The Standards Blog

The Alexandria Project, Chap. 27: Here's to the Company!

Alexandria Project (a Cyber Thriller)

What follows is the the first draft of my first cybersecurity thriller, The Alexandria Project. You can buy the final, and much revised eBook and printed versions, here and at all of the other usual on-line outlets.

Courtesy prinsje  from stock.xchng at: http://www.sxc.hu/photo/1008254Frank Sr. swung his ancient Land Rover back onto the highway, a server humming in the back and Frank Jr. tapping away in the front on his laptop. Power and connector cables passed between the two seats. 

“I’ve only got an AirCard to work, but if we’re lucky I’ll have Foomjoy’s entire hard drive replicated by the time we cross the Mississippi. I’ve already got the CIA’s list of hacked sites from the CIA, so let’s see what that shows.”   Frank pored over the data as they drove eastward into the night. There seemed to be no order or pattern to the 492 sites that had been attacked to date. Every type of host had been hit - newspapers, universities, retailers, government sites, non-profits – you name it. After the first few high profile targets, the most obvious conclusion seemed to be that the hits had been chosen at random.    What to make of that?

Randomness would be consistent with the goal of raising concerns over security, since it would make everyone feel vulnerable and therefore screaming for a fix. But who would care about raising security concerns enough to risk going to jail for twenty years, easy? Not your average geek hacker, anyway.  

Not a security company, either. That would only showcase how inadequate their current products were. And no career cyber-criminal would have a motive, since the panic was making everyone beef up their security. A foreign enemy would want to keep you vulnerable, too. So who would gain anything from exposing how vulnerable current Web sites were? 
 
It just had to be a cover for something else – one of those 492 sites must be the real target. But how to figure out which one it was?
 
He realized his father had been whistling for awhile now, and the tune he had just started rang a distant bell. 
 
“What’s that song?”
 
“Oh, just an old Irish drinking song. It’s called, ‘Oh, Dear, What can the matter be?’ I’m surprised you recognize it.”
 
Frank was, too. Then the answer came to him. 
 
“Remember when we took the cross-country camping trip all those years ago? The drive took forever, and you sang all these great old songs to keep me from getting too bored.”
 
Purdue Glee ClubHis father smiled, remembering. “Right you are. Your generation doesn’t know what a good song is – and doesn’t spend any time singing, either.   Back when I was young, though, we did a lot of singing – in the army, in school, in a whole lot of bars – you name it. Sentimental songs, nonsense songs, sly songs – there was a lot of great music back then, and everybody learned the words, too.”
 
“So how did that ‘What Can the Matter be?’ song go? Do you still remember the words?”
 
“Which words? It’s an old song, with lots of different versions. Let’s see if I can still remember the one I learned….” 
 
His father sang softly and slowly at first, but then picked up steam as the words came back to him:
 
Oh Dear, What can the matter be?
Seven old ladies locked in a lavat’ry.
They were there from Sunday to Saturday.
Nobody knew they were there.
 
“That’s the one!” Frank laughed, “But the only verse I remember any of was the one about the lady who forgot her nickel.”
 
“Well, you’ll have to wait a few verses before she gets her turn.”
 
The first was a lady named Eleanor Humphrey.
Who sat herself down just to make herself comfy.
And when she got up she could not get her bum free.
And nobody knew she was there.
 
Frank smiled, but this wasn’t solving anything. He tried to focus again on the puzzle that had been challenging hime for weeks. If the public attacks were just a cover, what were they a cover for?
 
The next to come in was dear Mrs. Mason
The stalls were all full so she pissed in the basin
And that is the water that I washed my face in
And nobody knew she was there
 
He made a face at that verse, just as he had when he was 13.
 
The third old lady was Amelia Garpickle;
Her urge was sincere, her reaction was fickle.
She vaulted the door; she'd forgotten her nickel,
And nobody knew she was there
 
Ladies Room Logo, courtesy of OCLOS at Clck.com:  http://www.clker.com/clipart-ladies-room1.htmlThat was his favorite verse! He tried to block the verses out, but eventually gave it up and listened to his father finish out the song:
 
The sixth old lady was Emily Clancy;
She went there 'cause something tickled her fancy,
But when she got there it was ants in her pantsy
And nobody knew she was there
 
The seventh was the Bishop of Chichester's daughter
She went in to pass some superfluous water
She pulled on the chain and the rising tide caught her
And nobody knew she was there
 
The janitor arrived in the early morning.
He opened the door without any warning,
The seven old ladies their seats were adorning,
And nobody knew they were there.
 
His father repeated the last line one more time, drawing out the syllables with gusto:
 
          And no-bo-dy knew they were t-h-e-e-r-e!
 
“THAT’S IT!” Frank yelled.
 
“JEE-sus, Mary and Joseph!” his father yelled back as the car swerved. “You almost made me run off the road. What’s the hell’s the matter with you!”
 
“That’s what they’re up to!”
 
“Who? The janitor or the little old ladies?”
 
“Not them, the hackers! I know what they’re up to!”
 
“Wonderful! Great! That’s terrific! Now please share your revelation in a calm, quiet voice, if you please, so I can focus on driving safely at 70 miles an hour?”
 
“OK - sorry. Only I’ve been going crazy for weeks trying to figure out what the real strategy behind the public attacks has been."
 
“Fine - so what is it? And what made it come to you just then?”
 
“The last line of your song – it took seven verses and the finale, but there it was, staring me in the face, the way it has been all along: ‘Nobody knew they were there!’ 
 
“You see, the site they really wanted to hit will be a site where they didn’t leave the Alexandria Project attack screen! I’ve been assuming their target was a single site on the  long list of sites we know were hit, with the rest intended to make it impossible to tell which was the real target. But now it occurs to me that's not the case at all – I’m betting all 492 sites were camouflage – the whole public campaign must have been launched to divert everyone’s attention from a site we would never guess had been compromised at all!”
 
His father had been listening closely at first, but now he put on an aloof, impassive face as he drove. “OK, but nowhere does your theory lead us yet.”
 
Hard Drive, Courtesy of Ilco at http://www.sxc.hu/photo/1144732“Do you really have to do that? Anyway, I’m hoping it does. If Mrs. Foomjoy’s hard drive has a record of all the sites the real bad guys have attacked, all we have to do is match it up against the CIA’s list. I’ll bet there will be one site, or maybe a few sites, that the CIA’s list doesn’t have. If I’m right, we’ll know we’ve found what they were really after!”
 
“Proud of you Yoda is. But point out he must that know you will only what site the real target was, and not after what the evil ones sought.”
 
Frank grimaced. “That was even worse than usual. Do you think in Yoda-speak or something?”
 
“Actually, no. Matter of fact, it kind of makes my brain hurt.”
 
“Yeah, well, don’t feel obligated on my account.”
 
Frank harrumphed to himself. He deserved a little more credit for his revelation, didn’t he? After all, this was his first real progress in weeks – assuming, of course, that he was right. 
  
- 0000 - 0001 - 0010 - 0011 - 0100 - 0011 - 0010 - 0001 - 0000 –

George Marchand was relieved after speaking with the CIA Director. Being free of the requirement to log his reports into the joint Homeland Security database not only meant the FBI wouldn’t learn anything more from him, but that the CIA Director wouldn’t, either. Not for a while, anyway, and that was going to be important.
 
He was in a tough spot, he reflected. The story Baldwin had fed him didn’t really hang together, and Baldwin probably realized that by now, too. If the CIA Director had learned that the FBI was on its way to capture Adversego, couldn’t he have sent someone to warn Frank in person faster than he could send a drone from who knows where? And what could he have hoped to accomplish with a Predator anyway? Simply watching the FBI capture Frank wouldn’t have accomplished anything. 
 
Worse yet, how could Baldwin have justified sending an armed drone aloft on an operation in the U.S. at all? What if it had crashed, as they sometimes did? How would he have explained that? It just didn’t make sense. The only rationale thing that did was that Baldwin had been racing to take Frank out before the FBI could capture him.
 
If that was true, it didn’t leave George with many options within the line of duty to help Frank. He’d been trying to think of a second one all day, and so far had failed miserably. 
 
Nothing to be done, then, but get on with it, and hope that he still had a job when the dust settled. He picked up the phone and called Marla.
 
“Hi Marla, it’s George.”
 
“Hey George! It’s nice to speak to you somewhere other than in a dark alley.”
 
He smiled. “That’s what I thought, too. How about dinner tonight? After all, you’re my God daughter and I can’t remember the last time we got together.” 
  
- 0000 - 0001 - 0010 - 0011 - 0100 - 0011 - 0010 - 0001 - 0000 –

Rte. 280 crossing the MississippiAbout 7:30 AM, Frank saw the bridge in the distance he’d been waiting for. He’d slept through half the night before taking over the wheel from his father, and now it was time to turn it back over to him. He pulled into a rest area and shook his father by the shoulder.
 
“Time to earn your keep again. We’ve reached the Mississippi.”
 
His father stepped stiffly out of the Land Rover and groaned loudly.
 
“You know, sleeping in a car sucked when I was half your age.”
 
Frank ignored him as he pulled his laptop out of the back of the Land Rover and refreshed the screen. Good - the download was complete. He climbed into the passenger seat and began exploring the disk directory. Ten minutes later, he found what he was looking for.
 
“Got it! Give me five minutes and we’ll see whether I’m on to something or not.”
 
Frank set up the comparison and held his breath. Then he gently pressed the Enter key. He watched the percentage numbers spin as first one database and then the other was loaded, and then again as the comparison ran.
 
Yes! There’s exactly one new site!”
 
“Good fishing! What did you catch?”
 
Frank looked at the Web address and replied in a puzzled voice.
 
“A U.S. Geologic Survey database?” 
  
- 0000 - 0001 - 0010 - 0011 - 0100 - 0011 - 0010 - 0001 - 0000 –

Marla found George waiting for her inside the door at an Italian restaurant not far from the Capitol.
 
“Well hello, Marla. Did you remember to bring your skeleton keys?”
 
She laughed as the maitre ‘d ushered them to a quiet table near the back of the restaurant and held her chair.
 
“You know, I didn’t have an opportunity to say it when Carl was around, but you’ve grown up to be quite the impressive young lady.”
 
“Thanks. And I didn’t get a chance to say how much I appreciate all you’ve done for my father over the years.” She looked down as she spread her napkin in her lap. “I never realized it at the time how you helped turn his life around. He’s shared a lot of things with me in the last couple of months that I never knew before.”
 
George cleared his throat. “Well, perhaps that’s not a bad transition to what I wanted to tell you this evening. You see, there’s one more thing you never knew.”
 
“Oh? What’s that?”
 
Fun Chef, courtesy of julosstock at http://www.sxc.hu/photo/1224447“Marla, if I share some things with you, can I trust you completely to keep them to yourself?”
 
“You know, I can’t seem to talk to anyone for more than five minutes anymore without them asking me that question. Is it something about the way I do my hair, do you think?
 
She laughed, but George didn’t. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to be flip. Of course you can. Please go on.”
 
“Marla, did it strike you as a bit odd that the CIA would tap a library IT director to help out on a covert operation?”
 
“George! Are you telling me that you’re a spook, too? You?”
 
He looked slightly hurt. “I’m too dull and boring to be an agent, is that it?”
 
“No, no – I’m sorry. It’s just that I’ve known you since I was a kid, and I’ve never looked at you that way – you’re the last person in the world I’d expect to be a CIA agent.” She paused. “Well, I mean, I guess that’s the idea, though, isn’t it?”
 
“Yes, as a matter of fact, it is.”
 
“My, my,” Marla said. “It’s going to take me a minute or two to get my brain around this. I wonder who else I know that’s leading a double life?”
 
The waiter approached their table.
 
“Something to drink?  A bottle of wine perhaps?”
 
George looked at Marla.
 
She laughed. “Yes, I guess I could use a drink! Wine would be perfect – I don’t know what I’m ordering yet, but anything white would be fine with me.”
 
George looked at the wine menu. “We’ll have the ’03 Prosecco – hard to go too far wrong with that.”
 
They studied their menus and ordered when the waiter returned with the wine in a bucket of ice.
 
When he left, Marla raised her glass. “So here’s to the Company!”
 
“Here's to the Company,” George repeated, but with less enthusiasm than he might have a few days before.
 
They put their glasses down, and Marla spoke again. “You know, this is really a little awkward. I don’t know why you’re telling me this, or what I can ask you and what I can’t, so why don’t I just listen.”
 
“Thanks, and you’re right – I really shouldn’t go into a lot of detail here. Suffice it to say that I’ve been part of the CIA for a long time, that working for the Library of Congress is my cover, and that I’m very much involved in the Alexandria Project investigation. That’s really all you need to know.”
 
Waiter, courtesy of Michal Zacharzewski at http://www.sxc.hu/photo/1151761Marla suddenly giggled. She put her napkin to her mouth.
 
“I’m really sorry. It just occurred to me that you must be Carl’s boss. It’s going to be really hard for me not to ask you to tell me embarrassing things about him.”
 
George smiled. “By my observation, Carl is quite capable of embarrassing himself without any help from me. But seriously, Marla, he’s very reliable, and he really does know what he’s doing. He may be too self important by half for his own good, but if you weren’t completely safe under his protection I would have assigned somebody else instead.”
 
“I am sorry,” she said again. “That was out of line.” Then she giggled again. “Still, if anything really good should occur to you…”
 
“Moving on.” George said as the waiter brought their appetizers and refilled their wine glasses.
 
They exchanged small talk over their appetizers, and then George became serious again.
 
“Marla, here’s what I really wanted to talk to you about. I’m worried about Frank. He’s done very well taking care of himself so far, but I think we need to get him into a safe house for awhile. Now that he’s on the run again I’m worried that the FBI is eventually going to spot him. We can’t let that happen. Will you help convince him to take cover again if I provide an appropriate location?”
 
“Well, can’t you just tell the FBI to chill? Don’t you guys ever talk to each other?”
 
“Yes and no. First and foremost, you have to understand that the U.S. is the FBI’s turf – not the CIA’s. By law, we really can’t do much on U.S. soil, and especially not involving U.S. citizens. Our ability to protect Frank is very limited, and right now, the FBI thinks it might be quite convenient for them to hang your father out to dry.”
 
Marla picked at her food.
 
“You realize, George, that it’s going to be difficult for me to convince my father to trust the CIA after the FBI came for him, even if I tell him that you’re with the CIA. How does he know that someone else at the CIA didn’t tip the FBI off?”
 
George paused, and then said quietly. “When I said, “safe house,” I didn’t necessarily mean a CIA safe house.”
 
Marla stared at him. “You mean the CIA did tip the FBI off?”
 
“I can't know for sure one way or the other. Actually, I don’t really think they did.”
 
“Well, then what’s the problem?”
 
“Let me lead into this gently. I’m going to give you some good news, and then I’m going to give you some bad news.”
 
“Okay. I’ve set my wine glass down on the table and folded my hands neatly in my lap. Do I look composed?”
 
“Yes, you do. So the good news is that at least for now, the FBI thinks your father’s dead.”
 
Marla’s eyebrows went up. “Okay, and that would be why?”
 
Eod Teams Detonate Expired Ordnance In The Kuwaiti Desert, courtesy of Clcker.com at http://www.clker.com/search/explosion/1“Well, that brings us to the bad news. It seems that the Director of the CIA blew up your father’s camper with a Hellfire missile. And I don’t know for sure that he knew your father wasn’t in it.”
 
Marla stared at him, and then stood up.  “You’re going to have to excuse me.”
 
George watched as she strode off to the rest room. He stared moodily down at the table while the waiter cleared their appetizers and brought the entrees.  Well, that had gone well. Now what?
 
It was almost five minutes before Marla returned. George stood up, but she motioned him to sit back down. She spread her napkin in her lap once more, took a sip of wine, and then looked across the table.
 
“You know, that wasn’t the most persuasive bit of information you could have provided to convince my father to trust you.”
 
“Of course it wasn’t. But it was also true. And it should convince him how high the stakes are that people are playing for here.”
 
“Granted. But it’s going to take more than that to convince him.”
 
“You name it, and if it’s anything I can do, I will.”
 
Marla reached into her purse and took out a small slip of paper and slid it across the table.
 
“What’s this?”
 
“That’s the address of a section of the U.S.G.S. website. I called my father while I was in the lady’s room to bring him up to date. Get him the password and full rights to access the information at that Web site, and I’ll see what I can do.” 
  
- 0000 - 0001 - 0010 - 0011 - 0100 - 0011 - 0010 - 0001 - 0000 –

Not far away, Francis X. McInnerney was dining alone in an upscale restaurant. After bungling the capture of Adversego, his people in Las Vegas had come through for him. And a good thing for them that they had.
 
Your scotch is served, Mr. McInnernehyHe sipped the celebratory glass of The Macallan, 30 year old scotch he had ordered and reflected on the news Johnson had delivered to him that morning as promised.  It seems that there was no trace of any human remains to be found in the wreckage of the camper. Baldwin may have thought he’d put one over on McInnerney, but the missile had struck just behind the vehicle, leaving the cab more than half intact. Johnson had found parts of a video camera in the grill of the camper, too, and was almost 100% sure the vehicle had been running on remote control. 
 
Johnson had also assigned someone to review all the details in the joint Agency database about Adversego's family and friends, and then ran it against the FBI’s own master database of information.  When he did, he found a surprising connection. It seemed that Frank’s long lost father was actually a retired FBI agent living in Nevada under the name Bart Thatcher. And also that Thatcher hadn’t been seen or heard from since Johnson unknowingly left him a voicemail seeking help in capturing Frank.
 
Thatcher’s relation to Frank, of course, would never find its way back into the joint agency database. All the CIA would find there was the fact that every FBI agent and state trooper in the country was looking for an old heap of a Land Rover, light green with Nevada Plate VEK 452, driven by someone named Bart Thatcher and carrying another person of interest. They were to be brought immediately upon capture to the nearest FBI field office.
 
McInnerney bet he’d be showing that bastard Baldwin who was boss within 24 hours. He swirled his scotch meditatively in his glass, and then with a smirk raised it in a silent toast: Here's to the Company! 
 

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The following sentence appears at the beginning of both Chapter 26 and 27: FBI Director Francis X. McInnerney pressed the intercom button on his speakerphone.  Since noone else appears to have noticed, I thought I would draw it to you attention, so that it doesn't carry over to Chapter 28.

HTH

I had hoped to get the chapter posted today - and taking us all the way to the end of the story.  But at over 6,000 words there was still a way to go, so there will be one more chapter to go after I post the new one (a day late) on Tuesday morning.

 

I'm glad you're enjoying The Saga of Frank.

 

  -  Andy