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The Willow Society

By franklet All Rights Reserved ©

Adventure / Thriller

Chapter 16

Chapter 16

Most of the activity outside the little office had ceased; the students were gone. Taylor looked down at his hands, surprised to see they didn't shake. He felt wrung out. Looking at his watch, he realized he had only a few minutes left to make it to his next class. Apparently the period bell didn't ring inside the studio. As he ran to class he thought: what is so great about Parker or so lame about Izzy that she prefers Parker?

Taylor spent the rest of his day dreaming about Izzy one minute and becoming nearly overwhelmed by worry when he remembered the presence of Agent Alexander in Crypto. Combined with what he had uncovered in his nighttime raid of Willow Prep about Tate's activities and Philomena's. He had yet to share the full details with anyone. Maybe he could trust Winston.

As if thinking of him summoned him ,Winston darted down the empty hallway, looking sheepish. When he saw Taylor his eyes widened and he gestured for silence, waved Taylor to follow him. Winston lead him to the school's roof. Once there Winston turned and said, “So?“

“So what?“ Taylor replied.

“What did she want?“

Taylor sighed. “She wanted to tell me about the Society,“ Taylor said, not giving the whole truth on purpose.

Winston's eyes narrowed, but in a merry, fun way. “Oh? I suppose she gave you some spiel about just being friends then as well, did she?“ Taylor blushed, his eyebrows climbing. Winston laughed it off and waved nonchalantly. “Don't worry, T.“ But it was clear Winston knew more had been said and was leaving it at that.

“Aren't we going to be late for class?“ Taylor asked, glancing around.

“We're skipping second. There's something I want to show you.” Winston said.

Taylor's interest was piqued, but curiosity warred with his tendency to be nervous at publicly flouting rules before he could be certain of consequences.

You broke into the school, hacked computers, including government servers and brought the NSA down on the school. And you're nervous about skipping class?

It was funny. Taylor laughed. Winston snickered, “Come on.“

The two boys traversed the school's roof until they came to what looked like a janitorial closet, its fireproof door closed, and seemingly impregnable. Winston was not deterred. He led Taylor straight to the door, pulled out a key, quickly opened the steel door. The inside was dark. Taylor couldn't see much at first, while his eyes adjusted. “What the hell is in here?“ Taylor said, coughing through the dust.

“Well, you never asked why I was here last Friday night.“ Winston replied. Taylor faced the other boy waiting for an answer. Even in the half-light the wide smile spread across Winston's face was bright. “I was installing this.“ Winston flipped a switch and a light flashed on above their heads, revealing a little corner of the already small room and a nondescript little cabinet made of some white painted metal, the kind of cabinet usually kept to store cleaning supplies. It was marked Non-Hazardous Cleaning Supplies.

“A cabinet?“ he murmured.

Winston snorted and opened the cabinet. Inside was a keyboard, a monitor, and a mouse. There must have been a CPU somewhere, but Taylor couldn't readily see it. Taylor started to asked Winston what the point was but instead he watched as Winston turned the monitor on and entered a complicated password into the prompt. The screen flashed and up came twelve camera views on a 3x4 grid, and two dialogue boxes. The camera views were small but Taylor recognized some of the views: Tate's Office, Ballard's Office, Teacher's Lounge, the school's server room, the front doors, and the staff entrance.

“Nice, eh, old boy?“ Winston said, “But check this out.“ There was a small white number in the upper left hand corner of each of the camera views, number one to twelve. Winston entered the white number which showed the view of Tate's office. After he pressed Enter a new window popped up, a small detailed mirror of someone's desktop. And as Taylor stared he realized it was Tate's desktop on Tate's computer. Whatever Tate was doing on the computer they could now watch, in real time. But why had Winston done it? And why here?

It seemed a very difficult place to reach.

But when Taylor asked Winston had answers.

“This is just temporary. I need to broadcast it out, but I want it to be secured, and I need some help. From you. Then we can remove all this,“ Winston waved at the monitor and keyboard and mouse, “and view everything remotely at the HQ.“ The HQ was the name the Society members used for the room in Chatham House with all the computers, the huge televisions, and comfy, bright sofas.

“But why?“ Taylor asked again.

“Because. A lot of the attacks on the Society's resources have come from Willow Prep IPs. Specifically from both Tate's classroom and Ballard's machine. Now you know Tate's classroom network is setup with a special DCHP server unattached to the main school server, so we can't track which terminal is on which IP, they all filter to the same place. Only Tate can do it, and I've not been able to hack his security. But maybe you can? All the machines in Tate's classroom are in the same IP range, the same dedicated sixteen numbers, assigned and changed at unknown intervals. Which is odd, right? They should be randomly allocated, right?“ The questions Winston asked were rhetorical, both of them knew the answers. “I know. But I tried to break in remotely and I couldn't and well, I figured if I could setup a sandbox like this, one with direct access I could really see what is going on.“

There were some holes in Winston's logic, but Taylor focused on something else. “Winston. How many places have you broken in to?“ It was a bit amazing, but Taylor remembered the sounds of sneakers on glass and seeing the view of the camera into Ballard's office, he realized Winston must have been outside that very window in order to install it, somehow. Winston grinned, wickedly, the glaring light from above their heads gave his face an impish cast.

“Who knows, T?“ Winston shrugged. "It's sort of what I do, old boy. I'm probably the world's youngest professional catburglar. But I don't keep count or take trophies. Never have really. It's the thrill I'm after. The sheer joy of doing what is thought to be impossible. It's electrifying.

“I've hit museums, courthouses, schools, mansions, offices, you name it.“ Taylor goggled at his friend. Winston had more than a secret personality, a hidden swagger, he had a whole separate life, or maybe this was his real one and the school version was the put-on. Like me. There was no way to know without asking and Taylor wouldn't have known how. Winston continued, “It's really why I agreed to join the Willow Society. They sought me for my hacking skills, but I got to stay on because I can break into any place, any time.“ He sounded quite proud and his smile was infectious. Taylor smiled back, not quite sure he believed Winston's bragging.

Winston doesn't boast, remember?

“So you knew people were attacking the Society's resources from a Willow Prep IP or IPs, and you couldn't break in remotely, so you did all this. Do the others know?“ Winston's smile slipped and he looked sheepish.

“Not yet.“

“Do we have to tell them?“ Taylor asked, aware he had hid things himself and curious to gauge Winston's take on such.

“Not yet.“ Winston winked. “Isabel and Sue-Ann don't really care what we do, results matter most to them. That, old man, and discretion.“ He said this last with as serious a tone and expression as Taylor had ever seen out of the boy, followed up by a roguish wink.

“So can you set this up so it broadcasts remotely? Secure?“ Winston asked. The boys spent the next half hour talking wiring and protocols until, together, they hashed out a solution and a way to achieve it.

“I knew it would be something simple I was missing, “ Winston said, but he didn't sound annoyed, or jealous. They couldn't set up the connection just then, they needed some gear which Winston would purchase and bring the next day.

“Back to class?“ Taylor said.

“We should wait until the next bell, T. Don't want anyone to see us coming from up here. In the meantime, let me give you some of the information I've picked up since all this started.“ Taylor leaned closer to Winston, eager.

“The Willow Society owns interests in a couple of different major communications companies, mostly back-end tech design firms, military grade stuff and wireless transmission providers.“

“You mean like cell phone companies?“ Taylor interjected.

“Yes, but not like Sprint or anything. More the companies which develop the tech companies like Sprint purchase, encryption methods, compression software, signal packing, etc.“ But Winston waved past as if it wasn't very important. “The really serious stuff though is the satellite encryption protocols. It's military standard and we own controlling interest in the firm, IsaTech, which created it. And that's where the attacks have been really aimed. Sometimes directly, sometimes not. Sometimes the attacks come routed through our own systems at the wireless transmission providers, sometimes from the tech companies. It's seemed as if our own people were hacking us, at least until I dug deeper. That's when I saw the IPs were spoofed and the trail led back to Willow Prep. I didn't believe it at first, I mean, it's too coincidental, right?“ Taylor nodded, it did seem too easy.

“But I followed the trail anyway, just to see, you know? And there it was. Coming at times from every server at the school, which meant admin-level access. Who has admin-level access? Ballard. Tate. But why would they be hacking us? Then I discovered that as Regents for Willow Prep, both Sue-Ann and Isabel have admin-level access privileges, though neither of them use them.“

“So that's why you haven't mentioned it to anyone else. You think they might be behind it?“ Taylor asked, drawn in. “Why would they do that? As like a test or something?”

Winston nodded. “Maybe. I don't know. They are very clever. But this is serious stuff, they lost tens of millions of dollars. Would they really throw away that kind of money for a test? Still the connection is there. If it is someone else, someone besides either of them, then all that person had to do was connect the funds paid out by the Willow Society, see the school listed along with the other businesses and assume the school would be the easiest to attack and once authenticated via the school, you could use it as your front to infiltrate the other businesses, since one person with ties to all the business likely tries to access corporate resources from multiple computers, meaning any secured VPN would have already authenticated the IPs from the school.“

It made sense to Taylor. In fact, it was precisely the approach he might try first. He could understand why it might confuse people who were not as technical as himself or Winston. Essentially what Winston meant was that Isabel and Sue-Ann, having admin-level user accounts at the school, probably, at least to an outsider, might likely have used computers at the school to access computers at businesses they owned elsewhere, such as the satellite company, companies whose computers would recognize only specific pre-configure IP addresses. It was convoluted though. Sometimes the best hacks are convoluted. They only appear elegant.

“I follow you, Winston.“ Taylor said after Winston stopped. “But it's not proof. It could still just be coincidence. Either way, do you really think whomsoever behind this is going to show up in person to use the computers at the school? They'll just remote in the way you plan to.“

Winston's eyebrows moved closer together, clearly he was in deep thought. “I hadn't thought of that.“ He said finally. As usual he didn't seem upset or frustrated being corrected.

Taylor was about to suggest they set up an IP monitoring script to keep track of incoming IPs to Willow Prep, it would be relatively easy to weed out common Internet DNS IPs and whittle the list down to possible suspects. Maybe they would get lucky. But the bell rang.

“Ack! We gotta run, T" Winston hurriedly shut off the monitor, closed the cabinet and ushered Taylor out of the room, locking the steel door behind him. They didn't talk much on the way downstairs until they reach the second floor when Winston said, “See you tonight at HQ. We'll finish then?“ Barely waiting for Taylor's nod, Winston ran off.

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