London: December 26 3:56 p.m.
Dahlia gazed from her office window overlooking the Thames. She had always enjoyed the view over the water at dusk. It reminded her how she loved the Christmas holidays, and she longed to be home with her dearest son, Hunter.
Why did he go snooping into the Collective’s business? Dahlia thought. His impatience had almost cost Black Iris’s hacking operation everything. It was a good idea sending Jony to keep Hunter in check.
An explosion in a nearby office suddenly rocked Dahlia out of her seat and onto the liquor tray beside her. Several full and partially full bottles of top-shelf vodka, whiskey, and wine bounced and shattered around her. She could hear the sizzling sounds of office equipment and wiring burning. Then Dahlia felt another smaller—but no less deadly—blast. Dahlia plunged under her hardwood antique desk, thinking it would provide some protection.
After a moment of silence, Dahlia dared to sneak a glance out from under the desk; nobody was in sight.
Was there a gas leak on the floor?
The lights in the office no longer worked. Blindly, she felt around in the dark areas under the desk for the pistol she kept for emergencies. The weapon was in its holster. She checked the pistol.
Good—a full clip.
The weapon felt natural in her hands, as if it belonged there. It supercharged her resolve; she had some investigating to do.
Dahlia snatched her coat from the chair, shook glass shards from it, and put it on. She crawled along the office floor; flames from small fires fueled by heaps of rubbish illuminated the office. Another twenty feet and she would be at the hallway. When she reached the main hallway, she gasped. Offices on either side glowed as the flames consumed the furniture, drapes, couches, and everything else. Smoke was enveloping the hallway, and soon it would be difficult to breathe, let alone see. She stood up and made a run for the door leading to the stairwell at the end of the hall. Blinded by smoke, she felt for the door handle, grabbed, and opened it. The building’s emergency lighting system illuminated the stairwell. She’d always hated the greenish tint that those lights emitted, but she was grateful for them now.
Dahlia felt the air change; someone was close by. Then she could almost sense the release of energy as the bullets penetrated plaster wall inches from her head.
The bastards will pay for this! Dahlia thought.
She crouched down, hugging and sliding against the wall, trying to reduce the likelihood of becoming a target. Based on the pattern of the shots above her head, she estimated that the shooter was below her. She moved with purpose down the next flight of stairs, being careful not to break a heel. Searing pain coursing through her left shoulder. She glanced toward the pain; her clothes were torn open, and blood was seeping down her arm. Grazed, that was too close!
“Aargh!” Dahlia hissed. She instinctively checked her weapon, a 9mm Beretta; a full clip meant seventeen bullets for seventeen kills. She saw movement below, between the metal bars of the staircase’s railing. Only a few flights down, I should be able to take the shot. She shot toward the shape, which moved with lightning-quick reflexes. The shot hit the wall behind the assailant. Boom—an explosion, followed by a crackling noise above her head; the stairwell began to faintly glow. She coughed; her breathable air was depleting. She made a break for it as more shots rang out.
Dahlia got to the landing of the next level and flung the door open. Gunshots rang out, and the door filled with holes behind her.
Christ! More than one shooter!
She descended the stairs as quickly as she could. After two additional flights, she had to catch her breath. She heard a door open just below her. She started shooting at the door.
“Aargh! I’m shot,” a voice called from below.
“Gotcha!” Dahlia said. She closed the space between her and the door. When she opened it, a man in a fireman’s uniform rolled back and forth, screaming. He looked up and pointed at Dahlia.
“Aargh! You bitch! Why did you shoot me?”
Dahlia didn’t have time to explain. As she got closer to the fireman, she shot him point-blank in the face.
If he’s innocent, then I’m going to pay for that, eventually.
As she descended the next set of stairs, the air became easier to breathe. No more signs of the people trying to kill her. But she needed to get out of there. Just before reaching the third floor, she tucked the pistol into the small of her back and positioned her coat to conceal it.
Need to remain vigilant.
She encountered no more interference until the ground floor, where she came upon another fireman.
“You need to get out of here!” the fireman said.
With one fluid motion, Dahlia performed a roundhouse kick that landed on the fireman’s throat. He grasped his throat, and blood oozed from his punctured neck.
These heels came in handy after all, Dahlia thought.
It sounded like the man was trying to say something.
“What is that?” Dahlia asked.
The man coughed up blood. She shed her coat then put it over the fireman’s head until he expired. A quick check of the fireman revealed no weapons.
Damn, that bastard ruined my coat. I liked this coat! But better to be cold than caught.
Dahlia made her way to the front entrance of the building. A quick peek out of the windows revealed several fire trucks. There were no police in sight—yet!
Boom—another explosion went off inside the building. The firefighters changed course and moved farther away from her position where more flames appeared. She risked a move. Dahlia exited the building and darted between two nearby cars. A police car appeared just behind the fire trucks. She darted across the street then down a side street.
Don’t think they saw me, but need to be sure.
She positioned herself behind some bushes then looked back at the building. Most of the Design Center’s six floors were burning. The top two floors were burning so intensely that Dahlia thought nothing would be salvageable. There were holes the size of small cars blasted open in several areas across the building’s edifice, and flames licked the night air, looking for additional fuel.
The air was brisk, and the streets were wet. It had been cloudy earlier, but now it was raining. After several blocks she heard the sounds of a pub. She followed until she entered a place called O’Donnell’s. She turned toward the bar side of the pub. The place was overflowing with people, but she could see people walking toward a hallway at the back of the bar. The long hallway ended—the phone!
She dialed the toll-free number that connected her with her calling service. “Fashion Office Exchange,” the operator answered.
“This is Dahlia Frost, employee ID one-zero-one-one. I need an outgoing line to Jony Clarke.”
After several rings, she got to a voicemail. “Jony, this is D. It is urgent that you call the Exchange and leave me with a number where you can be reached.” Dahlia severed the connection. Damn it. Jony must be with Hunter at the Shadow Dealers, she thought.
She didn’t know whom to contact at the Shadow Dealers. The Exchange, a discreet agency she used, offered special services to suit her needs—including getting in touch with some of her more clandestine clientele.
“Ouch!” Dahlia said. This headache came out of nowhere! Argh—I can’t think! After a few minutes, she dialed the Exchange again.
After verification, she asked to be put in touch with the emergency line for the Shadow Dealers.
While waiting, she noticed a familiar-looking man at the bar. He looked like Gregor from the Collective. She wasn’t sure, but she made a mental note to find out.
The operator came back on the line. “Connecting you now.”
Then another voice spoke up. “Sorry to keep you waiting. Malcolm speaking.”
“This is D from Black Iris. I’m under attack.”
72 hours earlier: Haven, Northeastern United States
How could he do that to me? Alexei sold me out! For a damn kid! He was good at hacking. I'll give him that!
The discharge clerk stared at Gregor for a long moment.
Can’t read this guy. Must be part of his FBI conditioning, Gregor thought.
The clerk began identifying the items taken from Gregor at the time of arrest:
•One pair of sunglasses
•One money clip with 938 US dollars and 300 British pounds
•One USB flash drive
•One smartphone, unknown manufacturer
•One black T-shirt
•One pair of blue jeans
•One pair of unidentifiable loafers
“Sign here,” the clerk said.
Gregor signed for his belongings. He wasn’t eager to linger in Haven. Fortunately, the city had many egress points available. He needed to leave the United States as soon as possible.
He exited the old brown building that served as the regional headquarters for the FBI. A chilly winter wind was blowing.
Damn—Natasha should have packed me a jacket, Gregor thought.
He decided to take an inconspicuous form of transportation; it was too risky walking around in broad daylight. According to the Maps app on his phone, there was a bus station a few blocks away.
Gregor crossed the street. Just then, a black sedan ran the red light and stopped short of hitting Gregor, who slapped the front of the car. “Watch where you’re going, jackass!” he roared.
A large, bald man stepped out of the driver’s side. “I’m sorry, my boy. Please accept my apologies.” Gregor turned and continued walking.
“You might want to get inside the vehicle. There is someone you may want to meet,” the bald driver said. Gregor turned and cautiously walked toward the passenger side of the vehicle, hearing an audible click as the doors unlocked. The windows were tinted, and Gregor couldn't see any of the occupants. The window rolled down.
“Hello, Gregor. I’m Jeremiah Mason. Why don’t you come inside—it must be cold out there.”
“From where I’m standing, it looks like you just tried to kill me!”
“I assure you, that is not the case. I think you will like what I have to say,” Jeremiah said.
Gregor turned to see a man in his late forties dressed in a white suit with a black scarf; he looked like he was going to a dinner party. Annoyed drivers behind the sedan started honking. Gregor noticed they had room to pass, but didn’t for some reason. Jeremiah opened the door and slid back to allow Gregor to enter.
“I have a business proposal for you. I know that you have been burned by your old employer, the Collective,” Jeremiah said.
Gregor froze, turned, and looked at Jeremiah, who made a motion for him to enter. Gregor got inside the car, and the bald man started driving.
“This better be worth my time,” Gregor snapped.
“Indeed, my boy!” Jeremiah replied.
“You have two minutes to convince me that I should stay in this car. Otherwise, drop me off at the bus station.”
“How would you like to strike back at the Collective—for not only burning you, but also turning you over to the FBI like some common criminal?”
“You have ninety seconds left, so talk fast!”
“How familiar are you with disrupting internet communications for an entire city?”
Gregor just stared at Jeremiah. “US or European?”
“City of London,” Jeremiah said.
“That isn’t an easy task, as one would need to prepare multiple attack vectors using both US and European providers. It requires extensive planning, since a botnet is needed. Even if I wanted to do this, I would need help. How long would I have?” Gregor said.
“Too short. I would need at least three months to write malware to distribute, write the bots, build the network, and create a plan to execute. Also, the Computer Security Incident Reponse Team (CSIRT) in the United Kingdom already has contingencies for such attacks.”
“All excellent points. Let’s plan for every contingency, but I need you to work within a much shorter time span,” Jeremiah said.
Gregor didn’t respond.
“We need to disrupt the control systems for an entire building—no communications or fire alarms can work. I’ll need at least fifteen minutes of delay,” Jeremiah continued.
“Why?” Gregor asked.
“Let’s just say that your attack is not the primary objective here. Is this something that interests you?”
“It depends. How much will I be able to hurt the Collective, and how much will I be paid?” Gregor said.
“Plenty, on both counts. We are planning a high-profile attack that will pit the Collective and Black Iris against each other. And you will be well compensated.”
“Your time is up, old man. But I’m intrigued, so tell me more,” Gregor said.
“I suggest we talk more when we are high above the Atlantic.”
Using Jeremiah’s compound, Gregor easily got the plans for the building automation system (BAS) of the London Design Centre. After examining the plans, he determined that the center had two physical vulnerabilities that he would exploit. Based on the design, the software used for most of the building’s controls was long overdue for an update. According to Gregor’s research, the PLC4590, was the Programmable Logic Controller installed in the Design Center’s building automation system. If this is still the case, then I’m golden, Gregor thought. Now I need to check permits—or do I?
Gregor pulled up his link to a website called ShowALLD, which allowed him access to find all sorts of information, including the building details he was looking for. The ShowALLD infrastructure was unique in that it had programs that crawled the internet looking for everything with an IP address. He focused his search on London and the PLC4590 part. It only took about an eighth of a second to bring up over fifty results. He narrowed his search by going into advanced search options and specifying a subcategory in the search engine that only the PLC4590. He changed the date range to when the building system was installed. The manufacturer of the PLC4590 used multiple chipsets over unique time periods. It wasn’t that difficult to narrow the search.
Gregor eliminated the remaining searches after verifying newer PLC unit firmware. The BAS was inaccessible from the internet. I need to gain physical access long enough to install the Remote Access Trojan (RAT). No need not be near the building when I exploit these systems.
Gregor determined that the building’s camera system had some blind spots. He launched his Datasploit program, which he used to launch the exploit. Seconds later he was in. Easy money. To his surprise, he discovered the aperture of the camera could be modified remotely via software, since the cameras were Wi-Fi enabled. Gregor adjusted the camera aperture until he could see more of the Design Center. He checked all the entrances that the camera had a line of sight on. Then he pulled up the blueprints and saw what he was looking for; two emergency exits could be blocked, trapping any occupants who may attempt to escape.
Gregor picked up the phone.
“Operation Footprint complete. Ready for execution.”
“Perfect,” Jeremiah said.
“Day after. I want you to certify everything. No mishaps.”
“It will be ready,” Gregor said.
O’Donnell’s Pub, December 26, 8:26 p.m.
“How can I help you, madam?” Malcolm said on the other end of the line.
“Please bring Jony to the phone,” Dahlia asked.
“I’m afraid that isn’t possible until an outcome is reached or the allotted time has passed.”
“How much of the allotted time is remaining?”
“I need Hunter and Jony now!”
“It may take some time to bring them to a private location. Is there a number where you can be reached?”
“Negative. I will call back.”
Dahlia hung up, and she felt eyes on her. The pub was overflowing, so it could be anyone. It would take the Shadow Dealers a while to get in touch, and it was time to collect her crash kit and move on.
Dahlia left the pub. She walked slowly down the street and attempted to rub some life into her cold limbs, but her light sweater provided little warmth. She traveled only a block or two before her arms felt as if she’d left them on a block of ice. When Dahlia came to the next intersection, she casually looked back to see if anyone was following. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw movement near an alleyway, but it was too subtle and too dark to be sure. She made an abrupt left turn then darted into a nearby parking garage.
Dahlia looked behind her as she rounded a corner, and a man in a hoodie followed.
She walked faster, but the figure in the hoodie matched her pace. She crouched down low between some parked cars. Can’t shoot him. I need this punk alive! She found a car with a loose tailpipe. With a quick jerk, the pipe was free. She grimaced as the noise reverberated in the garage; the hoodie guy didn’t seem to notice, however, because his stride didn’t deviate.
A few minutes later, she crouched under a car, hoodie guy’s legs were visible. With all her might, she jammed the jagged end of the tailpipe into Mr. Hoodie’s left ankle.
“Argh!” Mr. Hoodie screamed and immediately grabbed his left ankle, rubbing it. For a brief moment, their eyes met. She brained him with the tailpipe, and he was out cold. She grabbed his limp body and began dragging him.
Need to be quick. No sense attracting any more attention than necessary, Dahlia thought. She had a look around. Despite being full, the garage was quiet. Not many people going out on this holiday evening. I need to find transportation! She spotted a truck, and started moving toward it. Argh, this guy is heavier than he looks! Dahlia got him to the truck. Then she heard something.
She turned and found herself facing a middle-aged maintenance man.
Dahlia reacted without thinking. She punched the man in the throat—hard. The man dropped to his knees, grasping his throat and making muted guttural noises. She searched him and found a large ring of keys in the man’s coat pocket. She liberated the keys and the coat from the maintenance worker. Dahlia put the coat on. Too big! She felt like a child putting on an adult’s coat. She rolled up the sleeves until her hands were visible. Then she found a keyless entry remote among the keys. This is useful! She walked around the garage and pressed the lock and unlock buttons repeatedly until she found the man’s truck. No sense breaking in or hot-wiring a truck when I have Mr. Handyman’s keys, Dahlia thought.
She went back to hoodie guy’s body and started dragging him toward the maintenance worker’s truck. The passenger section was too small to fit her and the two men, so she decided to make use of the truck’s bed. She opened the tailgate. There was stuff everywhere: used oil cans, hoses, tools, and several other things scattered about. This will have to do!
An hour later, she was driving the maintenance worker’s truck out of the garage. It had taken some effort, but she’d been able to get both men into the bed of the truck. She’d located plastic sheeting and twine in a maintenance closet in the garage; these materials would keep the bodies clean and contained. “Thanks for the keys, Mr. Handyman,” Dahlia said, chuckling.
Using her cell phone, Dahlia called the Shadow Dealers and was connected to Malcolm.
“What’s the news?” Dahlia asked.
“Jony will be available momentarily.”
After a longer than reasonable amount of time, she was connected to Jony.
“How goes it, D?”
Dahlia described the events over the past few hours. Jony knew best not to interrupt her; he listened carefully.
“Are you there, Jony?”
“Yes, Mum, just takin’ it all in.”
“I think I know who is behind it all.”
Jony remained silent, so Dahlia continued. “The Collective. I saw one of their agents.”
“Gregor. He tailed me to a pub just after the incident.”
“That can’t be good.”
“How’s Hunter holding up?”
“He’s inexperienced, which is not helping matters.”
Dahlia’s head was throbbing; she was alone and fatigued. “I’m recalling you both immediately,” she said. “I need you to protect the home front.”
“We will set out at first light.”
The journey from the isle of the Shadow Dealers to London seemed longer than possible. Jony checked the time. Only nine hours since takeoff? It seemed like it had been twice as long. Hunter was not an ideal travel companion; his complaints and whining always became tiresome.
When the plane landed at last, Jony stepped off and walked into Terminal 5 at Heathrow.
He picked up his car and contemplated the events of the previous day as he drove the forty minutes to his flat in London’s West End. He was eager to check on the progress of one of his passion projects once he got home; Jony made it a habit to profile and monitor the activity of unsuspecting creeps, such as pedophiles. They paid well when they slipped into his traps. His latest project had the potential to take him to the western United States. He loved the weather there, especially in Southern California; Seattle reminded him too much of dreary London. But the United States was not the only country that his passion projects took him to; he often visited offenders in his backyard of London’s West End.
His phone rang. After glancing at the caller ID, he answered. “D—”
“Where are you?” she barked back.
“Just arrived at my flat.”
“I need you at the chateau.”
“On my way.”
Jony didn’t want to disappoint Dahlia; she was both like a big sister and mother to him. Jony owed her everything. She saved me from myself, he thought. He remembered their first encounter. I needed a fix, and I found Dahlia, the Black Heart instead. She got me off the drugs before I ended up in a grave. She must have thought I was an excellent hacker, because she had a reputation for only hiring the best. Excellent enough to get me out of that assault charge. A pang of guilt overcame him. I shouldn’t have taken advantage of that girl. But then his mind flipped to anger. She was coming on to me—she deserved what she got! Jony slapped his head. Focus. D needs me.
Two hours later
Jony pulled up to the chateau, just south of Locksbottom. He glanced at his watch and noted that he was a lot later than he wanted to be. He’d taken a shower before leaving his flat. I need to be fresh for D, Jony thought. He steeled himself, and then entered.
Dahlia was sitting at the kitchen table, drinking a glass of red wine.
“Where have you been?” Dahlia said. She was not the type of woman to wait around for men.
“I just got back from Phantom Island and wanted to be fresh. I—took a shower.”
“You shouldn’t have; you won’t stay clean for long.”
I never do.
“Follow me,” Dahlia said.
Jony followed her through the kitchen and into a large room. Based on the furnishings, Jony thought it was the living room. A fire had been started, and several pictures lined the mantle. Dahlia lifted one end of the rug and started to roll the carpet in the opposite direction of the fireplace. Jony could see some lines that looked unnatural. Dahlia smacked her fist down on the side closest to the fireplace, and a section of the floor raised. Jony helped her lift the section of the floor. It was heavy, and it stuck, but eventually, they got it open.
Dahlia produced a flashlight.
Where did she get that light? No pockets in that skintight outfit, Jony thought.
Jony followed her descend into darkness, fumbled for a rope or something to pull the door shut.
“Leave it open,” Dahlia commanded.
After a moment, Jony followed. He hadn’t been to this safe house before, and he had no idea where they were going. He followed her through a series of narrow passages until they were met with a single wooden door, reinforced with iron. Dahlia handed Jony the flashlight. She was searching around the edge of the door and on the walls. She pressed something, and a small panel opened slightly. Dahlia used her fingers to force open the stuck panel, and after some effort, it moved. She felt around in the crevice with her thumb and index finger until she found what she was looking for; it was an old, iron key. It looked medieval. Dahlia used the key to unlock the door.
“Help me. On my mark, just tug,” Dahlia said. “Now!” she yelled.
Together they pulled in unison, and the door made a loud creaking sound, giving way to even a smaller passage. To Jony, the door looked way too big for the passage that was before him. Dahlia was able to contort her body in order to traverse the passage, narrowly avoiding the sharp rocks jutting out of the walls. Jony enjoyed watching her wiggle through. Boy, for someone pushing fifty, she is so nimble, Jony thought. His shoulders were too big for him to fit.
“It’s pitch-black over here,” Dahlia called. “Throw me the flashlight.”
Jony did what she asked. Seconds later, he saw the faint illumination that revealed a small room. Dahlia was using her free hand to find something from behind a large hewn surface. A few minutes later, she resurfaced from the narrow crack that was the passage.
“Did you find what you were looking for?”
“Of course. Our guest is waiting, and time is of the essence.”
Dahlia brushed past Jony, and he followed her into the living room. Following her lead, Jony put the room back in order then followed her into the cool evening. Nothing was said as they walked around the house and over to a barn that was far enough behind the house for Jony to not have noticed. Dahlia stopped short before the reaching the barn.
She raised a small vial. “With this, we will be able to loosen his tongue.”
Dahlia opened the barn door. There was a man at the far end. He was tied to a chair tilted at a forty-five degree angle. He had a noose around his neck, and he had to keep the chair positioned using his legs with just enough pressure to keep the noose from tightening.
He looks exhausted. Good! Dahlia thought, satisfied. She removed the noose and moved the chair back into a normal position.
“I brought a friend,” she told the man. “He is going to have a chat with you. If he doesn’t like what you have to say, or if you say nothing, then he will cause pain.” She paused. “Do you understand?”
The man in the chair nodded.
Dahlia approached a table that Jony hadn’t noticed when they’d entered the barn. She grabbed something then handed it to Jony. It was a pair of pliers.
“Make him sing,” Dahlia said as she exited the barn, leaving them alone.
Jony looked down at the pliers. He tried to move the handle, which stuck as he tried to get a feel for the tool. After a moment, he put the pliers behind his back and faced the man.
“Let’s start with your name,” Jony said.
The man said nothing.
I’m not in the torturing mood, Jony thought.
He smacked the man square in the face with the pliers; they struck the man’s forehead with enough force to make a big purple bruise. The man smiled and then spat on Jony. The beatings continued. When Jony tired of hitting him, he thought of more creative ways to use the pliers.
He had removed three of his fingernails before the man howled. Jony felt numb and detached. This is not me. Why am I inflicting so much pain?
After what seemed like an eternity, the man finally said, “Gerr—”
“What was that?” Jony asked.
“Gregor! My name is Gregor.”
Jony froze. No way this is Gregor!
The man started making moaning sounds.
“Shut up. I need to think,” Jony said.
He consulted his phone for a very long time. He didn’t have any recent photos of Gregor to make a comparison, but he did have some information.
“Okay, what is your home address?”
“That is not an address, only part of one.”
“Can’t think . . . the pain! Can I have water?”
Jony turned away. He was met by Dahlia, who’d silently reentered. She was expressionless.
How long has she been there?
“This is not the time for a break,” Dahlia said.
“Mum, I’m thirsty and need five minutes of fresh air.”
“Very well, then, but our friend will continue to answer.” She snatched the pliers from Jony’s hands.
Jony left the room, cringing as he heard more screams.