I’m not a fan of swearing, but when two seconds of insolence could cause multiple casualties, I toss them out as sporadically as my fingers fly over the keys of my silicon keyboard. I’m using the software program Dimitri wouldn’t let me hack the prior six weeks. An infrared imagery software NASA would shit bricks over to know the full extent of its powers.
Roxanne wouldn’t have gotten away from me last week if Dimitri hadn’t pulled back on the reins. The only reason he changed things up is because we’re now chasing his girl instead of his enemies. Entering a system via a backdoor doesn’t come without controversy. Rarely is the door left open, but the instant you hack into a mainframe of a government central processing unit, almost instantaneously, it alters the code to ensure you can’t walk back through the same door. So not only do you have to make sure you leave no trace of your visit, you also need to introduce a way for you to return if needed.
I’m doing that now, but Dimitri is too stubborn to wait. I can’t say I don’t understand his objective. The last time he waited, his unborn daughter was cut out of his wife’s stomach, and they blasted the video of her birth on the World Wide Web for all of humanity to see. It took weeks to get every video removed and months for Dimitri to stop blaming himself for matters out of his hand. Audrey wasn’t forced out of the restaurant hosting her baby shower. She walked far too willingly for a woman under distress. Although Rocco, Dimi’s number two, and I have tried to tell Dimitri that time and time again the past twenty-two months, he’s never once listened.
He blames himself for things no one can control.
It’s an undesirable trait almost every member of his crew has.
“We good?” Dimitri asks, his tone smooth and genuine even with his hands remaining balled for the past three hours. I don’t think he slept last night either. None of us did.
After discounting the heat of an ancient boiler and the objects too small to be human, I jerk up my chin. I’d rather Dimitri send in some men to sweep the area before him, but even with me only being in his crew the past three years, I know that isn’t how he operates. He isn’t the first person to believe if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself, and I doubt he’ll be the last.
Upon spotting my head bob, Dimitri spins to face an assembly of men weaponed up and ready to fight. The regulars take up the front row, the wannabees fill the next three, and the ones who think they have what it takes to be a part of the cartel loiter near the back.
This shames me to admit, but not that long ago, I was one of the bottom-dwellers. I had talent by the bucketloads and the build to be a part of the mafia, but I didn’t have a vicious sneer nor a wish for bloodshed. I came to America to reinvent myself. I only merged with this side of the law when I thought I needed money to convince a prom queen our first date wasn’t a fluke.
I was so damn wrong, but since that isn’t a story I plan to rehash anytime soon, I shift my focus to the group of men Dimitri is addressing. They’re hanging off his every word like associating with him won’t lower their life expectancy by decades. “The warehouse we’re about to storm was once a Petretti stronghold. It isn’t anymore. We’d be fools to walk in blind.”
“We heat-scanned the warehouse.” By ‘we,’ I mean me and a handful of understudies who’ll one day see me as competition instead of their mentor. “Readings are coming back with the imagery of a single occupant. Height, weight, and core body temperature reveals the target is most likely female—”
“Or he’ll be wishing he was by the time we’re done with him,” Rocco interrupts, grinning to lessen the scowl Dimitri’s face is rarely without.
I aid in his efforts by saying, “She is also breathing.” I give Dimitri a couple of seconds to absorb the entirety of my comment before continuing, “The fact only one occupant has been noted should concern you. This is most likely an ambush.” On a mobile-command CPU worth an eye-watering amount of capital, I bring up imagery of the warehouse and the ones neighboring it that Dimitri and his men are about to storm.
“As per Dimitri’s request, while he enters the main warehouse from the front entrance like a sitting fucking duck…” Rocco’s last five words are clipped and full of anguish, “… we’re to search the buildings on each side of it.”
Dimitri peers my way for the quickest second before saying, “Smith has deployed drones. They will jam all signals… including ours.” I nod in agreement with his statement. We’re going in blind. “This isn’t a seek-orders mission. If you must kill or be killed, always choose the former. If we can’t get information out of them, we’ll find a way of getting it out of their corpse.”
Eager to get things moving, Dimitri clambers out of my van and moves closer to the warehouse we’ve been stalking from a distance the past couple of hours. Since I’m as keen for a positive outcome as him, I continue integrating tactics to drop the many firewalls blocking me the majority of the morning.
I’ve never felt more out of the loop. If you so much as swallow a cough in any of Dimitri’s compounds, I know about it. Dimitri’s voice, the wails of his daughter when she was ripped from her mother’s stomach, and the top-tiered members of his crew—and some not so stellar ones—are programmed into a state-of-art voice recognition software used by government organizations across the globe.
If you think they’re only watching you on the net, you have a lot to learn. If it’s electronic, with the right equipment, there’s a way I can use it to spy on you. I once loved how accessible it made people, but like all life lessons, I soon realized every positive comes with a negative, and more times than not, the latter is more stinging.
“Yes,” I hiss like a snake when a previously closed access point unveils.
As I throw out viruses to ensure the door wasn’t purposely opened, Dimitri gives his men the order to move. “Let’s go. The sooner we know who’s in that warehouse, the better it will be for all involved.”
He slips into the driver’s seat of a prototype vehicle affectionally known as The Tank while Rocco and Clover pile into the Range Rover behind him. I designed The Tank when I didn’t have kidnappings, child abductions, and almost murders to contend with. Dimitri wanted something that could break through a brick wall if needed. The vehicle I initially designed for military personnel can do that.
As a stream of code fills the four monitors in front of me, in the corner of my eye, I spot Dimitri signaling for his team to begin deployment. Since we’re without communications, he had to resort to an old-fashioned hand signal.
The fleet of bulletproof vehicles is halfway down the dusty road separating the command center from buildings of rusted metal and glass when my inability to give up sees me awarded unprecedented access to a satellite capable of seeing through walls.
Estelle, the woman Clover threatened to kill if her ass moves an inch out of the passenger seat of my van, slings her eyes my way when a prolonged “yes” seeps from my lips for the second time. I’m not usually a fan of performing in front of an audience, but since Estelle’s utmost assurance that Roxanne is stronger than she looks saw Dimitri awarding me the time to run logistics on the warehouses he’s about to storm, I’ll put up with the injustice. I just need my head to get with the program that the blonde watching me hack from afar isn’t the same one I taught how to use my skills against me.
Within a handful of keystrokes and a stern talking to my head, I learn that perseverance didn’t grant me access to a previously unventured program. I was lured into a trap, and if the hacker’s code is anything to go by, I know exactly who’s dangling a carrot in front of me.
“Get the fuck out of my way, Hunter.” Once again, I’m not a fan of swear words, but men like Hunter Kane face great difficulties when addressed in another manner. “This ain’t your fight.”
I once looked up to Hunter. His skills exceeded his era, and he worked for neither the feds nor the cartel. Then one afternoon almost three years ago, my admiration plummeted out of the sky like a plane with no aviation gas.
With my assignments at the military on a consignment basis and their pay as stingy as the man who taught me everything I know, I hired out my skills to private firms on an I’ll-find-your-money-or-you-don’t-pay rate. Not once had I failed to find a mark and their swindled millions until Theo Kane’s name landed in a handwritten dossier. He defrauded over half a dozen investment bankers of millions of dollars—dollars I found relatively easily when I followed a massive money trail that led me to his youngest child, April Kane.
I was set to withdraw every penny from her bank account and return them to their rightful owners when my system was infiltrated by an irreversible cyber-attack. Hunter didn’t solely destroy equipment I couldn’t afford to replace, though. He upended my entire business.
After hacking into old customers’ accounts, he distributed the money I had returned to them to multiple charity organizations.
I could have responded with more than an offer of a refund if he hadn’t bought out every electronic equipment store in the state and three over.
Years of work was undone in under an hour, but the hit was nowhere near as bad as it should have been since his arrogance led me to my first love, Ellie, whose unexpected interest ultimately saw me introduced to Dimitri and his crew.
Although my clients stretched across the globe, I was based out of Wyoming. The National Guard was close by, so I got to pretend I was a rancher who couldn’t operate a computer, let alone design one from scratch. It was a peaceful existence I had no clue was as boring as watching grass grow until I bumped into Ellie while leaving a pool hall in a coastal community in Florida.
I thought she was a stunningly beautiful final-year college student and that her boyfriend was an A-grade douche. I had no clue she was fronting as a near-graduate, so she could pry information from her mark.
Her ‘boyfriend’ was believed to be a mid-ranked foot soldier for the debunked Bobrov crew. Although Dash Michaels’ ties with Kirill Bobrov were never officially confirmed, back then, Ellie’s relationship with Dash was the only gateway the Feds had to Kirill and his army of henchmen.
I was merely the sucker they cast aside for the greater good, but since my focus needs to be on the now and not my past, I’ll have to save the details for another time.
Within a handful of keystrokes, I realize Hunter isn’t throwing up blockers. He’s helming my campaign, which has me curious. Just like me, he only works for the one man, and although his boss watches the Petrettis as regularly as they watch him, today’s antics seem a little out of Isaac Holt’s realm.
“What are you looking for?”
I increase the speed of my strokes when Hunter’s gruff tone sounds off the speakers of my monitors. “Not money that doesn’t belong to me.”
My teeth grit. I didn’t know at the time that the money in his sister’s account was the funds their father gained from the illegal sale of their family home and businesses. Thanks to Hunter’s inability to communicate, the amount was close to the figure cited in my dossier and almost on par with what my clients had lost. I’m not a complete ass. If he’d explained I was looking in the wrong direction and pointed me the right way, I wouldn’t have touched his sister’s inheritance. He didn’t have to go in hard like he did, and the memory sees me handing him back some of the attitude he swamped me with that day.
“You little fucker,” Hunter grumbles under his breath when I inundate his system with old-school spam. They’re nowhere near effective today as they were when I started hacking, but it does bring a smile to my face, especially when he adds, “For that, I’m not going to disclose the identity of the special package waiting for Dimitri inside the warehouse he’s pacing toward.”
I hear nothing but egotism in my tone when I mutter, “Female, approximately five-seven, one-hundred and forty pounds—”
His interruption douses the fire in my gut in an instant. “With blonde hair instead of the red you’re looking for.” After taking a minute to relish my silence, he says, “Why do you think they chose this warehouse, Smith? They’re playing games… again.”
He doesn’t need to mention the Feds for me to understand who he’s referencing. Although we’ve been rivals longer than we’ve officially known each other, nothing brings enemies together better than a mutual nemesis. For Hunter and me, that is the members of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Curiosity highlights my tone when I ask, “What do the Feds have to do with Roxanne’s disappearance?”
“I was five seconds from finding out, but then you flexed a prepubescent muscle.”
I don’t know what shocks me more, the fact he didn’t push back with the tenacity of a schoolyard bully or his lack of surprise about Roxanne’s kidnapping.
It may be a combination of both.
“You think the Feds are trying to pin something on Isaac?”
“Again,” he grunts out with a huff. “They’re trying to pin something on him again.”
His theory makes sense. The warehouse is owned by Isaac, and we’re in his stomping ground. If Dimitri didn’t stupidly trust Isaac, he would have knocked down his door as violently as he did Alice’s earlier today, and I would have had to organize for a second ambulance to be dispatched.
My fingers freeze mid-stroke when the entirety of Hunter’s interruption smacks into me. He said the person lying in wake for Dimitri is a blonde. There’s only one blonde I know hoping to screw over both Dimitri and Isaac. Theresa Veneto.
She won’t escape this warehouse with her life intact if she’s once again meddling in affairs she doesn’t belong in. Dimitri doesn’t take kindly to time-wasters as it is, but when it comes to his daughter and the massive capital he placed on the line for Roxanne, nothing is off-limits. He’d face a lifetime behind bars because, to him, he was handed a life sentence when the first ransom note for his daughter dropped into his inbox.
“I’ll forward you Theresa’s movement sheets for the past twenty-four hours,” I advise Hunter while doing precisely that. “Correlate her movements from ten in the morning. If she’s involved with Roxanne’s disappearance, she would have been all up in her business hours before rocking up here.” I’d do it myself, but if I don’t get Dimitri out of that warehouse before he kills Theresa, more than Roxanne’s safety will be on the line. His daughter’s will precariously dangle right along with it.
I halt clambering into the driver’s seat of my van when Hunter murmurs, “The blonde in the warehouse isn’t Theresa.” I’m torn between racing toward the warehouse and sprinting away from it when he adds, “It’s Ellie Gould, your ex-girlfriend, and the Bureau’s current wonder agent.”