Chapter 10: Not Again!
It was a cold January morning and Daria stood in her office staring out the window. The sun was barely up. It was that time of year when she went to work in the dark and drove home in the dark. She could dimly see her reflection in the window. She saw her auburn hair framing her oval face. She was wearing an orange blazer over an emerald green cashmere sweater and black pants. The pants were getting just a little bit tight. Daria could tell she was starting to gain weight from her pregnancy.
As she looked beyond her reflection, Daria saw that there was no snow on the ground and the grass was brown in the quadrangle. The trees were leafless and the grounds crew had removed all of the holiday decorations just after New Year's. The opposite end of the quadrangle was open and that gave Daria a view back toward the town. All in all it was a fairly ugly scene. Yet, Daria had never felt so glad to be back in her office. It was warm, her bookshelves were filled, no one was chasing her, and in just a couple of hours it would be time to teach her first class of the semester. She was comfortable and ready to face whatever challenges her students brought to her.
Daria was jolted from her musings by a knock on her office door. She took a few steps, reached over and cracked open the door. She stuck her head out, but did not open the door wide. Standing outside looking far too cheery was Perry Samson, Daria's first graduate student. Daria was his advisor for his master's thesis, which had to do with vampire literature and legends across cultures and basically anything that existed before Bram Stoker wrote Dracula.
"Good morning Dr. Sloane," Perry said. "Did you have a really nice break? How did you and your husband like your trip to Europe?"
Daria thought, 'How can someone who is studying vampires be so darn cheery?' Then she said to Perry, "The break was OK. Unfortunately, things didn't go quite as we expected in Europe and we came home early. Still, I got some really good work done at the British Library."
Perry jumped right in, "Sorry to hear things didn't go as planned, but I'm glad to hear your time at the British Library was productive. Anyway, I just want to set a time that we can sit down and discuss my research. I think I have made good progress."
"Have you started writing?" Daria asked. This position with her head out the door was not very comfortable, but she didn't want Perry coming in and sitting down. He could easily consume more than an hour of her time.
"Not yet," Perry answered. "I wanted to check things out with you first."
"Okay," Daria responded in her characteristic deadpan. "Here is what we are going to do. First, you are going to write a draft of the first chapter of your thesis. Then you are going to email it to me as an attachment to a meeting request. I keep my schedule up-to-date on the university's calendar system. You can see when I am free. I will respond to your request and we can sit down and meet. With a draft of the first chapter we will actually have something to talk about. Understand?"
"Yes Dr. Sloane," Perry answered. He sounded a little disappointed. Then he thanked Daria for her time and walked away.
Daria closed the door and then sat down at her desk. She turned her chair toward the window. She knew that if Perry was going to move forward with his thesis he had to start writing. If she wasn't a little hard on her students, then they wouldn't perform. Too many were lazy or felt entitled.
Daria turned to her computer and went through her email. There was nothing terribly important in it. She found a reminder about preparing her annual evaluation package, something she did not have to do as a first year faculty member. Then she found an email with a subject line 'Missed you in Munich.' Looking at the content side of the screen she read the message, 'You did not show in Munich. You should have told me. Now look at this website.' Then it gave a link.
It was clear to Daria that this was not something legitimate. Her feeling of peace and quiet immediately evaporated. She pulled her phone from her jacket pocket and placed a call to Tom. He answered on the second ring.
"Hi Daria," Tom said. "What's up?"
"Tom," Daria said in total deadpan. "We have a problem."
"Tell me about it," Tom replied. Daria told him all about the email and her concerns. Tom in turn told her to hold on. He would contact his computer support department and then call her back. In the meantime, she was not to go the link. At best it was some type of malware.
Daria ended the call with Tom. It was very easy for anyone to get her work email. She worked for a public university and all they had to do was go to the faculty directory on the university's web site. So, no matter what it was easy for the goons in Europe to reach out and touch her.
Daria was starting to watch the clock until she had to leave for class. She shuffled files in the learning management system while she waited. It took about a half hour for Tom to call back.
"I think we have a plan. Given the police actions on these guys in Europe, my systems manager is going to have a conference call with Lawndale State's Information Technology Director and the Chief of the Campus Police. The basic plan will be to set up an isolated computer that looks like your computer on the internet. We will then go to the website and see what is there. My personal hunch is that it will be something with encrypts your hard drive and won't release it until they are paid or get what they want. By accessing the site from an isolated and otherwise empty computer it won't matter. We just reformat it. If it is something else, then we have pros ready to deal with it – including law enforcement."
"I guess I feel better," Daria said. "I am not a computer person, so I have to trust 'the pros.' Even though they may be the ones that seem to do less than a stellar job of maintaining my office computer."
"It will be fine sweet love of mine," Tom replied. "Just go about your day. Teach your classes. I will let you know what happens later."
With all of the upset dealing with a criminal organization it was almost surreal for Daria to once again stand in front of a class. There were a few students she recognized from her fall freshman class. As with most college classes Daria spent the first hour of the semester calling roll, going over the schedule of what they would be learning, the tests, the grading and her general expectations for the class. All in all it was very pedestrian. As usual she expected only about three or four of the thirty students to look even mildly interested. She was surprised in this first class that almost half paid attention the whole period and didn't even look at their phones – even when she launched into the first lecture and gave them their first reading assignment.
After class Daria was gathering up her materials when a young woman approached her.
"Hi Dr. Sloane! Remember me?" the young woman asked.
Daria looked up and answered trying to put a bit of excitement in her voice, "Why certainly Margie! I could never forget you." Of course she couldn't forget Margie. She remembered Margie's name as 'Margie the Mortician,' since Margie's major was mortuary science. She was also smart and had earned one of the three A's Daria have given out in that class.
"Thanks so much for the A last semester," Margie said.
Daria replied, "You earned it. I only gave out three of them in your class."
Margie commented in a voice that bordered on being bubbly, "But you are such a good teacher Dr. Sloane. That's why my friends and I made sure we took you again this semester. We really like the fact that you make this stuff interesting. Sure, it is just deadly dull material, but at least you give some life to it. We especially like the snarky comments you make about some of the authors. Your occasional comments about the students are fun, too. I guess you just have a fun personality!"
Daria looked at Margie the Mortician and actually smiled briefly. Then she said in her total deadpan, "Margie you are really something. I have been called many things in my life, but being told I have a fun personality is certainly not one of them. Thank you. I hope you will work just as hard in this class as you did in my fall class. I think you got a lot out of it."
"I'll see you next time," Margie said. "I have to get to class. It's really fun, too. It is 'Introduction to Embalming Techniques.' See you!" And with that Margie was out the door.
Daria briefly put her face in her hands. She couldn't help but think how she had pitied some of the boys that she had gone out with at Raft – none more than once. Hopefully Margie had someone like Tom in her life. Daria couldn't begin to imagine the dinner conversation on a date with that girl!
As she walked back to her office she could feel her phone vibrate. Pulling it out she could see that it was Tom calling. "Hi Tom," Daria said.
"Daria, we have an appointment over at the Campus Police Station at 5:30 pm this afternoon. My computer systems manager has been in touch with them and your Information Technology department. Together we are going to check out what these criminals are doing. In fact, the Campus Police Chief thinks he may be able to document several felonies. If we can identify the perpetrators and get them to the U.S., then there will be a nice jail cell waiting for them."
Daria replied in total deadpan, "There are several big 'ifs' in that statement. But, OK. We will see what happens. See you at 5:30." With that she ended the call and walked into her office.
The afternoon seemed to drag on. Daria sat at her desk processing the information she had obtained at the British Library. It had helped her finish one paper that she was sending off for a meeting next October. Along with the two papers based on her doctoral thesis she had sent to two different literature journals it looked like she would have a productive first year of scholarship at Lawndale State. Now she just had to keep this whole computer thing from intruding on her mind. It seemed like an eternity before the reminder popped up on her computer screen at 5:15 pm that she had a 5:30 pm appointment over at Campus Police. Daria got up, put on her coat, and headed out.
Daria walked into the campus police station and was directed to a conference room. There seemed to be quite a crowd. Tom came over and introduced his computer systems manager. The campus police chief introduced himself, and so did the Lawndale State IT director. She was also introduced to one of the IT staff members. There was a desktop computer sitting on a table and the IT staffer was using a wireless keyboard and mouse. A projector took the place of the monitor.
The police chief asked everyone to sit down and then started the meeting. "I want to thank everyone for coming here this evening. We are all here to support Dr. Sloane. Thank you again Dr. Sloane for bringing this to our attention. Normally IT would simply have the person receiving the email in question just delete it. But, given that the Sloanes were targeted by a criminal organization while traveling in Europe over the break, we thought it best to take this seriously and be proactive. The email seems to refer to their trip, so it is not just the usual phishing email. First, let me point out that we are recording this session for possible use by the State Attorney General's Office. The computer is the property of Lawndale State University, which is a state institution. Second, because this has come to Dr. Sloane's university account any threat to Dr. Sloane or attempt at blackmail is a felony. It is being committed against a state employee in the course of doing her job. So, we will see what happens!"
The next person to speak was the university's IT manager. "I have created a backup copy of your email account. So, all of your materials and contacts are safe. I also created some fake contacts so that if there is an attempt to use your account for spam we know where the spam will go. Now let's give this a try!" The manager clicked on the link in the suspicious email.
What came next was horrifying. First, there was the message, 'You have until 1800 Zulu tomorrow to respond to this email or else these materials will be released.' The second message was also disturbing, 'You will make GS&P take the account for AGP Transit. We will then direct them what to do. This must be accomplished within 3 days.' The third part of the message was quite clear, 'Failure to do any of this will result in the release of our materials. You do not want that to happen.'
The materials attached were disgusting. Daria remarked, "Well, it doesn't take much to tell that is not my body. And it certainly isn't Tom's either." Since the criminals had clearly failed to get any pictures of Daria and Tom in intimate positions with their hidden cameras back in Paris, they had taken pictures of others and grafted Tom and Daria's faces onto them.
The IT manager spoke next. He was sitting looking at a small laptop computer. "OK, I am watching what is happening on our network. The next thing we will do is respond to your email with our own bot attached. It will give us a trace of the email. It will also give us the location of the source and hopefully identify the people associated with it. Also, the bot will trap and examine any email with a Bosnian address as the origin or anywhere in the routing."
"That is pretty amazing," Tom remarked. "Is there anything you can do to actually damage their computer?"
The IT manager turned to Tom and replied, "Actually you can. It is a multi-step process. First you scramble the boot sector and erase the file allocation tables on the main disk. Then do the same on any other disks present on the computer. Next you start reformatting the hard disks. If you create an infinite loop, then you can keep restarting the process until the system fails. If you are lucky the whole thing overheats and catches fire. However, that is not what we are trying to do today. That would be up to the Feds."
The Campus Police Chief stated, "I think I have enough now for a couple of felony complaints. Why don't you go ahead and deploy your bot."
The IT manager asked Daria, "How would you answer this email?"
Daria thought for a moment, "Try this: 'I do not want those pictures of me posted. I will prevail on my husband to take the account.' Let's call it false hope on their part. At least it will buy some time before they put those pictures out there somewhere. If we are lucky, they are very amateurish and won't have backups and we are done."
The IT manager typed the email and sent it. "Now we will see what happens. Dr. Sloane, I have set up your email account to try and trap anything coming from these criminals. With your permission I can monitor the account here in my office."
"Of course," Daria replied. She didn't use her university account as her personal email account anyway. She simply didn't like the idea that her employer could have access to anything personal.
The campus police chief got up and thanked everyone for coming. "It will surely be a few days before we know anything. In the meantime we will continue to monitor Dr. Sloane's fake email account and see what happens."
"Thank you everyone," Daria said. She, Tom, and the others got up and left the room.
Once they both arrived home Tom tried to reassure his wife, who seemed to be in a serious funk. She just stood by the living room window and stared out into the darkness. "Sweet love of mine," he said. "We have broken the ties to the criminals as best we can. Our credit cards have been reissued and we have engaged the best identity theft company to monitor our accounts. We have had high level professionals sweep our phones so that we know there is nothing on them to track us or otherwise spy on us. We have even had your phone number converted over to one of the secure phones we use at GS&P. Short of changing our names, and retreating to a mountain cabin and going totally 'off the grid' there is nothing more to be done. You are safe my dear and we will keep it that way."
"I know," Daria replied in total deadpan. "I appreciate that you will go so far to take care of me. Of us really, if you count the little bun in here," she remarked while patting her abdomen. "It is just that it was a tough several months with the accident and then our derailed vacation. I'm sorry if I am a downer. Thanks for putting up with me."
"Daria, I love you more than anything and anyone in the world and you know that. I don't just put up with you. If you are down, then let me hold you and comfort you. For better or worse, I don't think that this bunch of criminals will consider us worth pursuing. There are other equally good if not better targets out there."
Daria turned around and looked at her husband. "I hope you are right," She responded and then hugged him.