Clouds covered the sky, the summer sun unable to break through the cover. I stood outside the tall building, which towered over the rest of the structures in Pelican Bay. I saw no signs or activity in or out of the building, making it appear deserted. Yet, my contact promised this was the place to meet him. They had to be inside or else I wasn’t sure how I’d live through the week.
Did I make a wrong choice?
The building looked like a great place to kill me and hide my body. I checked the deserted street one last time and tilted my head to the sky, watching the swirling gray clouds work their way toward the ocean at the end of the long street.
Fingers crossed the weather didn’t indicate how the day might end for me.
I parked blocks away and walked, hoping I’d see if someone tailed me. My heightened anxiety hadn’t turned me into a superspy in the last twenty-four hours, but I was getting good at looking over my shoulder without turning my body all the way around.
That had to be good for something. I just wasn’t sure if I’d live long enough to find out what.
I put my hand on the large glass door and hesitated another moment, clutching the metal handle hard so my shaking fingers weren’t as obvious. The whole situation had me terrified. I’d never been on the run before and didn’t want to die. My stomach threatened to throw up everything I’d eaten since 2010, but I pushed onward.
You’d freak too if everything in your life shattered overnight.
Two days ago, I’d been a regular, boring woman. I went to work Monday through Friday and spent my weekends reading romance books and watching reruns of old TV shows on Netflix. The most exciting thing going on in my life involved scrolling the local animal shelter website and trying to calculate when to adopt my first pet.
That’s exactly what I’d been doing when my boss came knocking on my door at 9:30 on Monday evening. I’d logged off and had been getting ready to go to bed—yup, I said I led a boring life—when his fist hit my door so loudly he almost woke up the entire apartment complex.
Sean wasn’t a terrible boss, but we weren’t exactly “outside of work friends.” His visit definitely came as a shock.
He wouldn’t have known where I lived except he’d given me a ride home two years ago after the company Christmas party. That and he probably had it in my employee file somewhere.
“Sean?” I asked, only opening the door halfway. His clothes hung off him like someone tried to rip his jacket from his arms, and he hadn’t stopped to fix it.
He gazed at me as if he wasn’t looking at me but seeing ghosts behind me. It was so chilling I even turned to look and make sure I was alone in my apartment. “Hazel, they’re after me.”
“Who is after you?” I asked when he stopped to take a breath.
He fumbled in his pocket and returned with a small black thumb drive. “I don’t know when they’ll catch up to me. Put this in a safe place. You need to take it and hide it for me.”
He pressed the drive into my palm, and I expected to feel the Earth rumble under my feet or see a flash of lighting—anything to alert me of my impending danger. Where were my warning signs?
I couldn’t blame my situation on anyone but myself because I took the drive from him, still trying to make sense of his ramblings. Looking back, I should have stopped to ask a few more qualifying questions.
The one I asked wasn’t great. “Where am I supposed to hide it?”
As you can tell, the severity of the situation had not hit me. And frankly, Sean looked slightly drunk. I’d seen him tie one on at the Christmas party the year before, but he never seemed a guy to get wasted on a Monday night.
“They’re everywhere. Hide it somewhere nobody will look. This information could bring down the entire company.”
“What information?” I asked, looking at the thumb drive and getting ready to hand it back. I didn’t have time to bring down a company, especially the one writing my paycheck.
Except when I looked up from my hand, Sean had left. His retreating form as he ran through the parking lot of my apartment complex was the last I saw of him.
“Shawn!” I yelled after him.
He turned with panic flashing in his eyes. “Keep it safe, Hazel.”
And then he was gone. Swallowed up by the darkness as he stepped past a thin line of trees separating two apartment buildings.
Sean and I got along reasonably well working together for the last four years, but he was a freaking moron to show up at my house in the middle of the night and give me a drive with nothing but cryptic words about how it might ruin the company. Then tell me I had to keep it safe. Dude watched too much television.
I didn’t even know what the small device held, considering All American Bank encrypted all their data. Everything from employee files to customer information. You needed the special password from the person who created it or access to their computer.
And newsflash, Sean hadn’t given me either of those pieces of the puzzle.
Now as I entered the big imposing building, the thumb drive burned a hole in my pocket, and I swear I heard my clock ticking away the seconds. The longer I held on to the information, the more my life drew closer to its end.
I had no time to waste.
I pushed through the glass door, letting myself into the building’s lobby. The small town I landed in was only a two-hour drive from Bangor, where I fled from earlier that morning, but the deserted streets and the overcast sky seemed ominous.
“Hello?” I called out to the empty first floor of the building.
Not a single soul. Not a chair, not a desk, not even a fake plant.
Not spooky at all.
I was so going to die.
My heart kicked up beating again as I spun in a circle looking for anyone while expecting a gunshot. It was just me and four walls of glass, so they had an easy target.
Was this a trap? Had my contact, the one person I counted on to get me out of this mess, led me astray?
A small sliver of sunshine broke through the clouds outside and scattered rainbows danced on the floors. Neither did anything to lighten my mood. If I was going to die in this monstrosity of a building, I wished they’d just get on with it. A bank of elevators sat in the middle of the first-floor space, and I walked to them, hitting the up arrow. The doors opened immediately.
Like it was waiting for me.
Totally not scary.
Nope. Not at all.
With one foot into the space and one foot out, I looked back to double check no one followed me. The lobby was still empty. I needed to do this. It was a long shot, but long shots were all I had left.
I probably shouldn’t have brought the thumb drive with me, but I hoped to meet with TerminalChaos, tell him my story, chuck the thumb drive at him, and then leave. Problem solved. No one needed to know I’d even been here. Easy peasy.
And I wouldn’t end up like Sean.
I pressed the button for the fourth floor and the elevator started with a squeak. Plastic covered the glassy metal-colored walls as if the elevator wasn’t ready for service yet. Hopefully that meant it wouldn’t crash and drop me to my doom before I passed on the information.
I tried to take calming breaths as I placed my hands on my knees and lowered my head to stop the nauseating feelings. But the ninety-nine-cent meditation app I downloaded on my phone didn’t prepare me for my current life-or-death experience. Frankly, I remained as calm as anyone should have expected. The fact I wasn’t lying on the floor crying my eyes out meant I deserved a damn award.
“Fucking Sean,” I whispered, seeing his face when I closed my eyes. I refused to end up dead like him.
Shot outside of his home. A place I’d never visited, but the news crew reporting on his case identified the scene. A cute two-story home in the suburbs of Bangor. Suburb people didn’t get shot in their driveways. They had heart attacks while mowing the lawn or shoveling snow.
You didn’t just shoot a middle manager at a bank outside their suburbia home.
Life had an order to things and Sean’s murder messed that up. Big time.
The news didn’t say what happened or give a motive, but in my heart, I knew where he’d been before getting shot.
I swallowed the guilt and planned to do my best to focus on the task at hand.
Sean said the documents were enough to ruin our employer, All American Bank, but what would be worth killing over?
The elevator dinged, and the doors opened way before I was ready. I stepped out, only to be met by the shine of a weapon. I screamed and jumped back, my fingers searching for another floor on the elevator pad, but a second man stepped in the way, holding his hand out to so the doors didn’t close.
I’m going to die.
“Calm down, Drake,” the man in a suit said, and instantly the gun lowered.
The enormous guy with the weapon took a step away but didn’t hide his gun as he watched me cower in the elevator’s corner.
So going to die.
Did I have life insurance?
Who would inherit?
The person holding the door wore a three-piece suit like he owned the suit shop. Each section was buttoned up impeccably as if he wasn’t with his friend holding guns on women, but in a board room somewhere conducting business of extreme importance.
I took him in slowly, trying to regulate my breathing and thanking God I’d had nothing to eat or drink for breakfast. Surely, I’d have a repeat of the time in first grade when William Decanter jumped out at me from behind the classroom door and scared me so badly I peed my pants.
If I died, I wanted to go down with dignity… and dry pants.
The two men stared at me and then, when I was fairly certain my heart would not explode, the one in the suit spoke again. “Who are you?”
“I’m looking for TerminalChaos. He said I’d find him here on the fourth floor.”
He circled his hand in a hurry fashion. “Sure, but you are?”
“Um… I’m Hazel Webb.”
The man with the gun grunted and jerked his head to the side, signaling I needed to step off the elevator. I did so only after the suit-guy turned on a heel and walked down the short hallway. Quiet coated the air. Not even a whisper. Had they abandoned the building?
My gaze fell to the suited guy’s ass and the way his pants cupped it perfectly. I’d seen plenty of men in suits, but none of them fit like this one. Even on the run and fearful of her life, a girl noticed a fine ass.
It wasn’t the time or the place, but I guess when your brain thought you were a few minutes away from death, taking time to enjoy the little things in life had new meaning.
At the end of the hall, a large office with an entire wall of windows waited with an open door. He gestured for me to enter and I did so only because a desk with two chairs sat in the room. Surely, he wouldn’t shoot me and splatter blood on his expensive furniture.
He waited for me to sit and then took a seat behind the desk, toppling his fingers together into a triangle. “How did you find out about me?”
He didn’t say how did you find out about TerminalChaos, but me. The man with a nice butt in the well-fitting suit had to be no other than the best hacker in the United States. I expected a gamer in a hoodie, not a CEO type. Shouldn’t he be living in his mother’s basement or something?
My chance finally arrived to spill my guts and make this problem someone else’s.
“I work for All American Bank as a project coordinator. We tried to hire you a year ago. Everyone said you are the best in the country, but you declined to develop our new encryption software.”
I saw the news report about Sean and couldn’t go to work for fear my life might be next. I had the card for a well-known hacker, TerminalChaos, in my card holder on pure happenstance. Fate.
Who else did you go to for an encrypted thumb-drive belonging to your dead boss?
For at least an hour, I hid in my kitchen having a total panic attack, but slowly a plan took shape. I took a vacation day at work, blaming my sick grandmother, and then started tracking down the one person I hoped might save my hide.
My plans hinged on the world’s best hacker.
“And what? You thought to lie, pretending to be a damsel in distress to get me into a meeting, and then you’d talk me into working for your company?” Annoyance and anger swirled together with his words. He lifted one eyebrow and glanced at me as if he found me nothing more than a beetle to crush.
I also never forgot about the guy carrying a gun. He’d tucked it away but still guarded the door with an ominous expression on his face.
“No,” I said, throwing my hands up and almost getting out of my chair, but then I thought better of it and sat again.
I couldn’t handle any more crap. Someone shot my boss, this dude held a gun on me, the building was scary, and I didn’t want to die.
Why didn’t anyone understand that?
My panic hit an all-time high. My blood pressure skyrocketed, and I saw black dots in my vision. That couldn’t be a good sign.
I didn’t give a shit if TerminalChaos worked for All American Bank. After today, I probably didn’t work for the bank anymore. Either I’d end up dead or take the entire bank under once someone decrypted the thumb drive.
I didn’t care about the bank. I cared about my life.
What would they do if he didn’t find my explanation good enough? Would they let me out of the room?
My face fell and my stomach rolled.
What if they let me leave and I had to handle this on my own? I’d end up like Sean.
Sure, sometimes I gave Sean the last couple ounces of coffee from a pot before brewing myself a new one. And yes, I’d lie about it, but did he hate me so much he thought I deserved the thumb drive of death?
“All American doesn’t know I’m here. Please don’t tell anyone,” I said and then rushed to explain the events of my life over the last twenty-four hours as quickly as possible in case he kicked me out mid-story.
When I finished, I sucked in a breath and leaned back in the office chair, waiting for his judgment. Could I count on him to help me?
He hadn’t moved the entire time I’d spoken, and I congratulated myself on making it through without crying. He still had his fingers tented, and he touched each pad together in a slow motion.
“I charge fifty thousand dollars as a base and require a fifty-percent down payment before I touch anything. Do you have that much money, Ms. Webb?”
My stomach tossed and turned. I hadn’t thought about money. I’d only thought about saving my life. I hadn’t even gotten the thumb drive out of my pocket and already it was hopeless. My heart fell, and I swear I heard the splash in the empty contents of my stomach.
“No,” I didn’t have that much money. I didn’t even have a quarter of that money.
He let out a slow breath and shook his head. “I’m sorry, but I can’t help you. Drake will see you out.” He motioned to the man in the back of the room. “Tell Jack Beamer that Corbin Kensington doesn’t like to be fucked with and next time our meeting won’t end as pleasantly.”
I didn’t think it was possible, but my mood soured more. What did he mean by he couldn’t help me? He was my last shot. My only shot. What did the company CEO, Mr. Beamer, have to do with the thumb drive?
My panic became hopelessness. Did Drake plan to shoot me in the elevator as I walked out? They already had it covered in plastic. Did they prepare in advance? Had I walked right into my death while trying to flee from it?
What heartless man heard my story, realized my life was on the line, and turned me away? I needed him to be my knight in shining armor. But that hadn’t happened.
Now I was screwed.
I closed my eyes and let my head drop. I hinged my hopes on everything turning out okay if I just made it to Pelican Bay.
Corbin Kensington wasn’t my savior. He’d unceremoniously thrown me to the wolves.