Alex O'Donnell and the 40 CyberTheivesRegina Doman
FRONT ROYAL, VIRGINIA
Text copyright 2010 by Regina Doman.
2010 cover design and interior by Regina Doman Photographs by Craig Spiering
All rights reserved.
P.O. Box 949
Front Royal, Virginia
Summary: When his computer hacker dad discovers a secret website, Alex O’Donnell and his girlfriend Kateri become embroiled in a mystery that leads to sudden wealth and murder. A modern retelling of the classic Arabian Nights tale “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.”
Printed in the United States of America
To my parents, who taught me
by their example
what it takes to make a marriage work.
And with grateful appreciation to
The crickets were louder than the sound of the neighbor’s air conditioner, the television across the street, or the incessant shushing flow of traffic. But the man ignored them as he sat down at his desk by the window, opened his laptop and eagerly touched the ON button.
As the cheery tinny jingle of startup music began, he reached into a desk drawer and pulled out the USB drive, the battered one with a cat-face sticker grinning up at him and plugged it easily into the laptop port. He couldn’t wait to take the MouseCatcher for a ride.
Sure enough, the walking cat icon began pacing back and forth at the bottom of the screen, wavering slightly as the program booted up. The man grinned at the cat as he drummed his fingers on the keyboard bank, and thought he should add some music to this long opening sequence. Maybe the Looney Tunes theme song. Next upgrade.
At last the computer cat arched its back and stretched its claws, and the program began. The man opened a computer browser window. Okay, MouseCatcher: where do we go tonight?
It was a complicated computer interface that had started as an implant on browser code but now allowed a multi-faceted access to the main hub of the internet. The servers read the MouseCatcher as a view-only admin which was fine with him. He didn’t want to affect data changes or capture viewer input. He only wanted to watch.
“Thirty-three percent software engineer, thirty three percent computer hacker, and thirty three percent damned curious guy,” he murmured his mantra to himself as he fiddled with the browser window. He had gone to Amazon.com, and his eyes fixed on his own little white cursor on the screen as he changed the preferences on MouseCatcher. Show one user. Select Show ten users. Select Show one hundred users. Select Show All Users. He hit the enter button.
Instantly his screen was crowded with thousands of white arrow cursors flicking in and out of the screen like so many electronic flies. Maybe millions of them. People all over the world going in and out of the website, and he could see them.
But more importantly, he could follow them wherever they went.
His own cursor had changed into the shape of a cat, and he moved around the mass of darting arrows, musing. So many, so many: which one would he choose?
A random capture was always the most fun. He snagged one, and the cat emitted a red superhero cape. He removed his hands from the keyboard and sat back to watch. The ride was beginning.
The pages began to change as the user being followed clicked on icons, leapt from page to page to page. First he clicked on the bestseller of the week icon, where he lingered, either reading or comparing prices. New browser window, but the MouseCatcher nimbly leapt along with him. Search engine: maybe a title+cheapest price input? Yes, because the search results included lots of deep discount prices. Wonder who I’m following tonight? The man right-clicked to see if he could get any information. The cookie indicated a Kansas user with the IM name of jerry2002dknight.
Bargainbasementcloseoutbooks.com—at last the user selected one, went to the bestselling titles page, then the shopping cart—there the mouse lingered.
Suddenly it flicked back and forth, as though sensing the Cat whose claws were tracking its movement.
Relax, Jerry. I don’t want your credit card number: I just want to watch what you do. But he scribbled some notes on the paper, wondering if the MouseCatcher was producing a slow response time on the other user’s end. Not good.
At last jerry2002dknight’s cursor shifted through the payment screens and the “Thank You for Your Purchase” screen blinked on. The user’s mouse hovered, dragged, suddenly highlighted the link at the bottom that led to a .sex site and clicked.
Abruptly the man darted to the keyboard and disengaged MouseCatcher and the flying cat became a sitting one. Curious or not, he wasn’t following anyone into a porn site. Hope you’re not married, Jerry.
Now he fiddled with the cat cursor, which strolled around the screen.
Finally he retreated a step back to the homepage at the discount book site and selected Show All Users. As he guessed, there weren’t too many cursors flitting around this site. He wondered what this site actually was. Probably some fly-by-night site operating out of someone’s basement. A slick graphic interface with inventoryaccess to a competitor’s database and a subtle redirect. A scam operation.
He considered the thirty-some cursors flitting around the screen, some sluggish, some purposeful, and selected an odd one. MouseCatcher, spring! The cat leaped and its red cape flew out behind it as it cruised after the user, who halted and remained on the page an absurdly long time. Perhaps the user had gone to get a cup of coffee? The man’s own stomach grumbled, but he sat, waiting, stroking his graying beard. This was part of the game.
While waiting, he right-clicked on the user, to find out who he was following. Nothing. No name, no info. With a few clicks, he tried to override the anonymous browser. Nope. The user’s personal identity remained encrypted.
At long last, the cursor moved slowly up to the bar on the browser and began to add some letters to the address in the browser:
The browser clicked a login page. “Welcome to Bargain Basement Closeout Books’ Employee Area.” The man whistled. How random is that? I’m following a site employee.
The MouseCatcher had no problem reading non-encrypted passwords, so he followed the user into the administrative area of the site. He watched while the user scrolled down through lists of menus and clicked a tab that said, “SSH.” A new tab opened with a black screen and white font face, a blinking green box indicating the cursor.
Ah. Wonder if he’s doing a backup or something?
But instead, the user began to type something unusual:
>Connected to hitechhelpdesk.com.
The man tensed, recognizing the process. No, wait. This isn’t a site employee.
This is a hacker. He’s using this server to hack into someone else’s website.
He switched the MouseCatcher into keylogger mode so that the Cat would keep a record of everything the user did and watched intently. If I don’t capture his passwords, I won’t be able to follow him, he justified his actions to himself. Plus, I don’t mind sneaking after someone who’s already doing something illegal…
The user had arrived at the server of the next site—a tech site with the label www.hitechhelpdesk.com. Quickly the user went to a directory and typed a command to “show hidden files.” A new file suddenly appeared: underground_access
Ah. That’s why he came here. He’s been hiding an invisible folder on someone else’s site for safekeeping. Wonder what it is?
A command appeared on the black scree
Data flickered rapidly across the screen. Suddenly, the MouseCatcher flickered and lost his cape. The digital cat paced mournfully around the screen, and the man realized what had happened.
The user had vanished.
Bewildered, the man stared at the screen. Where did he go? Did he log off the Internet? Or has he gone someplace where the MouseCatcher can’t follow?
Puzzled, the man checked the keylogger data the MouseCatcher had collected and scrolled through it. It took him a few minutes to understand it.
The final lines read:
Determining remote address...
Checking http://microblogger-cool.com/ssessamme Found current post: MTI3LAuMC4Mjc
The Sesame program jumped to a website, grabbed data, decrypted it, and…generated a link to a web address.
That’s where the user went.
The man’s fingers hovered over the keys.
…What’s to stop me from going to that website too?
It was too tantalizing. Before he could help himself, he gave the command and hit the enter key.
Where am I?
A page had loaded swiftly: deep, utter blackness.
Purple letters began to appear on the page.
Who are you?
A security question. The man floundered, but then suddenly, the MouseCatcher, which had been sitting sedately at the bottom of his screen, began to flash, and its cape fluttered.
So the guy I was following is still here, the man realized. And the MouseCatcher’s hooked right onto him again. Good cat!
An answer appeared below the question:
Hasherking, master of trees.
An image of a blowfish appeared. And the words hovered before him in long script:
What is this?
And the user the man was following typed his answer:
We are Samurai. The Keyboard Cowboys.
The black page faded into gray that became white, gleaming white. Then something came into focus—a cave with gleaming walls in high-definition sharpness.
The man whistled at the graphic interface. You couldn’t see a pixel anywhere. Nice! Must be one of those new gaming sites. This is what that guy was trying to get into?
Suddenly a black-garbed ninja stepped onto the screen. The ninja’s movements were a bit more nuanced than those of the typical online avatar, and the man marveled at the computer engineering that had created it.
So this is what the user looks like in this environment. Wow. I can see why he wanted to get in here!
The ninja turned so that his back was to the man, and began to stride purposefully down the cave tunnel. He didn’t seem to notice that the MouseCatcher, now looking pathetically pixelated in this hi-res environment, was following him.
The shining bronze walls of the cave moved around him, the scene changing like a camera following over the assassin’s shoulder.
The man watched, fascinated. Okay, a gaming site sure isn’t what I expected to find. Well, I’m hooked onto this guy, going where he goes…
They began to pass niches in the walls of the cave that looked like passages.
One passage had gold coins in bags lying spilled on the floor. Another passageway had ropes of pearls and gleaming jewels cascading out of chests. A third niche was scattered with what looked like credit cards in bright colors.
Another gave a glimpse into what looked like an art gallery of paintings. The ninja ignored all of these, passing them more quickly than the man trailing him would have liked.
Oh well. But I’m just here to watch.
The ninja abruptly turned left and entered a room full of windows—each one looking out onto a different scene. One was a view of the Chicago skyline; another looked out on a Caribbean island; another on the ski slopes of Switzerland. The ninja paused before a window that showed the rooftops of Vienna, Austria. Then the scene froze. Nothing happened.
The man waited. The ninja continued to stand still. Nothing on the screen was moving. The man watched and waited, but nothing seemed to be happening. Tentatively he clicked, but there was no response to his cursor.
I bet there’s a floating menu I can’t see, the man guessed. He must be giving some sort of input.
He seemed to have guessed correctly because the ninja abruptly turned and strode out of the room. He was back in the passageway again before the man realized what had happened.
This game is pretty fascinating. Wish I knew what was going on. Wonder how you join?
The ninja looked at his feet and the room tilted downwards as he did. With one finger, he touched a puddle on the ground and backed up.
Out of the water, a large column of brick came with a sloping board on it whose faint surface variations resembled a text box.
Maybe I’ll get to see what happens here.
All of a sudden, grooves appeared on the rock, forming into random shapes.
A string of numbers appeared, grew sharper for a moment, and then slowly sank back into the surface.
Cool, the man thought.
Then more numbers, then letters appeared, in random patterns, which sharpened and then sank down before the man could read them. He glanced at the keylogger. It hadn’t captured any input this time.
Having subsumed the input, grooves appeared in the stone again, shifted, and formed into a message:
ALL INPUT HAS BEEN PROCESSED AND ERASED
It sank into the blank square of the rock.
The man was watching the numbers flicker away when the ninja abruptly touched a round black stone embedded in the cave wall. And vanished.
The MouseCatcher flickered, wilted, and lost his cape again.
The guy must have logged out, and in the process, detached the MouseCatcher. That’s the second time that happened. Weird.
Um—now how do I leave?
The man was tempted to just close his browser, but he strongly suspected that he’d better log out properly if he wanted to cover his tracks. Tentatively he clicked on the black rock, but in response, the square blank block in front of him glowed. The man hit an arrow key to turn around, but each time he did something, the stone merely flashed a white glow.
Ah. It’s a menu, but I can’t see all of it. Still, I need to close it, or give it input before I can do anything else. What does it want me to do?
He typed an “A” but the stone surface hiccupped and the A vanished.
No letters then. Number input?
Pausing for a moment, he quickly typed,
The stone seemed to approve. The numbers grew sharper, then slowly sank into nothingness.
But then the stone smoothed itself out again, wanting more from him.
Trying to remember what he had just seen the ninja do, it suddenly dawned on the man what the string of numbers and letters had been.
It wants a street address.
Now the man was a bit nervous. He’d never given any personal input when he’d used the MouseCatcher before. I’d better just shut down and go, he told himself. But the black rock remained un-pressable. And the square rock screen glowed insistently.
Wait. It said that all data would be processed and erased. Maybe that means that if I give an address, it’ll erase it.
Maybe it’ll just mail more clues to the game to that address. I could find out what this place is I’ve stumbled onto.
It was a tempting possibility.
Almost before he realized what he was doing, the man entered the number of a post office box in his town.
The address sharpened for a brief moment, then sank down before the man could change his mind.
But the same comforting message appeared:
ALL INPUT HAS BEEN PROCESSED AND ERASED
Feeling a bit reckless, the man hit “enter” and now the large stone sank back into the pool of water and vanish
ed. And conveniently, the round black rock on the wall flickered, as though to indicate that it could now be pushed.
Gratefully, the man pushed it.
The cave rushed by him, faded to black, then all that was left was the plain black screen with white font and the last string of letters.
The man realized what he needed to do next. He typed,
The screen responded:
>cleanly logging out
>you’re safe - bye.
The black box closed and the session ended.
He had left the cave.
If that was a game, it was the oddest one I’ve ever seen.
If it was a game.
Feeling a sense of worry, he re-saved his session log so he would have a record of everything he had just done, and then closed the MouseCatcher down.
Then he pulled up some menus, enhanced his security, erased his browser history, and made sure his firewall was in place. He closed down the browser, background programs, and the laptop. As an extra precaution, he even unplugged it from the wall.
Back in the real world, he checked the locks on the house door and closed the deadbolt before he turned into bed beside his sleeping wife.
Outside, the crickets continued cheeping, as though none of this had happened.
Music blared from the speakers of the red beat-up Toyota as it flew down the highway, windows open, speakers cranked up. The air conditioning was broken, but at least the stereo system worked.
The young driver, steering easily with one hand, was on the shorter side, stocky, long-haired, tattooed, one ear pierced, wearing black sunglasses. He was driving just over the speed limit, fast enough to pass other vehicles, slow enough not to catch the attention of any policemen. Behind and around him, the car was crammed with stuff: books, clothes, duffle bags, a large picture of the Sacred Heart, and an odd array of boxes and cabinets and cases. One item hadn’t fit into any of the cases and lay on the seat beside him—a long Japanese sword, gleaming silver.
Alex O’Donnell was on his way home from college.
He whistled along with the music as he sped down the miles of cracked asphalt on the Pennsylvania turnpike, dexterously avoiding the potholes. He breathed in relief when he hit the turnoff for 80 East. A few more hours or so and he’d be back in Virginia, Fairfax County, the suburb of DC where he lived.