Authors: James Patterson
Tags: #Fiction, #Suspense, #Thriller
I DISMOUNTED MY bike, muscles singing, and peeled off my sweaty tee and bra. Then I put on my hoodie and left the zipper down just far enough to make it look like I was trying to start something with this guy.
I turned the Android’s camera on myself then and did what I could to keep from looking completely disgusted. The truth was, I was about 90 percent fearless, but this was well
inside my 10 percent.
Before I could change my mind, I snapped a selfie and posted it into the app’s chat thread.
Are you there?
Even if he responded soon, I figured I could afford a minute away from the phone. That’s what I needed for the next step. It was a gamble, but there was no way through this without taking some kind of risk.
I picked up my card key, slipped silently out
of the apartment, and let myself into the admin office across the hall.
“Hey, hon. What can I do you for?” Rena asked, looking up from her keyboarding as I came in.
“I’m really sorry to ask,” I said, “but I was just working out, and it reminded me that I was supposed to pick up my asthma prescription yesterday.”
And no, I don’t have asthma. There was no prescription.
“Are you okay?” Rena asked
with the immediate concern of a mother. “Do I need to call someone?”
“I’m fine,” I told her. “But I’d feel better if I had that inhaler, just in case. It’s at the CVS on Mass Ave.”
Already she was stepping out of her low heels and into a pair of Keen slip-ons. “Don’t give it another thought,” she said. “I’ll go now and knock on your door as soon as I’m back.”
“Thank you so much,” I said. I
hated lying to this nice lady, but it couldn’t be helped.
Back in my apartment, I closed the door, turned around, and pressed my eye to the peephole.
Rena came out a second later. I watched her head up the hall and gave it another slow ten count, just to make sure she was gone. Then I went right back to her office, grabbed the laptop, and returned to my apartment in one quick loop. The daily
security logs would record every time I used my key card, but hopefully that wouldn’t matter by the time anyone noticed.
I checked the Android as soon as I was back. There were no new texts for me, which was just as well. I still had some humps to get over.
I input my work password to hop on the laptop’s Wi-Fi and then used my credit card to buy a copy of the software I was going to need for
this. Twelve hundred dollars down the drain. Oh well. It was the least of my worries right now.
The program was called Stego. That’s short for steganography, which is the practice of digitally hiding information in plain sight. In this case, it was going to be one of the selfies I’d send the Poet, embedded with a bit of geolocating malware. As soon
as it reached his phone or laptop, it would
self-detonate and send back all the information I’d need.
Next, I went looking for the malicious code itself. The dark net is full of spyware libraries, if you know where to look. And geolocation isn’t exactly rocket science in that world. It took me all of two minutes to find something I could use, and a few seconds more to drag it into Stego’s source window.
Now I needed the
carrier file. A.k.a., the distraction.
I stood up and positioned myself in front of the laptop’s camera. This time, I lowered my zipper all the way, keeping my breasts covered but showing a full highway of skin down the front. If he wanted more than that, he could go screw himself. Literally.
I set the camera to a three-second delay, clicked the shutter, and stood back. After a quick countdown,
it snapped the photo I needed. Then I dropped it into Stego alongside the code I’d already delivered and clicked Run.
The software took it from there, knitting my geolocator right into the image, pixel by pixel. A status window opened up a few seconds later to indicate its progress: 5 percent and counting.
For a few minutes, nothing more happened. Then, just as the image clicked over to 36 percent
complete on the laptop, a new text scrolled into the Android’s chat screen.
That’s not much,
he said. Presumably, he meant the modest little selfie I’d already sent.
You can do better.
I wrote back right away, making sure to keep the laptop out of sight of the phone’s camera.
Of course I can,
Isn’t that how the game works? It gets better as it goes along.
Why don’t I believe you?
Believe it. I don’t have time to be shy anymore. If I play along, will you do everything you can to get Eve out alive?
I’m in charge. Don’t worry.
It wasn’t that I trusted his word. Not even a little. It was all about taking a page from this guy’s book and turning myself into the person he wanted me to be. Or at least letting him
that’s what was happening.
It was the best way I knew to draw him into a trap of my own making.
THE SOFTWARE WAS reporting in at 68 percent complete by now. I needed to draw this out for however long it took.
I want to see more this time,
Not so fast,
It’s my turn to ask a question.
Are you Hermes?
I knew you were going to ask that,
No. Hermes never existed.
So you have no connection to FNC?
Clever girl. This is why I like you,
Now you go.
I hated to think about what he might be doing with himself right then, but I stayed focused on the big picture. I was spinning a web here. And first chance I got, I was going to suck the lifeblood right out of this bastard.
So I pulled my zipper down a few inches from where it had been in the first shot and posted a new pic.
That’s about a 6,
looking for a 10
Be patient. We’ll get there,
I wrote back.
My turn. Why are you doing all this? What’s the bigger objective here?
Why do you think there is one?
Seems like a lot of trouble for nothing
Who said anything about NOTHING?
Ever hear of George Mallory?
I hadn’t, and I took a second to look up the name. Wikipedia told me that Mallory had been a mountain climber
in the 1920s. The thing he was most remembered for was his famous quote about why he wanted to climb Mount Everest. “Because it’s there,” he’d said.
And weirdly enough, it made perfect sense. Black hat hackers lived by that credo, in their own nihilistic way. They were motivated by doing things that had never been done before, often just for the sake of doing it.
It also echoed the Twitter handle
from that morning: JustCuz. This was starting to add up.
So you wanted to kill those people because they were there?
Does that mean this app is your Mount Everest?
But now YOU are.
And a thousand invisible spiders went crawling through my stomach. Jesus Christ, this guy was all over the map.
I don’t know what to say to that,
I told him.
You don’t have
to say anything,
he wrote back.
Next picture, please.
THE GOOD NEWS was, my Stego image was just about there. I watched the status window as it clicked from 99 to 100 percent complete, and a throbber started cycling on the screen while the software did its final processing.
the Poet texted.
I warned you, Angela. Don’t bore me. It won’t end well for Eve if you do.
I’m just deciding how much to show you,
I wrote back quickly.
Show me everything.
Finally, a new window opened on the laptop, and I had my finished image. It looked exactly like the original. He’d have to blow it up to wall-size before he’d be able to see any impact from the embedded code.
None of which was my immediate concern. The most vulnerable part of this whole process was in the next step: transferring that infected photo from
Rena’s laptop to the Android.
I had no idea if the app would detect that granular a file change or not. If it did, then I’d just wasted two days of hell and was about to lose everything, including Eve. But there was no stopping now.
I turned off the laptop’s Wi-Fi first. Then I slid the phone across the table, keeping it flat, with the camera aimed at the ceiling. I plugged its charger cable
into a port on the computer and transferred my spyware-laden selfie to the Android’s photo library as quickly as I could.
Once that was done, I yanked the charger cable and posted my image on the Android so he could see it. Then I turned the laptop’s internet back on and started watching for any incoming reports.
Within seconds, I had confirmation that the spyware had rooted. So far, so good.
he wrote me.
THIS IS WHAT I’M TALKING ABOUT
You like that?
I asked. It nauseated me just to write it, but I had to string him along.
Let’s just say you earned your next question,
As I watched the laptop, the screen blinked twice, repopulated, and spit out an IP address, followed quickly by an actual street location.
147 Condor Street, Boston MA 02128
I didn’t need another
Q and A with him, but I did need more time. So I kept going.
Why did you take Eve?
Why not me?
As he worked on his answer, I tore back onto the laptop and mapped the address I’d been given. Condor Street was over by the Chelsea River in Eastie. Only 2.9 miles from my current location. Easy striking distance.
I wanted to see what you could do on your own,
You depend on Eve
too much, you know that?
That’s not true,
I typed back even as I was scanning the route on the laptop, committing as much as I could to memory.
I want to see more now. And I do mean MORE.
I was ready for this, too. I’d known I was going to need a big stall at some point. I also knew this guy was a horny son of a bitch.
I’m all sweaty from my ride,
I told him.
If we’re going
to keep going, I need a nice hot shower first.
Excellent. Can I watch?
No but you can listen,
And you can see when I’m done.
No clothes this time. And no towel.
Give me fifteen minutes.
I won’t wait forever.
You won’t have to,
I told him.
It’s like I already said. The game gets better as it goes along.
And I meant it. Just not in the way he might have
It was time for me to snap this trap, once and for all.
I CARRIED THE Android into the bathroom and set it on the sink, without a view of the shower. Then I turned on the hot tap and let the bathroom start to steam up.
I draped a towel around the showerhead so it would sound like someone was in there.
And I slipped out of the bathroom, closing the door behind me.
A few seconds later, I was back in Rena’s office. I grabbed the phone and
dialed Billy’s number, but it went straight to voice mail. Dammit! It felt like forever just getting to the beep.
“Billy! It’s Angela! I don’t have time to explain, but I know where they’re holding Eve. It’s 147 Condor Street in Eastie. God, I hope you pick this up soon.”
I couldn’t call the police. If they got to that address without instruction, Eve was screwed. Someone needed to head them
off or get there first. So I ran back along the hall and down the stairs to the guard station on six.
One of the guards stopped me right away with a hand out. “Hold it right there,” he said.
“I need to get hold of anyone on Agent Keats’s team,” I told him. “It’s an absolute emergency. An agent’s life is at stake.”
The other guard picked up the phone. “I’ll try Agent Keats right now,” he said.
“He’s not picking up!” I told him. “Call Audrey Gruss’s office. Call whatever emergency contact you need to, and get them over to 147 Condor. Have you got that? They need to go in carefully. Keats will know why, but if you can’t get him, I need to be there, or I need to talk to someone myself—”
“You’re not even authorized to be on this floor,” the first guard said. “Go back to your quarters.
As soon as we have contact, we’ll let you know—”
“Are you even listening to me?” I yelled at him.
“Miss, you need to calm down.”
“Let me go to the fifth floor and find someone myself,” I said. “You can escort me, if you need to.”
I reached for the elevator button, but he wasn’t having it and stepped in my way.
“Please don’t make me remove you from this area,” he said. “We’re on it, okay?
Now turn around and go. I’m not going to ask again.”
I felt like I was in a nightmare within a nightmare. They were only following protocol, but that wasn’t good enough. And I couldn’t waste any more time spinning my wheels with them.
So I made a decision. I went back upstairs, down the hall, and quietly into my apartment.
I could hear the shower running as I grabbed my bike and turned to leave.
But then I stopped. I pulled a small paring knife out of the kitchen drawer and sheathed it in the laces of my sneakers, just in case. It was a gut move, not a rational one. But who the hell knew what might happen?
Wheeling my bike into the hall, I turned right instead of left
this time. I went straight for the fire exit and used my front tire to break through the crash bar. A second later, I
was humping that bike down seven flights as fast as I could, while the high-pitched wail of an alarm echoed up and down the stairwell behind me.
When I reached the ground floor, there was only one way out. I hit another crash bar with my tire and burst onto the sidewalk, like some kind of escaped convict.
I jumped on my bike, hopped the curb down to the street, pointed myself east, and started
pedaling like hell.