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Crushed Excerpt

Crushed

Prologue

Erik

The red bulb in the corner of the room flares. Life transitions to slow motion. The man on the security camera shatters the sliding glass door eight floors below. Dressed in black, he raises a suppressed semi-automatic pistol and steps over the shards of glass, then out of the view of the back door security camera. He enters the view of the first-floor security camera. His stride shows purpose.

I pick up my phone and tap out an urgent text to my team.

Under attack. Get out.

I slide open a drawer and lift the pistol I hoped to never have to use. The security camera flashes the intruder on the second floor. I push a button on my phone, and the wall slides, exposing a ladder. With my phone in my mouth and the gun in my hand, I climb the cold metal bars to the room above. Kill or be killed. The Tao of Jiu-Jitsu. The click of the panel informs me my location is now secure.

Through the air vent, I watch the wall of monitors. The assassin continues up the flights of stairs without pause. He knows his destination. I steady my breath. Sweat beads on my brow. I swallow, and the sound reverberates through my head. Focus. Nothing good comes from divided attention.

The door to the security room opens. The man in black enters, gun in front and at the ready. One step. Two steps. His back to me as he watches the monitors.

 I point my gun. Hold steady, same as at the shooting range. I aim for his chest, the largest area. My best chance. I breathe in. Steady. My finger pulls.

The loud gun kicks. The recall throws off my aim. A cloud of dust appears on the far wall. Dammit.

The intruder ducks, searching for the source.

Breathe. Steady.

He raises his gun toward my hideout. It’s him or me.

Aim.

A cracking sound blasts through the space.

The intruder falls back. My finger hovers on the trigger. I never pulled. Trevor, a member of my team, stands framed in the doorway. His gun points at the man on the floor.

I press my phone, and the wall panel clicks.

I climb down and join Trevor. The intruder wears a balaclava, the thin, black mask preferred by the military and assassins.

“Who do you think he is?” Trevor asks me, or maybe the room. A trickle of blood leaks from the dark hole in the center of the assassin’s forehead, darkening the fabric.

I gesture to the body on the floor. “You can do the honors.”

He reaches for the mask and unceremoniously tugs hard enough the body half rises. With a sickening thud, the head falls back onto the floor. Trevor closes the eyelids with his thumb.

“You recognize him?” he asks.

“No.”

Trevor places two fingers against his neck, I assume out of habit. Then he checks the front pockets and rolls him over. He lifts a single piece of paper from his back pocket and unfolds it. His eyes go wide as he turns it around for me to see.

A candid photo of our team. With addresses.

Fuck.

“He’s a professional,” Trevor says. “Kane found us.”

“We’ve got to move. Now.”

The Illusion of Randomness

Chapter 1

Erik

Six months later

Bells jingle as I push the vintage door. The brick walls lining the sides are windowless. The high ceilings feature ornately carved woodwork, most likely original, which would mean the ceiling is too. I don’t see any glass lenses or security cameras. The floor is wood, dented, and scuffed. Books line shelves and tables. There are a few small round tables for the cafe along a back wall. All are unused.

IP address location is not an exact science.

One loop, searching for a computer user, then I’ll hunt next door.

“Can I help you?” a feminine voice asks.

I step past a poster stretched out on a stand announcing the latest James Patterson book. Along the back wall, there’s a marble counter with a glass case for food. A young woman leans against the counter beside an old-timey cash register, and before her is an open MacBook adorned with colorful stickers. Score.

I step closer to get a better look.

A braid of light blonde hair, so light it’s almost white, curves around her neck and down slight shoulders. Silver earrings dangle, and smaller ones line her lobes and sparkle in the light. Her eyes meet mine. Light blue irises arrest my attention.

Those blue eyes track my movements. Because I’m staring, captivated. There’s a table of books to my right, and I grab one. In my peripheral vision, I see her gaze drop back to her keyboard.

She’s not at all what I anticipated.

Firefly’s avatar has a jet-black high ponytail and enormous anime-style black eyes. Of course, her avatar is also part Amazon, wields a Level 12 sword, and wears strappy sandal boots with flying capabilities. On the battlefield, she’s brutal. For a year or two, I had suspected a dude with a female enchantress avatar played by my side. Tons of players own avatars of both genders.

Never in my wildest fantasies did I envision my gaming comrade sported white hair and barely-there blue eyes, so pale, some might call them gray. Ghostlike. She closes the lid on her laptop and exits from behind the counter. Her long, flowing, patterned skirt swishes behind her as she floats through the store, straightening a stack of books on one table, lifting a book, and moving it to a shelf. Her toe rings glint in the overhead light whenever her leg kicks out in front. Firefly, in real life, is a pixie.

The gray tank top she wears perfectly encapsulates her breasts, sharing the shape with the world. Far smaller than her avatar’s bullet-shooting breasts, the real-life version before me obliterates the illustration. Unfathomable.

“Can I help you find something?”

She’s close, so close words escape. I shake my head and open the book in my hand. She returns to her place as a barista, flips open her MacBook Air, and resumes typing.

Bracelets cover from her wrist to halfway up her forearm. Her arms are slender, and her nails are short and painted dark, as dark as my clothes. She smiles. Then clicks away.

The bells jingle. A delivery guy with a large brown cardboard box on a hand truck enters. He’s wearing light-colored shorts and has a large tattoo on the back of one calf. It’s a dragon.

No. Impossible.

One step closer, still carrying the book, a better visual emerges. The art is off. The lines are crude, the color amateurish. His inspiration for the dragon might have been an American Chinese food menu.

“Did you want that book?” Firefly looks up from the form she’s signing for the guy with a mediocre tattoo. I hold out the heavy hardcover book. There are cats all over the cover. Kittens and a cat.

“No.” I set it down and exit. She must think I’m the weirdest of the weird.

On the drive home, instead of a winding two-way road choked with slow-moving vehicles, I see her. Her perfect, unblemished porcelain skin. That mystical white hair and those captivating blue eyes. I hear her voice. It’s light and feathery. Can I help you?

We’ve known each other for over fifteen years, and I’ve never heard her voice before. The two of us are virtual friends. Anonymous friends. Normal in the gaming world, when every player has an avatar identity. You never know what psycho you’re gunning down. Over the years, as I closed off from every other person around me, I remained real in my private texts to Firefly. At least, as real as one can be without knowing one’s name. But a name is a descriptor. The substance is beneath.

My hunch had been she, or he, was a fellow coder. In recent years, I’d become fairly certain she identified as she/her. Her pronoun usage remained consistent. She never asked for a photo. I should have asked for a photo. I would’ve used it as a screensaver.

“Where have you been?” Kairi greets me in the hallway with a spoon in a tub of communal ice cream.

“That’s disgusting.” Roommates. I have told her a minimum of twenty-five times to scoop it in a bowl.

“Where’d you go?” She’s like a parrot. No, I could put a curtain over the cage for silence.

“Did you miss me?” I taunt. She jabs the spoon in the container. The action grates every last nerve. I push past her into the den.

We’ve been locked away in this house for months. Kairi suggested this location at a time when we had few options. I’ll give her one thing. It’s in the middle of fucking nowhere. Theoretically, we’re in the middle of a vacation hotspot. An hour and a half north of San Francisco, wine enthusiasts drive here in droves. After six months in Napa, if I never see a grapevine again, I’ll be good.

In the middle of the living room floor, Trevor is leaning over one leg, stretching. My dog, Astra, is laid out beside him. Her tail wags back and forth in greeting. Trevor takes Astra on his runs, which have lengthened over the last several months. Astra, a German shepherd, is a highly trained protection dog. Trevor keeps her in fighting shape by wearing her out.

Since we arrived in California, he’s thrown himself into workouts. He’s former military. He treats his workouts like they are a matter of life and death. Then there’s Wolf. Wolf and Trevor were on the same team. Their team disbanded after an operation went sideways in Afghanistan. I hired them both. Over the years, we’ve become close friends.

Wolf is at his desk. All of us have desks in the oversized living area. Glass doors open onto a wraparound deck. Kairi’s mom used to rent it out to vacationers. Now she rents it to us. There is zero paperwork tying us to this home. Nothing traceable connects us to this location.

“Any news?” I ask Wolf.

“Ransom attack on a small company based in San Diego. Pleasure Lights. Ever heard of them?”

“No.” I land on the reclining chair and pull back the lever, sending my legs up high. I like how the chair responds. But they make better chairs. Gaming chairs that accommodate multiple monitors. I’d replace this one but then I’d have to deal with it when we move. And we will move.

“I’ve got a call in an hour with the CEO. You want in?” Wolf doesn’t look up from the device on his lap.

“No.” I lift off my glasses and scratch my eyebrow. “Why are you dealing with a hack?” Wolfgang is building out our security division—physical security. Monitoring, security agents, the stuff I originally hired him for.

“He wants to pay them. But get this—they want to meet him in person.”

“They aren’t hackers.” They might want to kill the guy. Meeting in a random warehouse would be an excellent call for such a plan. But no hacker meets in person. Yeah, in Asia, our old syndicate did have a few buildings to house hackers. Mainly so we could ensure they were actually fucking doing their jobs and effectively monitor their activities. But they worked for us. And management didn’t show faces. “Anyone who knows shit about hacking would send crypto payment instructions.”

“You think I don’t know that?” He leans back in the chair and crosses his arms over his chest. The tatts on his biceps stretch.

“Any word from NSA?” We plan to take clients from all over the world. But our most important client, the one who cut me a deal to remain out of prison, the National Security Agency, is the one we drop everything for.

“We’re getting a new contact. I’ll be the one who goes down to meet her for in-person updates,” Kairi announces as she puts her hand on the back of my chair.

“Down where?” If she says San Francisco, I will pop a blood vessel. We’re about an hour and a half from the city, but there are traffic cameras all over that place. There’s no way Kane doesn’t have passive data collection. He’s running all that data through a facial recognition program. Combing data can be time consuming. It won’t be instantaneous like in the movies. But if we get on a feed he’s tapping into, he’ll locate us. I know he’s doing it, because I’m doing it. Only, I’m doing it because I want to know if he returns to the States. He’s doing it because he wants to hire assassins, just like he did six months ago. And a year before that.

“She’s picking the location.”

“How do you know it’s a she?”

“I don’t. But if I don’t know someone’s gender, I like to call them a she.”

“Why?” Trevor asks her from the floor, and I scowl at him for giving her that one.

“Because I like to assume the best in everyone.” She smiles gleefully. She’s a twat. She’s actually much more what I envisioned Firefly would be like if she were female. Kairi never wears make-up, her bangs almost cover her eyes, and she’s always in T-shirts and sweatpants. “Now, where’d you go?”

Kairi is a low-level coder. Maybe mid-level. Mostly cut and paste. She’s decent. Getting better. Her specialty is phishing. She’s got a way with people. She can get a phone number from any rep from any company. She reads people, and if they see her in person, she’s unstoppable. She has these freckles that give her what she calls country girl innocence. But even online, where no one sees her mug, she makes friends in a world where no one trusts. She develops sick camaraderie in a world where it’s all fake first names, and everyone’s on a VPN, a virtual private network, behind firewalls. It’s her superpower.

She pops my head.

“Fuck.” I lean forward out of her reach.

“Answer me.”

“I wanted to check something out.”

“You?” She points an index finger at me. “Without security?” Now Wolf and Trevor are looking at me. This girl is as annoying as my sister.

“It had nothing to do with work. I just needed out.” That’s partially true. But I’d also gotten a text. And I hacked the game site. On a whim. Pinged her IP address. Mapped it. Forty-five minutes away.

All three of my roommates are staring at me. I didn’t enjoy having roommates in college. So much so I moved back home.

“What you do affects our safety.” It’s a line Wolf likes to parrot. When we agreed to splinter, we committed to each other.

“It’s stupid.” They keep looking at me. They’re bored. We should play Overwatch. It’s insane they have this much interest in my activities. Back in Bangkok, they never asked. Of course, maybe back there, they didn’t want the answer. “I traced an IP address.” Three sets of eyes stare at me. “Wanted to check it out.”

“By yourself?” Wolf’s hand balls into a fist. Jesus.

“Someone I used to play games with. When I was young.” Relax.

“What game?”

“Zeitgeist.” Like any of these losers have heard of it.

“How young?” Kairi’s squinting at me, all detective-like.

“Young, okay?” She inches forward. “Like college. High school.”

“Did you find her?”

“How do you know it’s a her?”

“Because I don’t see you as bi.”

“There’s nothing sexual about it, perv. I was just curious.” There are some advanced things one could do to throw off the scent. But…“She’s not a hacker. She was a gamer. Now she’s not. Now she owns a bookstore.”

“Huh.” Kairi’s tongue traces her back teeth. Her tongue piercing flashes in the light. And now I wonder if Firefly has a tongue piercing. “You know, it’s pointless. None of us can risk a relationship right now. You get that, right?”

There’s an unnecessary hardness to her glare. I know her words are accurate. I wasn’t looking for a relationship. I don’t do relationships. I was just curious. And bored.

“What’s her name?” Kairi probes.

“Didn’t confirm it.” None of my online names are real, and it’s been that way for so long I don’t place value in names. And then, because I spend way too much time with this crew, she asks the question as I think it.

“How do you even know you found the right person?”