into the hardware store, the door chime announcing his presence. Linda looked up from behind the counter. “Hi, Roy.”

“Morning, Linda. Beautiful day out, isn’t it?”

“Yep,” Linda answered. “Too bad I’m spending it in here. But business, you know?”

“Business,” Roy echoed. He wandered through the aisles, saw a good price on electrical tape and another on solder and decided to pick up a little of each. He came up to the cash register.

“Speaking of business . . .” Roy looked at the register. It was a tablet computer on a stand with a card scanner and a cash drawer attached, a pretty big step up from Aunt Betty’s.

Linda looked at him, her eyes narrowed. “Yes?”

“I was just admiring your setup here and wondering if there’s anything I can do to help make it run better.”

“Mr. Harris, if you’re going to berate me like you did Aunt Betty . . .”


“It’s a small village, Roy. If you behave like that, the whole village knows about it in under an hour.”

“I wasn’t berating her. I was concerned about the security of her system.”

“Our system is plenty secure.” She pointed at a card taped to the side of the cash box. Roy read the familiar words: Jimmy Knows. “I know you’re a business man, just like us. You have to make a living. We just don’t need what you’re selling.”

“That’s fine,” Roy said. “Keep me in mind if you run into something Jimmy can’t handle.”

“I went to school with Jimmy Knowles, Roy. He can handle anything.”

*   *   *

It was the same message all up and down Main Street, in every business Roy visited. In the eyes of Milford Creek, Jimmy Knowles could do no wrong. Werner’s Garage, Milford Feed and Grain, Parago Tax Services, and both Milford Roadhouse and the Milford Bar and Grill. Jimmy hadn’t spread the word about Roy’s security testing, but he hadn’t had to. Roy had been frozen out of all the downtown businesses on Main Street.

Roy thought about stopping at Aunt Betty’s for lunch; but he remembered the look on her face yesterday, and he wasn’t ready to face that again. Instead he trudged back toward the shop; and along the way, he saw that Witford’s office was open. He went in.

“Hey Alice,” he said to Alice Witford, Benton’s oldest daughter and office manager.

“Hey, Mr. Harris, how are you today?”

“Just enjoying this fine country morning. Is your dad in?”

“He is. Let me see if he’s busy.” She touched the phone. “Hey, Daddy. Roy Harris is out here. You busy? . . . Uh-huh . . . All right. I’ll send him on back.”

Roy went back, opened the door to Benton’s office, and closed it behind himself. “Morning, Benton.”

Benton rose from his chair, and they shook hands. “Morning, Roy. What can I do for you?”

“Oh, I’m just out prospecting. You know how business is. I saw that phone system Alice called you on. It’s pretty ancient. I could set you up on a system that works through your computers. Give you all the benefits of a big office telephone system without all the costs and hassle.”

Benton shook his head. “Roy, we don’t use our phones enough to make that worthwhile.”

“It can surprise you. There are a lot of benefits in a modern phone system.”

“I’m sure there are, but . . . Roy, sit down.”

Roy did not like the sound of that, but he sat.

“Roy,” Benton continued, “I don’t see how you’re supposed to sell any services here in town when this is the public face of your advertising.” Benton lifted a laptop and turned it around.

Roy saw a browser open to a flickering nightmare of a screen. Images started to load, got halfway through, and then started over. Text kept changing fonts randomly, which hardly mattered because half the letters were missing and it was unreadable. Benton touched the mute button and the sound came on, a hissing, screeching sound like an old pre-cable modem.

Roy recoiled from the ugly page. “What’s that got to do with me, Benton?”

Benton leaned over and pointed at the address bar. “That’s your page, Roy.”

Roy put on his reading glasses and looked. “Damn.” That was his page. “But that’s not my page!”

Benton pulled the laptop back. “I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt, Roy, and assume you didn’t make a webpage that’s that awful. But the only other possibility is that you’ve been hacked.”

Roy shook his head. “I was looking at the page this morning, and it was fine.”

“It’s been this way all day, Roy, from what I’ve been hearing. People are mocking you. You’re a laughingstock.”

“No. My site’s too secure for that.”

“Roy, if you’ve been hacked, that doesn’t speak well for your skills. You have to know that. People are going to say if you can’t protect your own site, how can you protect theirs?”

“I’ll look into it, Benton. There’s something going on here that’s not right.”

“Roy.” Benton cleared his throat. “I’m concerned what this says about your professional competence. You took out a pretty big loss and liability policy with me. That policy was predicated on your resumé that said you knew your stuff. This looks bad, Roy. Rank amateur bad.”

“I said I’ll take care of it, Benton.”

“I trust you. You seem like an honest man. But I’ve got to tell you: If my underwriters ever see this page, I will have no choice. They’ll cancel your policy. It won’t be up to me.”

That was it. Roy pulled out his smartphone, opened his home page. When he saw the results, he turned it back to Benton.

“That’s what it’s supposed to look like.”

Benton pointed at the laptop. “And that’s what it does look like. Folks will believe what they see.”

“You try your phone.”

Benton pulled out his phone. It was almost a tablet size. He typed in the address of Roy’s page as Roy looked over his shoulder.

“Aha! See?” Roy pointed at it. “Perfectly fine.”

“Yeah, but Roy, this is a mobile site. Obviously it’s your standard site that’s been hacked.”

“Here,” Roy said. “Let me look at your phone.”

Benton looked suspicious, but he handed over the big black rectangle. Roy adjusted the settings so the browser was displaying full pages, not mobile pages, and then he refreshed the screen and handed it back to Benton. “There, you see?”

Benton’s eyes widened, “It looks perfect.”

“Somebody is messing with the DNS,” Roy said.

“The D-what’s-it?”

“The domain name server tells the computer where to find a particular site. Somebody has told the nearest DNS that my page is somewhere other than it really is, and I’ve got a good idea who that is.”


Read the exciting conclusion in this month’s issue on sale now!

Copyright © 2024. Uncle Roy’s Computer Repairs and Used Robot Parts by Martin L. Shoemaker

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