Authors: Steven F. Freeman
Steven F. Freeman
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2014 Steven F. Freeman
All rights reserved.
To my mother, for encouraging me to start this journey
Many thanks to my wife Leigh Ann and my friends Chris Daniel, Alyssa Proffitt, and Cindy Womack for their invaluable feedback and assistance
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Chelsea’s heart raced, and she strained her ears to detect any noise.
There’s someone in the apartment. I locked the door. I know I locked it. Maybe I only dreamed I heard something.
Out in the darkened living room, which lay between her bedroom and the front door, a muffled thud and curse provided an ominous confirmation of an intruder’s presence. Chelsea stifled a scream. As quietly as possible, she rolled out of bed, stumbling a bit as her feet hit the carpet.
The security bars on her bedroom window precluded that route of escape. She hurried across the floor to the adjoining bathroom and locked herself in it, praying the intruder would think the apartment empty.
Several minutes elapsed without any new sounds, but Chelsea was too fearful to exit her sanctuary. She wished she had grabbed her cell phone on the way in.
Was the intruder gone? After listening a few minutes more and hearing nothing, she decided to crack the door just enough to peer into her bedroom. As she reached for the knob to unlock it, a furious pounding erupted from the other side of the door.
One Month Earlier
In the dimly-lit room, a computer monitor illuminated the confined space with an eerie glow, casting deformed shadows on the walls. A lone figure wearing a hoodie hunched forward over a keyboard, staring at rows of data scrolling up the screen.
Hoodie knew something must be done. The first step was tracking down Jay Mancini’s address. However, none of the six online “skip tracer” services were effective. They didn’t provide a single scrap of information concerning Jay’s current location.
This guy really didn’t want to be found.
I’ll have to try a different approach
Hoodie invested several hours into researching better tracker software and eventually purchased a promising package. A second round of searching for Jay with this more sophisticated software yielded better results. Hoodie found Jay’s old address. It was old…from seven months ago, but still represented a promising lead. After donning a hat and sunglasses, Hoodie went to the Atlanta address—an apartment—and rang the doorbell.
“Hi, I’m looking for my brother Jay. I came down to surprise him. Is he home?”
“He’s the last guy who rented this place,” said the occupant. “He don’t live here no more.”
“You don’t happen to know his new address, do you?”
“No. I got no clue. The property manager might know, though.”
After thanking the scruffy occupant and trudging toward the complex’s entrance, Hoodie entered the rental office and approached a desk on which a small “Carrie Moore” placard was centered.
“Hi—Miss Moore?” asked Hoodie.
“Yes,” said the manager. “How can I help you?”
Hoodie explained the object of the search. Realizing she wasn’t going to rent a unit, Moore dropped her plastic smile, although she provided Jay’s phone number willingly enough.
“Jay’s automatic mail-forwarding service stopped a few months ago,” she explained, “so he asked me to call him if he gets any new mail here. He was a good tenant, so I don’t mind helping him out, especially since he promised to give me any referrals that come his way.”
“Thanks for the number,” said Hoodie. “I can’t wait to see Jay. Boy, will he be surprised.”
Alton Blackwell closed the door to his office at Kruptos Inc.—a tech company specializing in the encryption and security of electronic communications—so he could place a call. He pressed a speed dial button, leaned back in his chair, and waited.
“FBI Forensic Accounting. This is Agent Wilson.”
“Hi, Mallory. It’s me.”
“Hey, Alton,” she exclaimed, “What will your co-workers think if they hear us talking? Won’t they wonder what you’re doing calling me on company time?” The pleasure in Mallory’s voice was evident. Alton could visualize the flush sweeping through her face.
“Naw—I closed my door,” he said. “Our conversation is private—at least as private as you can get in this place.” Most people considered Kruptos to be the leader of the telecom security industry, and many of its software designers specialized in writing programs to crack encoded messages. Although he joked with Mallory, Alton knew any communications within such a company had a chance of being intercepted.
His tone softened. “Can we…that is, I was wondering if we could get together this weekend.” He swallowed as he waited for her reply.
“Sure. Do you want me to come down to Atlanta, or do you want to come up to DC? Or…do you want to split the difference and rendezvous at my mom’s house? She’s still bugging me to bring you to meet her.”
As a former Army Captain, Alton was a bit nervous about meeting the retired Army Brigadier General. He was more intimidated, however, by the fact that she was Mallory’s mother. Nonetheless, he accepted the inevitability of their meeting.
“We can meet at your mom’s,” he said.
“You sound kind of nervous,” teased Mallory. “Mom’s not going to bite or make you do push-ups. You’ll love her. I just can’t believe y’all haven’t met yet.”
“I can’t either,” replied Alton, “but things just haven’t worked out.” When Mallory had been in the hospital nine months ago, her mother had been out of the country on a Mediterranean cruise, unable to secure a flight home as a result of a severe Atlantic weather system. “I hope she knows how crazy my calendar has been between work and seeing you,” continued Alton. “I’m glad I’ll finally meet her this weekend. She’s been nice to me on the phone, so I’m not
worried. Say, is it okay for me to bring Buster?”
“Sure, Mom loves dogs. Skipper—her Maltese—would love the company.”
After firming up their plans, Alton and Mallory finished their conversation by exchanging those assurances of affection which made the anticipation of the weekend together even greater.
“I’m already looking forward to talking with you tomorrow,” concluded Alton. “Goodnight, Mallory.”
Now that Hoodie had Jay Mancini’s phone number, it was child’s play to return to the skip tracing web sites and use that number to track down Jay’s current address. It turned out Jay lived in a condo development in Smyrna, a suburb north of Atlanta.
Believing the key to surprise to be anticipating a person’s movements and lying in wait, Hoodie located the condo and set out to identify the patterns in Jay’s daily routine. Hoodie eventually discovered that Jay always parked on the ground level of the garage located adjacent to his condo, as it afforded him the most convenient access to his unit.
After a bit of research and the purchase of a masterfully-produced set of faked credentials, Hoodie used the forged documents and a Visa gift card to buy a used Smith & Wesson through one online retailer and a compatible silencer via a different online site. Hoodie had the purchases shipped to an abandoned house, allowing for an anonymous, nighttime pickup of both items.
The next day, Hoodie pulled into the condo’s parking garage an hour before the time Jay normally returned from work. After donning latex gloves and ensuring the weapon and silencer were ready, there was nothing to do but wait.
At the expected hour, Jay entered the garage, parking only three spaces away. Hoodie exited the car and approached him.
“You!” said Jay in surprise.
“Yes, me,” replied Hoodie, who—without breaking stride—pulled the Smith & Wesson and shot Jay Mancini in the head. Jay fell, and Hoodie shot him five more times in the head and chest, then tossed the weapon onto the motionless body. Hoodie then slipped a hand into the back pocket of Jay’s jeans and removed the dying man’s wallet.
As Jay’s blood began to flow into the spider web of cracks lining the garage’s concrete floor, Hoodie calmly removed the gloves, sealed them in a plastic bag, returned to the waiting car, and drove away.
Chelsea Mancini entered the conference room just as Alton, a top manager at Kruptos, prepared to call the meeting to order. Alton didn’t recall Chelsea being selected as one of the representatives of the Aegis project team, but he didn’t mind her presence. From all accounts, she was a top-notch software designer.
As he surveyed the crowd of twenty or so Kruptos software engineers, Alton noticed two nearby heads swivel in Chelsea’s direction: Brent Tanaka, Chelsea’s ex-boyfriend, and Miles Worley, who—rumor had it—aspired to fill that role in the future.
Miles leaned over to Brent. “You still dating Chelsea what’s-her-name?”
“Mancini,” supplied Brent, “and no, we’re not dating anymore.”
“Mancini, huh? Sounds Italian. How does a pale, blonde chick end up with a name like that?”
“I believe she inherited her mother’s appearance,” replied Brent.
“So how come you two aren’t together anymore? What a bod. She could be a cheerleader.”
If Brent felt impatient with the questions, he didn’t show it. “Actually, she was a college cheerleader. The Falcons asked her to try out for their pro squad, but she wasn’t interested.” He added matter-of-factly, “Regarding our breakup, I think she considered me boring. She isn’t into the museums or science channel stuff I enjoy. She’s more into socializing.” He gave a shrug.
Miles slapped Brent on the back. “Thanks for making room for the rest of us, buddy.”
As Chelsea moved to a closer seat, she glanced in Brent’s direction. He smiled and waved at her good-naturedly, and she gave a half-hearted wave in return. She completely ignored Miles.
Alton called the meeting to order. After a brief salutation, he addressed the purpose of the gathering. “Those of us on the Jana team are working diligently to meet our June fifteenth release date for version three-dot-oh. The Jana software is designed to encrypt and safeguard confidential electronic information. At the same time, the Aegis project team, led by my counterpart Winston Lewis, is working to develop countermeasures for decryption and tracking programs—in other words, software to crack encryption codes.
“I propose that the two teams work together to develop an integrated product. Our customers don’t want just the best encryption; they also want to know that we’ve put our sharpest minds on the task of ensuring their information
encrypted. Before I approach Mr. Hines and the Board, though, I’d like to get your opinions on this idea. I don’t want to move forward with this proposal unless we’re all in agreement that it’s a good strategy and that we can still come reasonably close to our individual project deadlines if it’s implemented.”
As the meeting progressed, Alton acknowledged input, asked thoughtful questions, and used the perspective of all to develop a proposal everyone could stand behind.
Jenny, a teammate of Chelsea’s, reclined in an adjacent chair. Chelsea leaned over to her and spoke admiringly on the skill with which Alton led the meeting. Chelsea also whispered none-too-quietly how she admired his lean frame and the hard line of his cheekbone, causing Jenny to stifle a giggle.
The meeting ended, and the participants began to file out. Before Chelsea could move, Miles Worley approached. The gaudy gold chain around his neck suggested he considered his appearance to be more fetching than an impartial observer would have judged.
“Hi, Chelsea,” said Worley. “Here for the meeting, huh?”
“Um, not officially, Miles. I need to see someone who is, and this was the easiest way to track him down.”
“Aren’t you wondering why I’m here?” asked Worley.
you here, Miles?”
“I have tickets to tonight’s
My Fair Lady
show at the Fox Theater. I was wondering if you’d like to go with me.”
“That’s really sweet, Miles, but I already have plans. I have a tennis date at six, and we probably won’t finish until eight or nine. Maybe next time.”
Worley looked crestfallen. After mumbling, “Okay, I’ll take a rain check,” he left the room with drooping shoulders.
Chelsea waited for the group around Alton to disperse and approached when he was finally alone.
“Hi, Alton,” she said, “great meeting, huh?”
Alton nodded. “Yes, I think we have a good plan, and I think Mr. Hines will like it, too. But I didn’t expect to see you here. Did Winston decide to bring you in as an extra representative for the Aegis team?”
“No, I wasn’t here for the meeting, although I’m glad I had a chance to see it. I’m actually here to see you.” She paused. “Alton, I know you and I haven’t worked together much, but I have a favor to ask. It might take a few minutes to explain, so if this isn’t a good time, let me know.”
“I’m free until four o’clock. Does right now work for you?”
“Okay, let’s talk in my office,” said Alton.
They wound their way among beige cubicles and ergonomically-efficient furniture until they arrived at Alton’s office. Chelsea swept her gaze from the ordered volumes lining the bookshelf on the rear wall to the sleek workstation occupying the center space of his solid-oak desk. A blank notepad and a case of pens sat on one side of the monitor, while a smiling picture of Mallory adorned the other. The rest of the room was minimally but tastefully decorated.
Alton motioned Chelsea to a seat in front of the desk and took his own place behind it.
“So, how can I help you?” he asked.
“I’m not quite sure how to begin. Did you hear about the murder in Smyrna a few days ago?”
“Yes, I think everyone did.”
“That was my Uncle Jay.”
“I’m really sorry, Chelsea,” said Alton, pursing his lips in a sympathetic frown. “How are you doing with this?”
“I was a mess last night, when I found out,” said Chelsea, swallowing. “I’m still really sad. You don’t get over a thing like that too quickly. But that’s not why I wanted to see you.
“I need your help. Everybody here at Kruptos knows about your little adventure in DC last year.”
The comment caused Alton to momentarily cast his mind back to that time. Nearly nine months had elapsed since his unrelenting investigation with Mallory into a diverted rabies vaccination project had prevented the drug’s development as a biological weapon. The danger they had encountered then had threatened their lives but had also proved to be a catalyst, drawing them closer. Only at the conclusion of the investigation had they learned the truth: over the course of their nearly two-year friendship, each had secretly loved the other.
They were now “a couple,” as their friends said. While Alton and Mallory still lived in their respective cities, they managed to see each other most weekends and had established the ritual of a nightly phone call.
Alton spent much of his time hoping he wouldn’t awake from this most pleasant of dreams, as he was in a continual state of partial disbelief that he was truly dating Mallory. He was still unsure how he had won the affections of such a person, whose gregarious nature contrasted with his own introspective demeanor. And of course Mallory didn’t have anything like Alton’s limp, the result of an injury sustained from a combat explosion in Afghanistan. Mallory had a minor blemish on her forehead from a gunpowder burn acquired in their latest adventure together, but Alton doubted anyone who wasn’t already aware of it would even notice.
Refocusing on his conversation with Chelsea, Alton shook his head self-deprecatingly, but his companion pushed forward. “You never talk about that DC case, but word gets around. From what I hear, no one else but you could have figured out what was happening with that illegal rabies-vaccine project.”
“Oh, it wasn’t just me—,” began Alton.
“Yes, but we all know you were primarily responsible for unraveling the mystery. That’s why I’m here. I have my own mystery that needs some unraveling.”
“As I said, I’m very sorry for your loss, but I’m not sure where I come into the picture. Aren’t the Smyrna police looking into your uncle’s murder? I’m sure they’re more competent in this type of investigation than I.”
“I’m not so sure. You see, Uncle Jay moved to this area specifically so he could get away from the rest of the family.” Chelsea glanced around the room before continuing. “Most of the Mancini family live in San Diego. They are reputedly involved in a variety of shady business practices: narcotics, theft, extortion—you name it.”
“It sounds like the mob, west-coast style,” said Alton.
“Pretty much,” confirmed Chelsea. “Uncle Jay grew tired of the family business. He decided to make a clean break, so he moved across country, here to the Atlanta area. He’s tinkered with cars most of his life, so he opened up his own garage in Smyrna.
“He seemed really happy, except for one thing. He said the family has a solidarity code with three rules: you support the family, you never talk, and you never leave. He broke that code by coming out here, and he told me he was afraid of family retribution.”
“So how did you end up avoiding the family’s wrath?” asked Alton. “Didn’t you also violate the code by moving out here?”
the family business is optional, especially for women. Once you join, it’s
that’s a punishable offense. Uncle Jay had been a card-carrying member of the family business for years, but that kind of life never appealed to me. That’s one of the reasons I went to college in New York, where my mom’s family is from. Getting a job here at Kruptos worked out pretty well, too, since it’s kept me distanced from the west coast.”
“I see,” said Alton. “And where do I come into this?”
Folding and unfolding her hands, Chelsea shared the details of her uncle’s murder, adding, “The killer stole Uncle Jay’s wallet, but I can’t help but wonder if that was simply a ruse intended to disguise the true motive behind his execution.”
“So you’re thinking Jay’s murder was a professional hit?”
“It seems that way, doesn’t it? According to Uncle Jay, Uncle Doug—his brother—is the family’s ‘whip,’ the guy who enforces the solidarity code. Doesn’t it seem possible that he or someone else in the family is responsible for Uncle Jay’s murder? That they enforced the code?”
“Yes, that certainly seems like a possibility,” said Alton, musing. “Are the Smyrna police following up on this idea—that Jay’s murder could have been a professional job?”
“No. Detective Mason, the officer assigned to the case, doesn’t seem to think a pretty woman—according to him, I’m pretty—could have any information that would help their investigation, as if a person’s looks somehow determined their intelligence. He insists it’s simply a robbery. And nobody else in the department will talk to me. They all direct me back to Mason.” She looked at Alton with wide, troubled eyes. “Is there any chance you could take a look into this? Maybe find out if someone in the Mancini family is responsible? I’m sure with your expertise, you’d make more progress than I did.”
Alton sighed inwardly. He was willing to help, but would it be asking too much to be allowed to focus on Mallory and his job? To simply lead a normal life? He had hoped the rabies-vaccine investigation would be the one and only time he’d be involved in untangling a mystery. However, having been asked to render assistance, he couldn’t abandon his desperate colleague to face this problem on her own.
“As I matter of fact, I may be able to help,” he told Chelsea. “Or, more to the point, I should say that a
of mine may be able to help. She’s an FBI agent.”