Heidi, Geek Girl Detective

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Chapter 13: Undercover Hacker

“Sorry I’m late.”

If this were an ordinary celebration, no way Rusty would have waited for me. But tonight, I was the guest of honor. Actually, I was the only guest.

As I inched my way towards the dining table, I heard a gentle cluck behind me. I turned around to see the Matire’d holding his hands out. I was still wearing my fleece jacket.

“Uh… wait” I dipped into my pocket and extracted the cell phone.

I needed to keep the concealment close, no matter what. As I held it, I reconsidered the plan to get Rusty to incriminate himself on tape. It seemed so much harder now that we were face-to-face.

The matire’d slipped the jacket off my shoulders and placed it on a hook by the door. It looked so out of place hanging next to Rusty’s sleek dark sports coat. Like it belonged to a teenaged daughter of his, not a colleague.

I laid the phone down next to my silverware and water glass. I gave Rusty an apologetic smile as the matire’d pulled my chair out. “Just in case someone back at the office needs me for an emergency.” I patted the phone again, for emphasis. “That’s why I’m so late. Sorry again.”

An expression of understanding and approval flickered across Rusty’s face. Yeah, nothing wrong with that at all. Just a dedicated employee.

I opened my mouth to say something but I was distracted by sudden movement from behind me. The matire’d was gone. A man in a dark suit with a white serving-apron came through the doorway. I assumed he was a waiter, although his heavy jaw and close-cropped hair made him a little scary looking. It was something else too. Maybe the way he carried himself. Like a soldier.

“What would you like to drink?” His grumbly voice paused a second and then he added, “Ma’am.”

I waved him away.

Rusty’s chuckle reverberated from across the table. I whipped my head around to face the shmoozy smile of a well-practiced politician. “Oh come on, this is a celebration. Live a little.”

Right. I needed to appear relaxed if I was going to get him talking. After all, I wasn’t supposed to suspect anything was amiss. “All right, bring me a glass of Chardonnay.”

“We have several good local vintages—-”

Too wound up to get into it, I just blurted “Something crisp and light.”

The waiter left, closing the door with a soft click.

It’d be better if I could somehow fake perky and sweet, but my emotional responses were stitched up with nervousness. At least the pumping adrenalin kept the exhaustion under control. My back and my bad knee weren’t doing so great either. I really needed to spend less nights sleeping in my car. Since I knew I couldn’t muster pleasant business patter, I went for a no-bullshit approach. “I’m late and yet we’re the only two people here.”

“I said that this was a celebration and it is.” The fake grin twisted into a real one. “And I said only the most important people on the project were invited. And they were.”

I should have feigned surprise at this, but I just didn’t have the energy. “I’m flattered but I don’t think that’s true.”

Rusty leaned back and took a sip. The ice cubes dislodged and clinked as he tilted the glass back. “You went above and beyond the call of duty. Without being asked.”

“We all worked overtime and weekends.” This time my teamwork praise came more naturally. I was getting the hang of this sucking-up stuff.

“However, your work has been quite interesting lately. That’s why I wanted to see you tonight.”

I shrugged, gathering the strength to fake naive modesty. He looked down at the candle and stared into the flame for a second. I started to shrug but his sharp blue eyes pinned me to the back of my chair. “I’m talking about tracking down that little leak.”

Little leak? Did he just say that? Was he going to just lay it all out? These management types loved to hear themselves talk. Especially when they were demonstrating how far above the staff they were. His ego was definitely his blind spot. “When you say little—-”

The door opened. My head snapped much quicker than it should have. The waiter lowered his head in apology at interrupting. Damn right. This was hard enough without him breaking my rhythm.

He placed a wine glass of yellow liquid in front of me. “Our house wine. We have many other wines if you want something different.”

Something was wrong with his speech patterns. It was just a little off. My attention was pulled away by a tinkle of glass. Rusty was idling swishing his glass. The ice cubes were circling in tight orbits inside the rim. I raised my gaze back to Rusty and told the waiter, “This is fine.”

Rusty stared back at me with the same detached-but-amused look that he probably reserved for the little people. I readjusted my seat and felt a warm moist spot on my back. We’d barely gotten started and I was already sweating.

The waiter straightened up and smacked his simian hands together. “Appetizers?”

I waved my hand to dismiss him again but Rusty cleared his throat. “Prawns and crostini.” He looked over at me but I just shook my head. Rusty finished the order. “And I’ll take another gin and tonic.”

The waiter lumbered back out and closed the door. I still hadn’t gathered enough courage to push on so I tried some small talk. “This whole private dining thing is pretty slick.”

Rusty nodded, “Thank you. This is my family’s club and we’re quite proud of our impeccable service.”

Family? The waiter’s speech patterns had a trace of a Russian accent.

Oh God.

I scanned the tiny chamber for escape routes. The only other possible way out was the giant floor to ceiling window. How thick was that glass? Outside, there appeared to be a small lawn of grass and then the bay.

I took a tentative sip of my wine. The tang of it poked at the corners of my jaw. I tried not to blink at the sharpness of it. “Yes, it’s quite a nice place. And I’m sure they’re rather discreet if you drink too much.”

Rusty denied me a response or a facial expression at that comment. Note to self: don’t tease the tiger when you’re locked in a cage with him.

To bolster myself, I took a deeper sip of the wine and set the glass down next to the cell phone. I needed to get this over with so I could get the hell out. “So when you said little leak, I assume you mean Alicia Lyons.”

Rusty flicked the side of his glass with a finger and it made a light pinging noise. “You found out that she was lining her pockets by victimizing customers.”

Did this count as an admission of guilt? I wish I had some kind of feedback on this stupid concealment device. I know I could design a better one. Maybe with a big blinking light that Tracy could trigger when I had enough proof. Yeah, that would be super-handy right now.

A third sip of wine. This time I let it sit in my mouth and warm before swallowing. Then I answered as confidently as I could, “And you took care of her. I don’t see how I helped.”

His finger slid across the top of the glass with a squeak. “She took care of herself.” He was very matter-of-factly about it. His finger continued to slide around the glass and then straightened to point at me. “But you were the one who figured out her entire scheme.”

He did know what I was up to—but how much? This could get slippery. How far ahead of me was he? I played the ignorant female and answered with a simple, “Huh?”

“You were working on a problem with her e-mail. Even though you were informed of her death, you continued to work on resolving it.”

“How...”

“In addition to all your other project duties. Very industrious.”

The wine turned sour in my mouth. “How did you know about her e-mail problem?”

“I take a hands-on approach to quality issues.” His sharp know-it-all grin was beginning to burn. Quality issues. How does he track quality issues? The help-desk tracking system. I had reopened her trouble ticket and then kept accessing her records. I thought only Warren bothered to read those reports. Of course, Rusty would have wanted to keep an eye on Alicia’s computer.

Blushing a bit at the shame of being discovered so easily. “Well sir, I hate to see things go unresolved.”

Rusty chuckled. “And that can be admirable trait, if properly directed.”

His finished his drink in a long swallow. Looking back into his empty glass, he asked, “Tell me how your investigation panned out.”

The blue eyes locked onto me. Then his smile turned cruel. If he were a cat, his tail would be whipping around in hungry anticipation.

“Well...sir, I—-”

The door opened again and a wheeled tray stacked with two gleaming silver lids rolled in. Thug-boy the waiter parked the cart alongside our table and lifted the first lid. A plate of prawns released a small cloud of steam.

Rusty disregarded the waiter’s presence and answered his own question. “You exceeded your authority and took it upon yourself to look into her financials. And her husband’s as well.”

The candle’s flickering flame reflected in the gray panel of the cell phone. It seemed like there was a tiny inferno burning inside the phone. Tracy’s words replayed in my head. Going through other people’s bank accounts without permission is punishable by up to a year in prison. I shivered as a small trickle of sweat crawled down from my neck and between my shoulder blades. The shiver became a headshake as I silently tried to deny the truth.

“Miss Hoffman...Heidi. I have the records of your access.”

“But the upgrades aren’t on-line yet, that data isn’t accessible...” My words trailed off as I realized the truth. I couldn’t look at the table, much less the phone. I wanted to smash the damned thing before Rusty said any more.

“I felt it was my duty to keep an eye on things until the Apollo project was complete. I asked Dragoon to create custom audit reports on banking record access by technical staff. Your name was always at the top of the list.”

Roger. Why was I not surprised? He probably got a bonus for reporting everything I said about Alicia and MYZRE. I’m glad I never trusted that creep.

I tried the excuse that I had cooked up earlier. “I was just doing some system testing and it seemed like a good thing to try, her being dead and all.”

The waiter bumped his way out of the room with the cart and closed the door. Rusty ignored the steaming plates. “Really? Deliberately poking around in people’s accounts could get you terminated.”

I didn’t like the way he said terminated. I held my body absolutely still. I didn’t even breathe.

“I believe you were supposed to limit your queries to the test list.”

Why was I here if he had this? He had enough to fire me. Despite my efforts to hold still, my finger was stroking the cell phone case. So far, all the proof I’d gotten was against me.

There was some kind of angle and I needed to hang on long enough to find out what it was. Maybe a bribe to go with the blackmail? Carrot-and-stick management style, applicable for staff and farm animals. And squealers.

I threw back my shoulders to show a bit of confidence. Maybe if I blew it off as no big deal, he’d give away more. “Frankly, I didn’t think anyone would notice. This is such a big project with all those people from Dragoon pounding on the system.”

Rusty looked down at the bowl of prawns, their shells and legs glistening in a chaotic heap. “Just the opposite. With all the activity on the system, I wanted to make sure that I knew exactly what was going on. Especially when it involved important systems.”

And important accounts, like Alicia’s. This has got be the work of a script written specifically to watch her accounts. I gave credit where credit was due. “Those Dragoon guys do good work. I saw pieces of their monitoring script. Very similar to what I would write.”

Rusty cupped his fresh gin and tonic as if to weigh it. “I’m sure. I need those kinds of skills in-house. Sometimes it’s useful to have skilled outsiders but I prefer to have my own people. Loyalty is important.”

I examined the prawns. They looked like puffy orange cockroaches.

Rusty’s drink must not weighed right because he set it back on the table, “Besides, that wasn’t the end of your poking.”

Did he know that I had found his funny accounts? I passed on the prawns and picked up a piece of herb-crusted toast. “What do you mean?”

He grabbed a prawn by the tail, and pinched the head with the other hand. “You contacted her partner...” He looked at me as he yanked its shell off. “Why?”

The tip of the crostini hung wet on my lips. What did he mean? The mail-box was a dead end. Hell, the only reason that I got anywhere is because I barged in there and threw Alicia’s name around...which got Alexy’s attention. And then he…

“What did you think you were doing contacting that dirty thief?”

“What?”

“Not only were you exchanging e-mail with him,” His prawn shell fell down onto the white plate and he popped the prawn meat into his mouth. “But you met with him as well.”

I had programmed our intrusion detection system to record all e-mail from Glenda.net. And Alexy e-mailed me at work from his Glenda.net account. With his cell-phone number. Those damned Dragoon guys must have pulled my IDS data and given to Rusty.

“Or should I be asking you: What did you want from them?”

Rusty just smiled as I gaped, no answer to give. No answer that I wanted broadcast to the FBI agents outside. Tracy already knew that I had been chummy with Alexy. How would these new facts be interpreted in court?

“Why don’t you try a prawn?” Rusty just wrinkled his lips. I thought it might be a smile, but I couldn’t be sure. “You might as well enjoy the food while you still can.”

“Oh uh, yes.” Mind racing, I just crunched down on the toast.

But Rusty couldn’t have tracked Alexy down by his cell phone. Mobsters just don’t have those kinds of resources lying around. Although, Alexy did have his phone on him when they found him in Port Angeles. He was probably on his way back from Glenda.net and stopped to do his banking when they had...“The ATM in Port Angeles.”

Rusty raised a second prawn in salute. “Like I said, we have the records of all the accounts you rooted through.”

I sagged back in the seat. I didn’t care how Tracy interpreted what I’d blurted out. Might as well and hang me anyway. I was responsible.

Trying to trace the source of Alicia’s payoffs, my query turned up the ATM in Port Angeles and an account at another bank. I never did check it out, but Rusty and his people must have followed up and got an address or something. Or maybe they just staked out the ATM.

I’m so sorry, Alexy. I didn’t realize. I led them right to you. A lump was growing in my throat and I was afraid I might start to lose it.

No. I cannot fall apart now. Will not.

Rusty’s voice startled me. “You don’t care much for our rules, do you?”

I nodded silently. Well played. Rusty and his people were more organized and efficient than I thought. And he got me to help him secretly.

“At first I thought you were just curious, but as I saw how quickly you dug into those accounts, I wondered whether you wanted in on her action.”

I turned away from the table. I knew if I looked at the cell-phone now, I’d throw it across the room and smash it. Of course, it was too late. Tracy had already heard everything. Everything we’d said had been recorded as evidence.

Evidence waiting to indict me. Not him.

Rusty’s next words convinced me that he was reading my mind. “You found her accomplice through some excellent detective work. But you didn’t turn any of that over to the FBI.”

Was I guilty of obstruction of justice too? I told Tracy about what I did. At least most of it. That must have counted for something. “I don’t know what you’ve assumed by reading some report,” I cleared my throat with a chuckle of bravado. “But if I had found anything, I would have turned it over to Rubin.”

“You kept it to yourself.”

He let that hang there for a few seconds. I said nothing.

“What I want to know is if you can be counted on to do your job. Rubin did his, but what about you?”

Rubin. Yes. I raised my eyebrows. “Rubin did his job?”

“You could learn a lot from him.” Rusty folded his arms. “He does a damned good job of protecting both our customers and our reputation.”

Yeah, Mr. Law and Fucking Order. So he just obeyed just like everyone else. Just like I was supposed to. Is this what passes for virtue on Planet Rusty?

“But from what I hear about your attitude, you don’t care so much for Puget Regional Bank. Or your colleagues for that matter.”

My toes dug tight in my shoes, trying to claw their way through the leather into the floor. Why should I care about those spineless worms back at the bank? I folded my arms, mirroring Rusty.

“But you did do all that digging. Why?” He had an expectant smile. But there was something malignant about it. “Surely not for free.”

“Right...” I answered with a nod. So he did assume I was a conniving scum too. Just holding out for the bigger buck. Of course, he had blackmail material in case my price was too high. Screw it. Even if I ended up doing time, he was going down.

“I know you’re thinking hard over there. Thinking about what this all means to you.” He laughed to himself, a few rumbling huffs. “But now I need to know what you want.”

He really didn’t get why I did this. I was as much an alien to him as he was to me. I said nothing. Let him sweat too.

“I have a rewarding proposal for a good team player. Is that you?”

I remained silent, not sure how to answer. Rusty was obviously growing impatient. His voice cranked up to a snarl. “Whose side are you on? Alicia and those thieving scum? Or are you looking to improve things for yourself?”

“I appreciate the offer.” Right now, I sounded like the bad guy, while Rusty appeared to be the generous executive looking to reform me. Maybe if I just played dumb, hopefully it wouldn’t piss him off too much and he’d say something more useful. I added what I hoped was a plausible excuse. “But I’m not as clever as you think I am. I never did figure out who the accomplice was. Or what happened to him.”

“As far as you’re concerned, it’s all over.” He raised his glass in a toast to me. “What matters is what you did and how it reflects on your future.”

“Dumb luck.” I cradled my hand around the stem of my wine glass. I wanted to throw the drink in his face and storm out. I held in the anger and pushed on. “If Alicia were still here, she’d have told you about her accomplice. Her mother said she wanted to turn herself in and accept the blame.”

He lowered his glass a few inches, “But my dear, she is gone.” And then he smiled.

Oh, fuck this. If I’m going down in flames, then I’m going down in flames my way. I lifted my wine-glass and said with a smirk, “Good thing too. If she did go to the FBI and confess, then it would have made you look real bad.”

A blank look. That taunt went nowhere. I was just so bad at these people things. Give me a computer any day. And look at him, always so cool. I hated that kind of oily cool.

Mr. Polite-and-Formal just sat there with all that nastiness and vile anger churning inside. It reminded me of Kyle back in the dorm. Always cool as a cucumber, so nice to me and Trisha. Right up until that day. That day that...

Trisha defied him.

Of course.

“It wasn’t just the exposure, was it?”

“Pardon me?”

Now or never. “You offered Alicia a rewarding proposal, didn’t you?” I didn’t wait for a response. “No prosecution, just leave. Forgive and forget.”

He put his glass back on the table as I took a sip from mine. I had to be careful. If I went too far, too soon, it was going to get ugly for me. Well, uglier.

“You’ve got quite a mouth. Do you really think anyone is going to believe your lies?”

So controlled. Screw the FBI, too. I’m not the reliable good-citizen witness, probably never was. “It was just easier to fire her ass and get her out of here, right? I know that must have been hard for Rubin, but what can he say? After all, you’re the boss.”

I waved my hand in the air playfully. “But Alicia had second thoughts. She didn’t want to play along and leave quietly. Oh dear, she had a conscience. Maybe losing her husband was what did it.”

Rusty gaped, nothing to say. I hammered on. “After all, didn’t she start this whole thing because he was dying of cancer. Now that he was dead and gone, she wanted to come clean and that was a real problem.” I paused and then added, “For you.”

He glared in fury. I guess I just blew that promotion.

I looked back at the door. “So this is where you brought her, huh? I bet you toyed around with her guilt. And I’m sure you gave her all kinds of nice strong drinks.”

I stopped and looked him cold in the eyes. “A vice president really lords over a staff person. Especially when caught committing a crime.”

He started to say something but I didn’t give him a chance. My turn now. “Even though it burned, you had to tell her it was going to be okay, she was going to walk away clean. But she wanted to confess and get it all out in the open. Not the plan you had in mind.”

Holding his eyes in my stare, I pointed with an elbow at the door. “So Kostya, did your goons take care of her?”

His eyes twitched. He wasn’t expecting that.

As I paused a second to absorb that fact, he answered. “She was mentally unstable. I was afraid she might do something to herself if she went to prison. I had hoped she had learned her lesson and would move on.”

Oh, so empathetic. If it was genuine, I bet it’d be a first for him. “Yes, her mother said she was upset about the death of her husband. So bad that her doctor proscribed Valium to help her deal with it.”

“She was hardly a calm person. Blubbering and whimpering.”

He lifted his drink and took a quick shot, ignoring me. I jabbed again. “Someone like that was quite vulnerable, easily manipulated. It’d be easy to get a few drinks in her with those pills. And when she’s loopy enough—-”

I extended my hand out and pantomimed sliding off the cliff of the table edge. Rusty shrugged and looked back at with an expression scraped of all emotion. Too scraped, he was restraining himself.

“Dark and quiet place you got here. Your boat’s moored nearby, isn’t it? And it’s a short ride to Elliot Bay.”

“You really can’t handle your liquor, can you?”

“I’m sure it was quite messy when those stolen accounts ended up in the middle of an FBI identity theft investigation. After Dragoon and Rubin had pinpointed her as the insider, you invited her here...and killed her.”

His brow was darkening and his fists began to tremble. His words came as angry barks, “Listen, you little twat, I offered you a nice future—one better than you deserve—and you spit back at me with this crap?”

Whoa. That was it, wasn’t it?

It wasn’t just that she was going to expose him. She made him look foolish. I looked him in the eye and calmly enunciated my next words. “She ripped off your bank. Humiliated you and all your mob buddies. And you sucked it up and offered her an out.”

I let that stew for a second.

He said nothing. Good, now for the clincher.

“And then she had the nerve to throw it back in your face. That must have really pissed you off.”

Rusty just shook his head like I was child tracking mud across the floor. Where were the fireworks? Somehow, Rusty had managed to contain himself so far. Before he got a chance to cool down further, I attacked again. “To retain your crooked customers, you needed to assure them that a leak would never happen again. So we get the Apollo project shoved down our throats.”

He grunted a laugh. “If you are referring to our new system, it is to ensure that we have complete control over all our data.”

I didn’t like the way he said complete control. Did that mean all his incriminating account data might suddenly disappear? I needed to get back on to his pain points. The humiliation. The murder.

“Can’t have those particular financial records dragged into court. Gee, that makes me wonder what happened when Tracy tried to interview the victims. Musta been awkward.”

His glass made a rocking sound. His hand was trembling. Probably not with fear.

“So tell me, Kostya, just how angry were you when you tossed her drugged body into the water?”

He slammed his hand down with a loud crack. The glasses chinked as they reverberated on the table. “That little cunt would have killed herself sooner or later.”

“Would have?”

The doorknob rattled. We both looked over. Rusty’s sneer lapsed into a momentary expression of fear. Was it Tracy? God, I hoped so.

The door swung open and his goon of a waiter stepped back in.

Damn, I almost had him.

“Ready to order your main course?” The waiter seemed unaware of how absurd and awkward this moment was. I took the initiative and told him “Not yet.” He nodded and backed out of the room.

From the look on his face, that managed to score a few more anger points. I guess Rusty wasn’t happy with me ordering around his people. I finished my Chardonnay in a gulp and said, “What? Are you going to kill me too?” I added a teasing smirk.

“Don’t mouth off to me. You’re already in enough trouble.”

Whatever.

He straightened his tie and drew a breath. “You are a dangerous hacker. I’m going to see to it that you never work again.”

“But not turn me over to the authorities?” I snagged another piece of toast and crunched on it. Then with my mouth full, I answered, crumbs flying. “That’s right, it might bring more attention. We need to protect the safety and security of the bank.”

“You just have to keep pushing, don’t you?”

He wasn’t going to break easily, was he? Approximating what I hoped was a mobster’s leer, I began the social-engineering hack of my life. “Alicia was just one part of a group of hackers targeting your bank. We’ve already planted our virus deep in your systems.”

His jaw seemed to slacken. More confusion. Or something else?

“Lemme tell you, dinosaur brain, you are in over your head. The next generation of mobster is laughing at you.”

His mouth snapped shut. Message received.

“It was nice of you to give us the time to set up the virus. You’re so complacent, ready to make a deal. Hah!”

He gave me a glazed look—typical user response—confused but scared. I just hoped that Tracy would believe me later when I explained this was a fake out. I rolled with the story, making it sound plausible to a non-techie.

“Our virus has been searching through all the bank accounts on the system. And...” I held up a finger for emphasis. “We designed it specifically to avoid your new audit logging systems. And when our virus finds an account that you and only you approved, it takes a nice long look through it. If there’s a sizable account balance but with low activity...”

Rusty’s face was an interesting mix of anger and disbelief.

“So get this.” I hunched over, actually starting to beam with pride at my imaginary program. “After it’s done, it e-mails the data to a safe little place.”

I looked down at my cell phone, the lights were still on. Good, I needed to record his response to this. “And the virus would also send a message to my cell phone. Hmm, it looks like I’ve received thirty five messages so far.”

It was hard to tell if he was angry or just scared. There was sweat on his brow that wasn’t there before. His eyes flicked around the room. “You’re nothing but a little piece of shit.”

“Oh, Rust-face. You just don’t get it.” I smiled with the satisfaction at finally being in control. “Let me talk to the rest of your group. We’ll make our deal with them. You can’t handle it.”

Rusty looked like he was ready to throttle me on the spot. His next words came slow and sharp. “People who cross me...”

I snapped back quickly before he could finish the threat. “You won’t trick me into overdosing on drugs.”

“You want to end up like Alexy?”

This was the first time he’s mentioned that Alexy was dead. Yes.

There was a loud screech as Rusty slid his chair out, shredding the rich wood of the floor. “Continue with this and you are going to get hurt.”

More threats? Was that the only trick he knew? “Kostya, your bank is a target rich environment.”

“No one likes you, no one will miss you.” He planted his hands on the table and stood. From my seat, he seemed to tower over me. Try whatever threat you want, I’m onto your game. Any second now, Tracy was going to…

On cue, the dining room door opened. I turned to look as Rusty crossed the room to the door in four quick strides. I called out “It’s all over.”

He stood with his back to me, but blocking my exit. In the doorway, I didn’t see my friendly neighborhood FBI agent. It was the waiter.

His Russian thug.

Rusty barked something to him in a low, guttural language. A language I’d heard a lot of recently. The waiter-goon tilted his head and stared at me—a hungry look lit up his face.

Where the hell was Tracy? I checked the cell-phone on the table. It looked like it was still on.

The door closed and I heard the lock shut. My head popped up to see Rusty standing there. The waiter was gone. I didn’t want to think about what he had been sent to fetch.

“No deals for little shits like you.” Rusty’s voice lost the executive demeanor. Just pure canine aggression. “We’ve been doing this for a long time.”

I guess I had succeeded in getting him angry. Maybe a little too angry. I had never evaluated him physically, but now I realized that he was at least a foot taller and a hundred pounds heavier than me.

“Those Glenda internet fucks are dead too.”

I leaned over to the phone and clearly spoke. “Hey, I’m just the network guy...”

“And you are dead too.”

Two heavy footfalls and he was almost on top of me. I instinctively slid out of the chair onto my feet, backing away into the corner of the tiny chamber.

Was Tracy even out there? Was this thing even working? Maybe she lost contact with me after leaving the FBI office? No way to tell.

“Tracy! Network guy! Network—- Glugh!”

I didn’t even see the hand coming. I just felt it clamped down over my throat. I was stunned by the speed of the grab.

“We’re taking a little boat ride.” He breathed into my face as he said it.

A grip of iron. I tried to pull away but he just pressed me against the wall. The resolve in his eyes was paralyzing.

My fists batted helplessly against the tree branch of his arm. He just smiled and cocked his head in amusement as I twisted around in his grip.

I hadn’t been in a physical confrontation since Intramurals. I’d forgotten the thundering heart. The tight, fast breaths. The electrifying fever racing through my body. Fouls and fights on the soccer field...

Soccer fouls.

I leaned back and put everything I had into an instep kick to his knee.

The hard sole of my Mule smashed against the top of his shin and into the front of his kneecap. No wet pop but I succeeded in knocking him off me.

Roaring in anger and pain, he released the vice from my neck. I took a deep breath and regained my balance.

He limped back and cradled his knee. They used to call these types of fouls hacking.

His growled curses were unintelligible, but I knew that I only had a few seconds before he came at me again.

I scrambled around the table, putting it between us.

He rose back up to his full height and swiveled to face me. I had to snap him out of his rage. Buy time. “It’s all over. The cops are on the way!”

“I doubt it.” He looked down at the table and grabbed the cell phone. “And I doubt there’s a virus either.” With a snap of his wrist, he flung the phone behind him.

My fingers dug into the back of the chair. Could I heft this thing through the window? It was made of heavy carved wood.

The doorknob rattled and a thunk sounded from the outside hallway. Rusty smiled the worst smile I’d ever seen in my life. This was it. What had he asked the waiter to bring? A gun?

As Rusty moved to open the door, I dragged the chair towards the window. One chair leg scraped loudly across the floor, carving a long skid.

The sound made Rusty whirl back to face me. I gave it all I had and flung the thing into the window.

It cleared the floor by only a few inches but it hit the glass with a loud crack and fell back down to the floor with a clatter.

Lightning bolts of cracked glass filled the window frame.

The cracks boiled into tiny scales of opaque white. Next thing I knew, chunks of glass were bouncing down everywhere, inside the room and out. I flinched back from the hailstorm of sharp pieces.

Rusty barked his disbelief. “What the fuck?!”

A second crash, this time wooden and splintery.

We both turned back to the doorway.

Another crash and the door broke apart. A man in a dark suit exploded into the room. He was big and thug-like. In his hand, a severe black pistol.

I figured this was it. Do or die. I lowered my head and crouched to jump through the shattered window onto the glass-strewn lawn outside. I couldn’t outrun a bullet but I intended to die on my feet.

“Federal Agents! Everyone freeze.”

I stopped at the shouted command.

Rusty’s breath was still pumping heavy when the guy who crashed through the door tackled into him. They both flew into the dining room table. Plates, glasses and shrimp went flying towards me.

What was left of the broken door hung in chunks from the hinges. Two more men pushed through and in an instant, the tiny room was jammed full of large men in dark suits.

And then, Tracy stepped through.

A giant black bulletproof vest was strapped on over her clothes. It was so oversized that it rose up over her chin and nearly covered her mouth. If I wasn’t so stunned, I would have laughed.

I just stood there and took it all in.

She looked me over. She also had her gun out. “Sorry, took us a while to find you in here.”

She looked down at Rusty, red-faced and sprawled on the floor with three agents roughly patting him down. “The staff wasn’t exactly cooperating.”

“Uh, yeah.” I eased back from the window. The cold drizzle from outside was blowing in. I shivered.

“Luckily we just followed the noise.”

I nodded.

“Heidi, are you okay?”

“Yeah. Just...uh...” I said rubbing my throbbing neck.

I glanced over at Rusty, who was being hauled to his feet, hands already cuffed. “What he said about me and...”

“We’ll see how it plays out. You did great, all the guys in the car were amazed at how well you handled yourself.”

She added a wink.
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