Whoever invented neckties should be thrown in jail. I tug at the stupid thing around my neck, trying to get some freedom from the silk contraption, but Agent Fields gives me a glare from the other side of the large, circular fountain between us, where he’s pretending to read a newspaper on the bench opposite from mine. A newspaper. If he’s trying to blend in, he’s doing a worse job than me.
A male voice crackles in my ear, full of static and almost too choppy to understand. “Relax, Mr. Moody. The contact will be here any moment.”
“You clearly don’t know what helps me relax,” I grumble back. “And don’t call me that.”
“It’s your name. Please stop talking, Mr. Moody.”
I suppose I do look like I’m talking to myself as I sit on this bench alone, but that doesn’t stop me from continuing my observably one-sided conversation. “You know you could boost the signal of these earpieces if you used satellites over cell towers, right? You’re not even that far away, and I can barely hear you.”
“Mr. Moody, please—”
“Plus, I’m pretty sure he’ll be checking for wires as soon as he shows up,” I continue, while Fields looks ready to murder me as he continues to glare over his newspaper. I’m pretty sure he’s contemplating turning off his earpiece so he doesn’t have to keep listening to my conversation with the man in the van whose name I’ve already forgotten. “I’m sure you’re aware that technology has evolved past using actual wires. This thing tickles like you wouldn’t believe.” And the wire taped to my chest is nothing compared to the tie that feels like a shiny red noose around my neck.
I don’t know why I’m poking this particular bear. It’s probably a bad idea to mess with the FBI, but I really expected them to be more competent than this. The out-of-date equipment is putting me on edge.
“Mr. Moody, if you don’t stop talking, I could have you arrested for obstruction of justice.”
I slouch against the back of the park bench, tugging at my tie again because it really does feel like it’s strangling me. I haven’t worn a suit since my high school graduation nine years ago, and this getup is giving me horrible flashbacks of my teenage years. Not a time I would like to relive.
“Technically,” I mutter, glancing around the sunny, people-filled park, “I’m not obstructing anything. The contact isn’t anywhere in sight, and the only reason I’m here is because I’m the one who uncovered his operation and you guys aren’t smart enough to talk to him. Arrest me if you want, but that will only let this guy get away. Your choice.”
Fields looks like he’s about to give up his post and come strangle me himself, so I give him a little wave and tug my tie extra loose, knowing he can’t do anything about it.
My earpiece is silent, which means I’ve either angered the man in the van enough for him to abort the operation, or he knows I’m right. The only reason I agreed to this stupid meeting is because there’s a limited window of opportunity to catch this guy. Frank Hadley has been slowly building a digital battering ram that breaks through even the toughest firewalls in minutes, and his targeted smash and grabs against innocents caught my attention a couple of weeks ago. He’s next to impossible to track until he’s already struck, but my team of cyber security experts managed to find a way to contact him and set up a meeting for me under the pretext of wanting to join forces as a fellow hacker.
I hate that word. Hacker. It calls to mind cheap movie gimmicks of clacking keyboards and scrolling code and minimizes the intelligence it takes to understand programming at such a deep level. Hacking is taking a dull hatchet to a block of wet wood, not delicately dancing with the nuances of technology.
But I digress. Hadley miraculously agreed to meet me while he’s in New Mexico for a day before he disappears into the wind. I alerted the FBI so I could let someone else handle the physical stuff while I worked to destroy his invasive program, but no. They begged me to make the actual contact, so here I am.
In a suit.
For the record, hackers don’t wear suits. We wear whatever we please because there’s no point in being uncomfortable. Unfortunately, the feds weren’t open to suggestions.
Also for the record, I am not a hacker. I just happen to have a lot of skills that may or may not translate into the hacking world. We don’t have to talk about the things I did in my youth. That doesn’t count.
“We may have the target in sight,” a female voice says over the earpiece. “Everyone on high alert. Suspect may be armed.”
Fields stiffens in his seat, his hands going tight around the newspaper.
I stay where I am, trying not to look suspicious as I glance around the park. There are dozens of people within a hundred yards of me, and I wouldn’t say any of them look shifty. I doubt my contact is the woman playing frisbee golf with her friend or the guy pacing while talking on his phone. Honestly, everyone in this park looks like a normal human enjoying a perfect summer day.
Hadley said he would know me when he saw me, though I haven’t figured out how. I don’t exist on the internet and I don’t own a cell phone, so I’m next to untraceable. Either he’s way better at his job than I am—unlikely but possible—or he knows I’m going to be surrounded by field agents. There’s a high chance Hadley has heard my name, and his curiosity is the only thing that brought him out today.
“Where’s he coming from?” I ask, trying not to move my mouth.
No one responds, though Fields has a distant look in his eyes, like he’s listening to something I’m not hearing. Stupid faulty earpiece… I really don’t like being kept out of the loop when I’m the sitting duck in a tie. This is why I didn’t want to be a part of this. This is why I don’t generally trust the government. I’ve seen too many downfalls and not enough positives, and they’re really not helping their case right now by leaving me in the dark.
Fields stands, looking over at me while tucking a hand in his jacket, where his shoulder holster holds his gun. The murderous look hasn’t left his eyes. Nor has his focus shifted away from me. He narrows his eyes, and cold dread settles in my stomach.
I sit up straight. He’s not going to shoot me, is he? Why would he? I’m on their side.
“Abort! We’ve been made!” The radio turns to static, but three disjointed words make it through the noise: “Take. Moody. Out.”
The instant I see Fields’s pistol glistening in the sun and pointed right at me, I bolt. A gunshot echoes behind me. People scream. Someone shouts my name but I don’t stop running. I dodge trees, trying to avoid the congested paths so there’s no one caught in the crosshairs. Only when I’ve crossed half the park do I glance back without slowing down.
I don’t see anyone hot on my heels, but that doesn’t mean I’m safe. I have to--
I collide with something hard, grunting as pain radiates through me on impact. Whatever I hit—whoever—they fall with me. We both tumble through some shrubs and down a hidden hill in a tangle of limbs until we land in a heap at the bottom of a heavily foliaged ravine.
I groan, struggling to free myself so I can keep running. That wasn’t fun. At all. “Sorry.”
The woman beneath me doesn’t move, her blonde hair obscuring her face.
I swear, forcing myself to ignore my own pain as I check her for injuries. “Miss? Can you hear me?”
My heart stops for a fleeting moment when I only find one leg, thinking the other is bent beneath her or something and definitely broken, until I realize the end of her thigh doesn’t continue downward. I breathe a sigh of relief. “Oh, good. It’s just missing.”
“Most people don’t see that as a good thing.”
My eyes snap to her face to find her glaring at me. “You’re okay.”
She narrows her bright blue eyes. “No thanks to you. Were you a linebacker in a past life?”
I can’t stop the single laugh that rushes out of me. This is not the time for laughing! “Why couldn’t I be a linebacker now?”
Her gaze slides down my body as she lifts her head to get a better view. “Uh, because you probably weigh a buck fifty? Which is still more than I want on top of me, thank you very much.” She shoves her hands into my chest with impressive strength, pushing me to the side to free herself.
Yeah, I’m not a big guy. I do yoga before bed and occasionally hit the gym if I’m feeling particularly frustrated. I care more about flexibility and health than strength. Still, her assessment stings. Why this matters when I was almost executed just now, I have no idea.
“I hit you pretty hard,” I mumble, brushing leaves and dirt from my sleeves as I try to calm my heart rate so I can think clearly and figure out my next move. “Sorry about that.”
As she sits up, she looks through the vines and weeds around her as if searching for something. “Aha,” she says and picks up a phone. Then her eyes lift to the hill we just tumbled down. “You wouldn’t happen to see my leg up there anywhere, would you? I might need that if I’m going to—”
I grab her, wrapping my palm over her mouth and dragging her against my chest as I press myself into the side of the hill to hide. Three men, none of them familiar, just appeared at the top with frantic looks in their eyes, and I’m not keen to be murdered today. Whether they’re FBI or with Hadley, they’re going to be out to get me.
“Stay quiet,” I hiss to my sudden captive, “and I’ll make sure you live through this.”