After selling his dorm-room startup for millions and effectively retiring at the age of twenty-five, Alex Fife is eager for a new challenge. When he agrees to clean up an old PC as a favor, he never expects to find the adventure of a lifetime waiting for him inside the machine. But as he rummages through old emails, Alex stumbles upon a startling discovery: The previous owner, a shady antiques smuggler, had been trying to unload a mysterious object known as the Florentine on the black market. And with the dealer’s untimely passing, the Florentine is now unaccounted for and ripe for the taking. Alex dives headfirst into a hunt for the priceless object.
What starts out as a seemingly innocuous pursuit quickly devolves into a nightmare when Alex discovers the true technological nature of the Florentine. Not just a lost treasure, it’s something far more insidious: a weapon that could bring the developed world to its knees. Alex races through subterranean grottos, freezing morgues, and hidden cellars in the dark underbelly of Los Angeles, desperate to find the Florentine before it falls into the wrong hands. Because if nefarious forces find it first, there’ll be nothing Alex—or anyone else—can do to prevent a catastrophic attack.
Leading security specialist Carey Nachenberg delivers expert technical details in this gripping, highly entertaining cyber thrill ride—perfect for fans of Neal Stephenson and William Gibson.
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The Florentine Deception
By Carey Nachenberg
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2015 Carey Nachenberg
All rights reserved.
Microsoft Campus, Building 5 — Redmond, Washington
Vadim "V-man" Bulgakov stabbed his finger at his monitor's on-off button and spun his chair to face the door.
"Yes?" he said bluntly.
The door cracked open and an acne-scarred junior engineer poked his head in. "Hey V-man, the guys are going for some drinks. Want to join?"
Vadim relaxed his grip on his armrest and eased back into his chair. "Oh," he said, bringing his index fingers up to his temples, "no thanks. I've got a severity-one defect that I've got to fix by tomorrow morning or I'll be on Barry's shit list." Vadim pressed the pads of his index fingers against his head and began rubbing in concentric circles. "I'll try to join you guys later."
"Good luck," said the engineer empathetically. "We'll be at Daman's Bar if you finish early enough."
Vadim nodded with a grunt, then swiveled back to face his monitor. "Do me a favor and change my door tag to red. I need to concentrate."
"No problem." He flipped over the laminated cardboard circle outside Vadim's office and eased the door shut. Then from outside Vadim's door, he yelled, "V-man's not coming. Wait up and let me grab my coat."
Vadim waited for the muffled voices in the hall to subside before he took one more glance over his shoulder and powered his monitor back on. Earlier that evening, he'd received yet another last-minute order from Moscow via a dead-drop email account, and if he were going to make the necessary modifications in time for tomorrow's deadline, he was going to be up all night. He took a sip of overly sweet, lukewarm coffee and refocused his eyes on the C code that filled the screen.
"Yebat!" he cursed, paging back and forth through the code. After more than an hour tracing through thousands of lines of programming instructions, he still couldn't decide how or even where to best make the change. And he was now way behind on his official task list. That was the last thing he needed. That, and more scrutiny from his boss.
Vadim scrolled down a few more lines and ran his finger down the code.
He'd found the section of logic he'd need to modify. In the latest communication from Russia, he'd been asked to introduce a subtle flaw into his project's authentication subsystem. According to the email, the flaw had to meet three specific requirements — each, no doubt, of paramount importance to the geniuses back in Moscow — yet be subtle enough that it wouldn't be discovered by one of Vadim's unsuspecting team members. And should the modification be discovered, it had to look like an honest mistake, a gaff that any engineer might make after a typical all-nighter at the office. At least that wouldn't be a problem. He'd been slaving away nonstop on his official work assignments since nine the previous morning.
Vadim stared at the code segment for several minutes, took a deep breath, and began typing.CHAPTER 2
Alex Fife's House — Northridge, California
August 20, 2015
"Why don't you just ask her out?"
"Now's not exactly the best time to be discussing my love life, Potter."
"You're not even at the hard part yet," Potter said. I shot a quick glance down; Potter stood far below, his chalk-covered hands outstretched and hovering protectively.
"That's reassuring." I inhaled, locked my left hand onto a peanut-sized outcropping, then delicately eased my right foot up into a shallow niche just below my hip.
"All right, back to business," he said. "Take it nice and deliberate."
I nodded absentmindedly, my focus on the overhanging rock above. The next hold sat four feet north of my head, well out of reach. I considered my options, but with each second of hesitation my biceps weakened, my body peeling farther away from the sheer face.
"Talk to me," Potter said. A trickle of sweat ran down my cheek.
"I'm going to throw for it." Ignoring the burn in my arms, I rocked onto my right foot, pulled my left shoulder in close to the face, and launched upward. My right index and middle fingers caught the rock just as my feet cut from the wall.
"I'm losing it," I said, my legs sprawling in midair.
"Feet, Alex! Get your feet back on."
I tensed my abs and swung my feet toward a narrow ridge. The tip of my right shoe skidded across the hold, caught, then slipped, sending my legs floundering violently backward.
"I'm gonna pop!"
"Hold it together!"
"It's not — aaaaahhhh!" My fingers gave and I plummeted....
Potter's nimble hands caught my shoulders mid-fall and shifted me squarely over the padded vinyl mat; upon impact, a cloud of dust erupted from my chalk bag and settled on my face.
"You caught some serious air!" he said, offering me a hand.
"Thanks, Potter." I wiped the powder from my face and tousled my wavy brown hair until it stopped snowing chalk, then grabbed Potter's hand and pulled myself upright. Davis Potter, a lanky five-eleven with a perpetually clean-shaven face and a scalp to match, was the consummate climbing partner — technically adept, levelheaded, and always sporting a genuine smile.
"How was the right handhold?" he asked, wiping the sweat from his face. The sun had just cleared my roof and it had to be pushing ninety degrees.
"Pretty thin," I said. "You want to try?"
"Nah. It's way above my pay grade. You know, I can't remember the last time I climbed on your wall. I like the new routes." He gazed appreciatively up at the twenty-foot-high artificial rock wall I'd had custom-built and bolted onto the back of my house.
"Thanks! Speaking of new routes, when are we going to check out that new cave in Ojai?" I reached for my water bottle and drained its last few ounces.
"Give me another month to finish my master's thesis and I'm totally game. It's supposedly got some unbelievable crystalline stalactites."
"Next month works. And if Linda's interested, we'll have a quorum."
"Don't hold your breath," he said. "She's been working tons of overtime at the hospital. Never seems to have time to climb anymore."
"Don't worry. I'll guilt her into it."
"Well if anyone can, it's you." Potter hesitated a second. "Hey Alex, hear me out now that you're down."
My stomach clenched.
"I'm telling you, Potter, she's not interested." Not to mention I get a panic attack every time I think about asking her out.
"All right, all right." Potter put his hands up in mock self-defense. "Just give it some —"
The phone rang. I rolled over to the left edge of the mat and grabbed the handset.
"Hi Alex. Got a minute?" It was my dad, no doubt calling to check in on his directionless son.
I held up a finger to Potter and mouthed "one second."
"Yeah," I said, "What's up?"
Potter tapped his watch, waved goodbye, and headed toward my back gate.
"Just wondering if you had a chance to clean up that old PC for me yet?"
"Crap. I totally forgot." I'd been putting it off. "Can I get it to you next week?"
"Actually," he hesitated, "I was hoping you could finish by tomorrow. Father Magruda was planning to give it to the Guatemalan family we've been sponsoring. Could you get it done by then?"
"Yeah ... I'll do it this afternoon."
"Thanks, I really appreciate it." My father cleared his throat. "So, any new projects? Promising startup ideas?"
"No. Nothing new to report." I knew he meant well, but the nagging was starting to get to me. Truth be told, I was bored out of my mind. I just couldn't find anything to do that excited me. Other than climbing.
"So where'd you get the PC from?" I asked, changing the subject. "Garage sale?"
"Nope. An estate sale," he said, taking my diversion in stride. "Got it in a box-lot for twenty bucks."
Since Dad's retirement, he'd become quite the do-gooder. Computers, toasters, portable gas stoves, anything he could rummage from a friend's attic or find at a local garage sale, he'd buy, fix up, and offer to a needy family sponsored by the church.
Which led me to my exciting afternoon chore: delousing an old PC for his adopted family. It's a routine familiar to all "computer people." Everyone from third cousins to old high school teachers expect that since you're a computer guy, you can fix virtually any problem with their PC. Parents were the worst offenders: "I'm sure Alex can fix that problem. I'll have him drop everything and give you a call."
In any case, this was one favor I'd agreed to do.
I said goodbye and trudged up the stairs and into the shower. After a few seconds fidgeting with the temperature, I turned on my shower radio.
"... heat wave, SoCal Edison says there's a five percent chance of rolling blackouts today. So pitch in and reduce your electricity usage during peak hours," it crackled. "In other news, one of our own local Angelenos may soon shoot the moon! After forty years of fruitless treasure hunting, a feisty octogenarian from Chatsworth believes she's finally located the burial site of the Wellingsworth fortune. Ruth Lindley stumbled upon Wellingworth's diary at a local garage sale in 1966 and has been hunting for the millionaire's treasure ever since. Until now."
Interesting. I wondered if she'd finally found it. I'd been infatuated with buried loot, treasure maps, and one-eyed pirates since devouring Treasure Island in the eighth grade, and had even done some poking around Wellingsworth Canyon myself as a teen. I didn't find any treasure but did pick up a nasty case of poison oak.
I upped the volume.
"Want to hear more about Ruth's most recent find, and the sordid history behind the treasure? Tune in to ABC 7 Local News tonight at eleven."
Of course, just a teaser. I made a mental note to google later for the details.
I finished showering, toweled off, and looked in the mirror. Just one day without shaving and I was already getting scraggly. No good. I might be a slacker, but I sure as hell wasn't going to look like one. I grabbed my Braun and went to work, then finished off the stragglers with a disposable razor. I'd gel my hair later, just before the party.
All right, what to wear? For computer cleanup detail? Grunge. I threw on a pair of comfortable blue jeans and a passable "No, I will not fix your computer" t-shirt from the hamper.
Reluctantly, I dragged the still-sealed cardboard box from my closet. A brief inspection revealed a chassis, grimy keyboard, small LCD monitor, standard three-button mouse, and a rat's nest of cables. I disentangled the wiring, laid each neatly on the carpet, and then began connecting components. It took just a few minutes, but this was the easy part.
I planted my thumb firmly on the power button and stared expectantly at the monitor. After what seemed like an hour-long boot-up, Windows decided to make an appearance.
The login screen greeted me with a single account name: Richard.
Holding my breath expectantly, I prayed to the computer gods that Richard's account had no password. That would make things so much easier. With an exhale, I clicked on his login picture.
Windows prompted me for a password.
What was I expecting, anyway? All right, I'd turn it into a challenge — could I hack in within fifteen minutes or less?
I'd start with the low-hanging fruit; I began guessing passwords.
"password" didn't do it. Neither did "Richard" or "richard." Nine out of ten people use easy-to-guess passwords.
"qwerty"? Denied. A few more failed guesses and it was time for the nuclear option.
"123456"? Definitely top five. Rejected.
"letmein"? Nope. "111111"? No.
Enough guessing — time was running out. I rummaged through my nightstand and snagged an old thumb drive, then grabbed my laptop and booted it up. It took a few seconds to find a website hosting the latest version of OphCrack — it had been the top password-cracker when I was at ViruTrax. Assuming Richard hadn't encrypted his hard drive or picked a super-long password — and most people didn't — this'd get me in within five minutes.
I downloaded and installed the password-cracking program onto the thumb drive, then inserted it into an empty USB slot on the front of Richard's computer and rebooted with the "boot-from-USB" option. After about ninety seconds and a whirlwind of scrolling text, the OphCrack program popped up.
"Please wait...." it said. Following a few moments of analysis, OphCrack indicated that Richard's hard drive wasn't encrypted and that a password-crack was possible. Things were looking up.
I selected Richard's account name — the only one on the list — and clicked "Go." A little hourglass appeared as the program began generating and validating hundreds of millions of passwords until it found the one that matched Richard's. I visualized the process — "aaaaaa," "aaaaab," "aaaaac," ... "aaaaba," "aaaabb," "aaaabc" — hundreds of thousands of guesses ... and failures ... every second.
The hourglass turned over and over. One minute. Two. Three. The guy must have picked a long password. Four minutes. Five.
I began sweating. If this didn't work, I'd have to go in, locate the proper system password files by hand, and reset Richard's account. A year ago I wouldn't have blinked at the prospect. But that was a year ago. Not to mention I'd blow my fifteen-minute goal.
Finally, after seven minutes of brute-force guessing, OphCrack issued a ding. The password "r1ch4rd" appeared on the screen. I issued a sigh of relief.
"Take that, Anonymous."
The PC had all of the must-have apps: a word processor, spreadsheet, Minesweeper, and more than likely a venereal buffet of computer viruses. Minus the viruses, whoever was to receive this computer should be happy. The background picture on the desktop showed a beautiful Impressionist painting, maybe a Van Gogh, I thought. I'd leave it for the new owner.
A few clicks revealed antivirus software last updated during the last presidential election — this machine was going to need some serious detox. Twenty minutes later, I had a freeware antivirus+firewall package installed and scanning away. It was a smorgasbord all right; the scanner unearthed and removed two dozen infections.
Step 1: Completed.
Step 2: Remove all personal information from the machine. Financial records, documents, pictures (all types of pictures), music files, and home movies — such private information, and yet so often forgotten. It never ceased to amaze me how often people forget to remove personal data before discarding a computer. I'd started by searching the hard drive for JPEG picture files when my bedroom door creaked open.
"What's up, slacker?"
"Who ...?" I spun around.
"Jesus! You scared the crap out of me!" I growled. "How the hell did you get in?"
"I used my old key." Steven shoved aside a pile of glossy open-house flyers and plopped onto my futon. His otherwise-uniform helmet of curly brown hair had been marred by a razor-shaped trough above the left ear.
"Hillary give you a haircut?"
"Look good?" Steven adjusted his glasses and shot me a sultry look.
"Go look in the mirror." I grinned.
"Dammit," he groused, showing no desire to verify for himself. "She was watching some new-age vegan show while she was buzzing away. Whatever. Hey what's this?" he asked, picking up the top sheet from the stack of flyers. "Whoa, four-point-five mil!"
"Nice huh? Twenty-foot-high walls of glass overlooking the Pacific. It's in the Santa Monica Canyon."
"That is one serious chick magnet!" He winked suggestively. "Are you going to buy it?"
I shook my head. "I haven't decided yet. It's got some layout problems. But it's on my top-five list right now."
Steven dropped the flyer back onto the pile and leaned back against the wall, perching his hands on an increasingly prominent belly.
"So what's the latest?" he asked.
"Not much. I'm stuck cleaning up a donated PC for Dad's adopted family." I pointed at the dusty computer.
"Man, that family lives better than I do." Steven wiped his forehead with his arm. "Hey, got anything cold to drink? It's like an oven outside."
"One second." I socked him in the arm, then traipsed downstairs to check the fridge. Steven was my best friend, actually more like a brother. We'd lived together since our freshman year at UCLA, until he got hitched.
Excerpted from The Florentine Deception by Carey Nachenberg. Copyright © 2015 Carey Nachenberg. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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