Excerpt Cyber Genius

A Family Genius Mystery

One

Friday, November 11, 2011

“The world is full of evil, and tablet computers are the right hand of the devil,” I warned, tugging EG—Elizabeth Georgiana, although Evil Genius works too—away from her admiration of a businessman’s expensive new device. “That one is worse than cell phones. It tracks your every move. You might as well have a drone hovering over your head 24/7 and hand out tickets to your bank account.”

I checked the airport’s overhead signs for international arrivals and picked up speed.

“Why is it bad if some stupid computer company tracks my every move? They really want to know I’m in my bedroom? And I don’t have a bank account.”

Fascinated by new tech, EG dragged her feet and strained to see what the guy was doing. “If we had a system like that, you could use it to find me.”

I continued marching past Dulles baggage claim belts, forcing her to run to keep up. “You want me to hack MacroWare to find out where you are?” I asked, performing my best incredulous act. “You think I have nothing better to do?”

With no apparent doubt that I could perform miracles, EG shrugged. “You’d have more fun doing that than sending Mallard to look for me. Intercoms are so last century.”

“My baby sister, the techno-fashionista.” I knuckled EG’s shiny black hair and changed the subject. “Are you going to tell me what inspired Tudor’s visit? Last I heard, he was neck deep in some hacker competition and couldn’t even meet Magda for dinner when she was in London.”

Magda being the so-called Hungarian princess who had birthed me and my roving half-siblings—incredibly long story. As an example, I’m Anastasia Devlin, my next sibling is Nicholas Maximillian. The first names continue in royal arrogance while the last names change with regularity. Our mother’s non-maternal instincts would be the reason Tudor was heading this direction and not toward her.

I wanted to resent that Tudor had sent his itinerary to a nine-year-old and not to me, but unfortunately, I understood. I’d spent years raising my younger half-siblings, then years hiding from them.

Sixteen-year-old boys were easily confused. My little brother hadn’t known if I’d tell him to jump off a cliff or go home where he belonged—not that he actually had a home other than his boarding school.

Despite his apparent confusion over my frame of mind, Tudor had bought the tickets and sent EG the info, knowing she couldn’t do anything to stop him. This rated pretty high on my Here-Comes-Trouble meter.

EG shrugged again. “It was the middle of the night when he emailed me, and I doubt he had your phone number.”

Which made me even less comfortable—Tudor was our family communication central. If he wanted to find my number, he’d find it. After all, he’d been the one to locate my hiding place in Atlanta so EG could visit me earlier this year. Best scenario—he just didn’t want to talk to me.

I feared otherwise. As a family, we had essentially been raised to flee in the middle of the night at a moment’s notice. I feared teenage rebellion was too easy an excuse for Tudor’s arrival, and buying last minute plane tickets was a dead give-away. Tudor was on the run.

My phone pinged a text warning. Popping it from the case on my belt, I scanned Nick’s message and frowned. “Nick says watch CNN. Think Patra is on the news?”

Our twenty-something half-sister had only recently moved to Atlanta to take a job with the news station. She was a pretty—emphasis on pretty—junior reporter. A live shot seemed unlikely, unless she was in trouble—far more probable given our history.

“We’ve got time,” EG said eagerly, turning around to find a newsstand with a television.

I’m not tall and willowy like Patra, but I’m well-muscled. I can move fast. I passed EG, and she had to run to catch up. To see what had set off usually blasé Nick, I pushed my way through the crowd that had formed around a TV monitor.

“In breaking news, Stephen Stiles and four of MacroWare’s top executives have been hospitalized for possible food poisoning after Wednesday’s conference dinner at a D.C. hotel. MacroWare stock prices are plummeting over worries that their new product release will be delayed.”

I frowned in puzzlement. Patra wasn’t making the announcement. Now that we had a nest egg to invest, I’d socked it away in mutual funds, not something as risky as MacroWare stock. I saw no relevance to our lives in a bunch of over-fed execs pigging out and getting sick. I’d had enough food poisoning experience in my childhood to know the routine. They’d spend the day on the Royal Flush and someone on the catering staff would get fired.

I was about to turn away when I caught the file clip of VIP attendees at the conference. I froze and gawked. Sauntering into the hotel wearing a sleek Italian business suit, with his hand in one pocket and looking bored was our landlord, Amadeus Graham, hermit extraordinaire.

What on earth? He couldn’t condescend to leave his lair to have dinner with us, but he could go to a public dinner with Stephen Stiles and a thousand computer geeks? This was not normal by any standard I’d learned these last months of living under Graham’s roof.

Amadeus Graham had been an ascending political god until his life had gone up in flames with the Pentagon in 9/11. His wife had died in the tragedy, and he’d emerged from the fire badly scarred in more ways than one. He’d deliberately incinerated his political career with his crusade against powerful figures influencing the president—a crusade he carried on to this day. Only these days he did it in private. He’d painstakingly eradicated his existence, leaving the world to think him dead.

Appearing in public was very much not Graham’s style.

The clip was only a brief glimpse. I couldn’t be positive that was our reclusive spy in the attic striding into the hotel as if he owned it.

Who was I kidding? We’d sucked each other’s faces not that long ago. He was the irritant under my skin, the hindrance to my every desire—except lust—and just watching him cross a TV screen escalated my pulse rate.

Graham was so bloody reclusive that I was pretty certain Nick had never seen him. In his position at the Brit embassy, our budding diplomat brother must have heard more pertinent news than I was seeing. I texted him a YEAH, AND?
What had been so important that Graham had come out of hiding to attend a geek business conference—one in which five extremely important, powerful men had turned up sick? Men who could affect stock markets!

My gut roiled as if I’d been the one poisoned. No good came of surprises like this. Or maybe it was just worry over Tudor that had my paranoia alarm turned on.
The news moved on to the latest yawn about a crooked mortgage lender and a banking oversight committee’s ruling. I tugged EG back toward baggage claim.
“We must have missed the story Nick wanted us to see,” EG said in disappointment. “If I had one of those new tablets, I could go online and look for it.”

“Only if I had a hot spot on my phone or you pay for the public Wi-Fi here and risk getting all your game coins sucked out.” Her school tablet didn’t have accessible Wi-Fi, thank all the heavens. But I lied about the hot spot. I didn’t go anywhere without access to the internet—which was why I knew how dangerous it would be in EG’s hands. “And I’m not footing the bill for either. I keep telling you, MacroHell wants to drain every penny from your pocket.”

Which had me wondering if they really were run by demons, and the heavens had struck the demons down with diarrhea. Justice would be served.

“We have money now,” EG protested, still on the tablet kick. “You shouldn’t be so tight-fisted.”

Old argument, not one I intended to indulge as I hunted the dumping ground for international passengers coming through customs. The area was a colorful bazaar swarming with chatter, luggage, and exotic garb. Given my world-traveling youth, I felt right at home.

“There he is,” EG shouted excitedly.

She was running before I could see what she’d seen. I took time to scan faces. I almost missed Tudor’s.

He’d probably been ten the last time I’d seen him. Once I quit the thankless job of being my mother’s doormat, I’d left my half-siblings in the care of their parents, where they should have been all along. Tudor’s Aussie father had deposited Tudor in an English boarding school for tech geniuses—a far better choice than my care.

Judging by the grungy clothes on the tall, lanky kid EG was chattering to, geniuses didn’t do laundry. His wavy red hair hadn’t been cut in months, so I didn’t have high expectations for his personal hygiene either. But behind the teenage lankiness I could still see the red-headed tot who used to cling to my leg and beg for ice cream.

We didn’t hug. Our family is high on drama, pretty stingy on affection. He’d be shocked if I hugged him, especially since he was now almost six inches taller than me, drat him—but I took the handle of his heavy wheeled bag. He almost managed a smile in return, revealing his crooked tooth. No braces for our boy, no sir. Even his thick black-rimmed glasses looked nerd-stylish.

Our glamorous mother had left her mark on all of us, sometimes in very strange ways. In Tudor’s case, rebellion against perfection was the result.

“Sleep any?” I asked as I steered him toward public transportation.

“Not much,” he admitted wearily. “Look Ana, I’m sorry for popping in on you like this—”

I cut him off as I aimed for the bus counter. “Let’s save it until we’re home. It’s good to see you. Next time, call, okay?” That was as close to affection as I dared offer.

He seemed to melt with relief and actually nodded. “Okay.” That lasted until he saw my goal. “Bus, Ana? We’ve got all this money now and you still take the bus?”
“I’m not wasting what could be college funds on taxis. The bus will take us to the Metro,” I explained. “We live way downtown.”

He didn’t say anything, and he didn’t move. The grinding in my stomach grew sharper. He examined the transportation signs, then wordlessly took back his suitcase, and made a beeline for the taxi stand.

He opened the door of a cab at the end of the line.

My fear kicked up another notch. Magda had taught us how to avoid long taxi lines if we were on the run. EG and I looked at each other, then dashed after him.
While the taxi stand supervisor jogged over and tried to explain that we were breaking the rules, we performed Magda’s Dumb and Dumber act. Gabbling in French, Russian, and Tagalog, we played ignorant tourist and piled into the back seat. Ultimately, both driver and authority surrendered and let us go on our way.
I gave the address for the train station. Tudor didn’t blink. Well trained in caution by our international journalist/spy mother, we didn’t speak until the cab let us out at the Metro.

I marched them both down the platform on the line that would take us to our neighborhood and EG to her school.

She gave me the evil eye. “I shouldn’t have to go to school today,” she informed me.

“I’ll give you a note excusing you for being late. Tudor needs sleep. You’ll be home by the time he’s awake.”

“How long will this take?” Tudor asked anxiously, scanning arrival screens as if he had a clue as to which line was which.

“No longer than a taxi, given the traffic in the area at this hour, and anonymity is safer. I take back what I said earlier about waiting until we’re home. At what point do we get explanations?” I demanded as the train rolled in.

“I just don’t want anyone to know where I am for a few days,” he said with a frightening air of exhaustion. “It’s been a bad week.”

I knew he would be safe when I got him home. This was the reason I put up with Graham—he owned the fortress I needed to protect my perpetually troublesome family. That fortress had belonged to our grandfather and ought to be ours. I had calculated that, several lawsuits down the line, it would be ours—one of the many reasons I was hanging on to the few dollars we’d salvaged from the theft of the inheritance our grandfather had left us. But until we proved our ownership, we lived on Graham’s grace and my ability to act as his virtual assistant.

“The house belongs to all of us,” I said reassuringly. “You’re welcome to stay as long as you need, or until your father drags you home.”

“He won’t even know I’m gone,” Tudor admitted, as the train pulled out of the station.

“Give her a week and Magda will,” I warned. Our mother might not be maternal, but she always knew where all her chicks were and hunted them down if they weren’t where they should be.

Tudor closed his eyes and just leaned against the pole that was holding him up.
Yeah, I kind of had that reaction to our exhausting parent too. I’m thirty, so I know Magda is pushing fifty, but she has the stamina of a toddler and the morals of a meth dealer. I’d rather not have her bearing down on us any time soon.

***

We got off at the station near EG’s private school and left her, still protesting, at the school office where she could be escorted back to her classroom.

“The house is half an hour away by foot,” I told Tudor. “Walk or Metro?”

He was wearing a heavy backpack and had reclaimed his rolling suitcase. He gazed at the busy traffic and the less-crowded sidewalk. “You’re going to interrogate me anyway. It might as well be where no one else can hear.”
“That bad, is it?” I took back the rolling bag.

“Worse,” he admitted. “I may have just sabotaged the entire internet.”

Ouch. Tudor has a clockwork mind. He wasn’t given to self-aggrandizement or exaggeration, so the grinding in my gut escalated to a buzz saw. He was perfectly capable of having wiped the internet off the face of universe.

“I’ll be out of a job,” I said selfishly, grappling with the impossible vision of a world without instant research.

He snorted at my paltry assessment. “Chaos, anarchy, total economic destruction,” he predicted gloomily.

Yeah, that pretty much nailed it, if he knew what he was talking about. “Any evidence to support this theory of your omnipotence?”

“The cookie-blocker I’ve been working on?” He raised a questioning eyebrow to see if I was familiar with his project.

I nodded. By “cookies” he meant the internet hooks that many websites planted in a computer. Some were nasty little devils that broadcast our searches to companies that used the information to bombard us with ads.

Cookies didn’t bother me much because Graham’s master network used a non-commercial operating system and had an impenetrable firewall that crumbled the hooks like… cookies.

But the huge commercial operating systems sold by corporations like MacroWare encouraged cookies in the interest of efficiency and—most importantly—selling more stuff. Most people liked the results and allowed cookies, not understanding how dangerous those little devils could be in the wrong hands.

In the commercial world, cookies were a legitimate form of hacking. Leave it to my genius hacker brother to try to block himself.

“Cookie blocking is pretty standard,” he continued. “To win the competition, I had to do something different, like expand the program to worm my personal information out of selected websites and crunch it. If the website’s software is operating according to protocol, it’s not anything really radical and should only target specific files with my ISP signature. I tested it on a bunch of commercial sites and it worked perfectly. Then I accidentally left my program on when I accessed a government website.”

Tudor stayed silent another half block while formulating his explanation—leaving me way too much time to imagine what would come next.

“Instead of just crawling into the website’s internet files and grabbing my data the way it normally does,” he finally continued, “my worm kept going. It disappeared down some kind of cyberhole. It didn’t even need handshake protocol to fall directly into their server. When I noticed the signal I’d set to show the program was activated, I opened it up to turn it off, and all kinds of code scrawled by that shouldn’t have been there.”

I’m tech savvy enough to know that a worm is a small program that works its way through software to spy on other servers and sometimes commit acts of sabotage. I wasn’t seeing how eating or blocking cookies was the end of the world, but a worm, that could be problematic. I waited without comment.

Tudor gritted his teeth and continued. “My cookie monster started eating through all data files, not just my website information. There should have been an impenetrable firewall between that website program and their servers!”

Eating files? Eating, as in destroying entire computer files? I couldn’t even understand how that was possible with a worm. Hacking for information, I understood. Destruction…? Automatic destruction—as in a giant delete button? Had it eaten through the website program itself? That would certainly destroy the internet.

“What website?” I asked, trying to ground my spinning thoughts.

“I got accepted to MIT and Stanford. I was just checking to see what kind of visas I needed,” he said gloomily.

Talk about being torn! I needed to smack him over the head—what visa website?—but I was refraining from screeching in joy and hugging him in the middle of the street. To me, a college education was the epitome of success.
“MIT? Stanford?” I cried in such excitement that heads turned around us.

Attending college had long been a wish of mine, one I wasn’t much likely to attain given my GED and lack of funds. But scoring the cream of the college crop? I was in awe. “You didn’t shout it to the world?”

Tudor shrugged again. “I just got the letters. I was kind of excited. That’s why I didn’t think to turn off the cookie monster program when I went to the visa website. I shut down as soon as I saw what was happening, but the site crashed while I watched. The whole site was still down yesterday. If my worm is no longer performing search and destroy on just my ISP signature and isn’t blocked by firewalls, it can conceivably creep through every network connected to the server.”

If this had been our half-brother Nick, I’d call him an arrogant idiot for thinking he’d personally destroyed the internet with one website crash. But this was Tudor. He hadn’t told me the worst.

“Okay, I’m back off cloud nine now,” I said in resignation. “What did you do, decide to experiment more with Scotland Yard’s operating system?”

“No, I was simply accessing the U.S. Department of State,” he said with a sigh.

“My monster went on a search-and-destroy mission for ISPs and wiped out entire government data files before I could break the connection. That’s when I bought the plane tickets.”