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Systems security specialist Mark Zoubianis had always prided himself on his ability to multitask. At the moment, he was seated on his futon along with a TV remote, a cordless phone, a laptop, a PDA, and a large bowl of Pirate’s Booty. With one eye on the muted Redskins game and one eye on his laptop, Zoubianis was speaking on his Bluetooth headset with a woman he

had not heard from in over a year.

Leave it to Trish Dunne to call on the night of a play-off game.

Confirming her social ineptitude yet again, his former colleague had chosen the Redskins game as a perfect moment to chat him up and request a favor. After some brief small talk about the old days and how she missed his great jokes, Trish had gotten to her point: she was trying to unmask a hidden IP address, probably that of a secure server in the D.C. area. The server contained a small text document, and she wanted access to it . . . or at the very least, some information about whose document it was.

Right guy, wrong timing, he had told her. Trish then showered him with her finest geek flattery, most of which was true, and before Zoubianis knew it, he was typing a strange-looking IP address into his laptop.

Zoubianis took one look at the number and immediately felt uneasy. “Trish, this IP has a funky format. It’s written in a protocol that isn’t even publicly available yet. It’s probably gov intel or military.”

“Military?” Trish laughed. “Believe me, I just pulled a redacted document off this server, and it was not military.” Zoubianis pulled up his terminal window and tried a traceroute. “You said your traceroute died?”

“Yeah. Twice. Same hop.”

“Mine, too.” He pulled up a diagnostic probe and launched it. “And what’s so interesting about this IP?”

“I ran a delegator that tapped a search engine at this IP and pulled a redacted document. I need to see the rest of the document. I’m happy to pay them for it, but I can’t figure out who owns the IP or how to access it.”

Zoubianis frowned at his screen. “Are you sure about this? I’m running a diagnostic, and this firewall coding looks . . . pretty serious.”

“That’s why you get the big bucks.”

Zoubianis considered it. They’d offered him a fortune for a job this easy. “One question, Trish. Why are you so hot on this?”

Trish paused. “I’m doing a favor for a friend.”

“Must be a special friend.”

“She is.”

Zoubianis chuckled and held his tongue. I knew it.

“Look,” Trish said, sounding impatient. “Are you good enough to unmask this IP? Yes or no?”

“Yes, I’m good enough. And yes, I know you’re playing me like a fiddle.”

“How long will it take you?”

“Not long,” he said, typing as he spoke. “I should be able to get into a machine on their network within ten minutes or so. Once I’m in and know what I’m looking at, I’ll call you back.”

“I appreciate it. So, are you doing well?”

Now she asks? “Trish, for God’s sake, you called me on the night of a play-off game and now you want to chat? Do you want me to hack this IP or not?”

“Thanks, Mark. I appreciate it. I’ll be waiting for your call.”

“Fifteen minutes.” Zoubianis hung up, grabbed his bowl of Pirate’s Booty, and unmuted the game.