A Shadow Operatives Thriller (Book 3)
DARPA headquarters, Arlington, Virginia
The senior scientist dashed through the hallway of the top-secret lab. His mind was reeling, heart pounding.
It’s not possible, he said to himself. The breakthrough is astounding. Its potential … breathtaking.
He exited the research lab and entered the main wing of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. A uniformed officer glared at him. No running at DARPA. Colleagues, program managers, strangers paused their small talk and turned to look at the rule-breaker in their midst.
If they only knew! How often are you the first person on the planet to witness the birth of a new era in human history? This changes everything.
Tosh Farraday turned the corner toward the Admin wing and smashed face first into the back of a hulking metal object. The collision sent him sprawling to the ground. His smartphone skittered across the corridor and landed at the feet of a pair of researchers in white lab coats.
He looked up at the expressionless machine and recognized what it was: a next-generation robot soldier. A seven-foot-tall specimen of titanium physicality and high-tech wizardry. Its glowing blue eyes—or sensors—were recessed behind a visor on its smaller-than-human head.
The robot struck him as both imposing and nimble, with a barrel-chested torso, biceps tapering out to humanlike metal hands, and long, sturdy legs. This must be was one of the new prototypes he’d been briefed about. The first of a new wave of robots—autonomous, agile, faster than the swiftest land animal. Its architects said these robo-warriors would revolutionize modern warfare.
“My apologies, Dr. Farraday,” the robot said, leaning down to offer him a metal hand. Lettering stamped on the left side of its chest revealed its unique identifier: Matt Daemon. “Let me help you up.”
That surprised him for a moment, but he realized it shouldn’t have. Facial recognition technology had come a long way. Matt here must have been fed some Department of Defense personnel files.
“Um, no thanks,” he sputtered.
He scrambled to his feet in front of two of the startled researchers who seemed more concerned with whether Farraday had damaged their robot prototype. Matt Daemon stepped nimbly to the far wall, bent down, retrieved the phone with a sweep of its metal hand, brought it over, and dropped it into Farraday’s waiting palm.
“Well done,” the tallest of the researchers said.
Farraday gathered himself. He speed-walked the rest of the way before finally reaching the airy, light-filled office of the director.
“Can I help you, Dr. Farraday?” the office assistant said from behind his desk.
“The director will want to see me,” Farraday said as he headed toward the inside office door. “National security.”
He stopped short when he saw two military police officers positioned at the door clasping their M-16s. The door swung wide, and the director stepped to the fore, as if expecting him. Behind him stood a woman he didn’t recognize. Tall, dark-haired, and unsmiling, she stood with a rigid posture in a full dress general’s uniform, hands clasped behind her back.
“Dr. Farraday.” The director opened the door wide. “Just the man we need to see.”
Kaden Baker closed her eyes and wished. At twenty-three, she was too old to believe in wishes coming true. But she wasn’t too old to believe that visualization is the first step in confronting life’s challenges. At least, that’s what her meditation podcasts have been telling her.
So she wished that this Christmas would feature no spyware in her presents. No fake parents on someone’s payroll. Most of all, no more dead bodies. Now that would be an awesome start to the holiday season.
Above all, she wanted one thing. She wanted normal—a boring, drama-free holiday with her real dad and the teenage sister she was just getting to know. Was that too much to ask?
“Merry Christmas Eve! Who wants a hot mulled cider?” Bo Finnerty sauntered into the family room wearing a green apron and a silly red reindeer nose. It was a welcome sight, her father holding two ceramic mugs instead of a Special Forces combat assault rifle like the last time she’d seen him.
He handed Bailey the first mug. “I made yours with less of a kick.”
Her younger sister set it on the end table. “Thanks, Dad.” Bailey didn’t look up, slouched deep in her lounge chair. “You can treat me like an adult, you know.”
“Eighteen,” Bo reminded her. “Old enough to vote. Not old enough to drink.”
Bailey fiddled with the streaming music app on her smartphone. Silent Night filled the room as logs of cottonwood crackled in the fireplace. Kaden considered mentioning that the smoke from the fireplace wasn’t doing the environment any favors, but she thought better of it. Don’t want to spoil my first Christmas Eve with my new family.
Bo handed Kaden the second steaming mug. “Old Finnerty recipe.”
“’Tis the season and all that jazz.” She took a sip. “Ugh! This stuff is wretched.” She scrunched up her face and saw her father’s crestfallen expression. “I mean, it’s different. Maybe I’ll get used to the taste.”
“Not important.” Bo paused in the entryway and gave his daughters a wistful look. “I’m just glad we’re finally all together.” The glow from the fireplace lit up his chiseled features and brown hair flecked with specks of gray as he smiled that sideways smile of his.
So this is what a real family is like, Kaden thought. I could get used to this. But maybe it’s too late for me. Too much trauma over too many years. Can that kind of damage ever really be undone?
Bo bent down and snagged a wrapped present from beneath the Christmas tree. A gold bow fluttered to the carpet. He bent down and fumbled to stick it back on. “Want to open your gifts now or after dinner?”
“After dinner,” Bailey declared. She thumbed a text message on her phone, looking agitated. “Something’s wrong. Piper’s still not answering me.”
“Piper, your classmate we rescued from the island?” Kaden said, wishing she could put that entire episode behind her.
“Yeah. And nobody’s seen her for, like, a week.”
“I can ask her father what the deal is,” Bo said, taking a swig of cider. “But Viper may not know. He’s back on the road in his big rig.”
Kaden thought it best to turn to a cheerier subject, so she took another sip of spiked cider. “Mmm. It’s growing on me.”
“Liar.” Bailey glanced up from her phone, and they both laughed. Misty, their three-year-old rust-colored cocker spaniel, jumped onto the back of the couch and rested her head on Bailey’s shoulder.
“Listen, girls, I’ve got something to tell you.” Bo removed his apron and his red nose as he settled into the chair across from them. “Just between the three of us.”
“You mean the four of us.” Kaden swept a tuft of her short blond hair away from her smart contacts. She shifted her eyes to the empty loveseat where Amelia just materialized, dressed in a silly red Santa top and black gym leggings.
As usual, nobody else could see her personal AI unless they were wearing smartglasses with the right permissions. But not tonight. Tonight was about making merry, not chattering with a next-gen artificial intelligence.
“How could I forget your ghost friend?” Bo looked at the empty seat. “Is she sitting there right now?”
“Like the ghost of Christmas future,” Bailey offered, not that helpfully. She changed the station to something more uptempo. José Feliciano’s Feliz Navidad.
Amelia swayed her virtual shoulders back and forth, snapping her fingers and lip-syncing the words. I want to wish you a merry Christmas, I want to wish you a merry Christmas …
Kaden had programmed Amelia to have a retro vibe that was true to her era. But Amelia did have an up-to-date cultural database with more modern musical tastes so she wasn’t stuck in a 1930s time warp.
“How can you forget about Amelia, Dad?”
Bo put on his concerned father look. “I’m not sure it’s healthy when you’re spending so much time in a virtual reality.”
Kaden tried to suppress a grimace. “Let’s not go there on Christmas Eve.”
Bo smiled and nodded. “You’re right. Now’s not the time.” He sank onto the arm of his leather Dad chair. “Listen, I have some news. I’m gonna be gone for a while. Flying out late tonight.” He paused, and his expression registered a look that said, I’m not happy about this, either. But she knew he never spoke ill of the agency, regardless of how it played havoc with his home life.
“What?” Bailey sat up straight. “Who in the freaking federal government works on Christmas Day?”
“Hey, hey. Language, young lady.”
“I’m eighteen. I can say ‘freaking’ in my own house.”
Kaden tried to take the news in stride. She knew he’d returned to his old job at the Defense Intelligence Agency after the three of them barely escaped a run-in with some bad dudes on that weird-ass little island last month.
“You said gone.” Kaden thought about it. Was her biological dad back at DIA as an operative? “Gone for how long? Did they put you back in the field?”
After she and Bo reunited just two months ago, he confided in her about his long-running work at DIA, the smaller, more covert cousin of the CIA. Suddenly the pieces all began to make sense. The months-long absences overseas that turned out to be undercover missions. The whole being-a-spy thing.
My dad, the spook.
Bailey slammed her phone onto the couch’s arm rest. “Dad, you promised! You said you were going back to work as an analyst, not a field officer.” She sprang up, nearly knocking over the wicker coffee table. “I can’t believe it. Did you lie to us—again?”
Bo’s face rippled with regret. “I promised you both I’d be straight with you. That’s what I’m trying to do. I’ll be gone for a while. No cover story, just the plain truth.”
“Where?” Bailey demanded.
“I can’t say.”
“Great. Just when I’m trying to get my life back.”
Bailey let out a gruff little growl, tromped down the hallway to her bedroom, and slammed her door. She was still weeks away from getting her high school diploma after her kidnapping last spring.
And now this.
“Bo.” Kaden leveled a hard gaze at her father. “What the hell?”
“You know I can’t talk about it, honey.” He leaned forward and reached out to stroke Misty’s soft fur. “Can’t we just enjoy a quiet Christmas Eve together?”
Feliz navidad, feliz navidad, José belted out.
“Don’t worry.” Bo’s voice softened and the edges of his kind brown eyes crinkled. “I’ll be back before things heat up on the legal front.”
He meant the bogus charges Kaden was facing in Dallas for shooting the CEO of a biotech company. After her sealed indictment for felony homicide, she made bail after her father had worked out some kind of arrangement.
So much for a normal, boring Christmas this year.
Bo rose from the arm of his Dad chair, came over, and squeezed her shoulder. “You know we’re going to beat this thing, right? Damned politicization of the Justice Department. You’re a hero, not the villain.”
Kaden managed a weak smile. She’d been avoiding thinking about the upcoming trial for weeks now. Bailey was always needling her about her tendency to compartmentalize everything.
Kaden supposed she had a point. She’d developed a defense mechanism for dealing with all the crazy thrown her way. One bucket for her newfound biological family. One bucket for the psychological abuse that her adoptive parents inflicted on her. Another bucket for her military training and special ops missions. She was running out of buckets.
“Kaden, sugar pie.” Amelia stood up and the white pom pom on her Santa cap bobbed as she positioned herself next to the fireplace. “Someone is trying to reach you.”
Kaden winced. “Not today.”
“He says it’s urgent.”
It’s Christmas Eve. What’s so urgent it can’t wait?
“Bo, I have an incoming. That okay?”
“Need to check on the baked ham anyway.” He reached down and grabbed his apron and reindeer nose and retreated down the hallway toward the kitchen.
“Okay, Amelia. Put it through.” She grabbed her phone. That was one downside of creating an advanced AI. Amelia was on 24/7, holidays or not.
“It’s not on your phone, dear.” Amelia swirled her right index finger toward the foyer. “It’s on the security video.”
“You’ve got to be kidding.”
Kaden padded to the front entryway and checked around to make sure she was out of everyone’s earshot. No telling what this could be. There were things in her past she still hadn’t shared with her biological dad and half-sister.
She positioned herself in front of the two-way security camera. Instead of seeing a visitor on her dad’s front doorstep, she saw a young man, maybe Bailey’s age, holding a smartphone toward his face.
“Hello?” she said.
“Kaden Baker,” he said in more of a statement than a question. He had a thick accent she couldn’t place.
“Do I know you? And how did you hack our security system?” She regretted her rude tone on Christmas Eve, but she didn’t need this distraction. She wanted to patch things up between Bo and Bailey.
“I need your urgent help, Kaden Baker.”
The audio crackled with static, but the video image was clear enough. His marble blue eyes flitted from the screen and fixed on something in the distance. Must be cold there—she could see his breath. Thick snowflakes swirled down and camped atop his dark eyebrows, which contrasted with his mop of shaggy brown hair. He was crouching next to an old building with a pastoral field of snow behind him.
At first glance, it all seemed very Christmasy. But something was off.
The young stranger’s teeth began to chatter. His voice trembled between snatches of static. “Not much time …” Crackle, hiss, pop. “Matter of life and death. … May be too late … I send you something now.”
“I don’t understand. Send me what?”
He shook his head, still looking away. “No time, I go.” Then he turned his nervous eyes toward her. She picked up something else in the boy’s gaze besides fright—a sense of recognition. A trace of a wistful smile. “Our paths cross again, Kaden Baker.”
The young man turned away again toward the horizon and the image began to shake wildly as he began to run. Then the screen went black. He was gone.
She took a step backward, still staring at the blank security screen.
“Amelia?” she said. “Who the hell was that?”
Ashville, New York
The sixteen-year-old hacker tucked his smartphone into his jacket’s outer pocket. The snowfall thickened. He felt his fingers going numb in the frigid air. He rubbed his hands together for warmth and slumped against the cracked wall of the abandoned wood-frame building in upstate New York.
He stole a glance toward his house across the snow-covered field at the edge of his adopted town. For the moment, all was quiet. He took in a calming breath. The smoke from burning logs from distant neighbors’ fireplaces settled like a dusky blanket atop the valley’s rolling hills. Even at this moment of peril, the scene held a stark beauty, the way the light filtered through the trees along the gently curved ridge. It reminded him of his countless solo walks as a boy along the Dniester River in Moldova.
Maybe I overreacted. Maybe they’re just here to ask questions.
In the distance, a third black SUV churned down the two-lane road through the pastoral countryside toward his parents’ house. This was no coincidence—it had to be connected to the two other SUVs that sped down the same country road only minutes earlier when four men in sunglasses and dark suits spilled out of the vehicles and banged into his family’s home.
He still could barely believe his eyes at the events playing out before him, but the reality was sinking in.
They’re here for me.
He realized he was exposed out here. So he ducked behind the rear of the low-slung corner building with faded yellow vinyl panels. He moved down the length of the building, grabbed onto a low-hanging ledge, swung his body up, and forced open a dirt-spattered window. He snaked his body through the opening and tumbled onto the cold wooden floor. He moved to the far window with a clear line of sight to his house. His daily routine of a morning walk was the only reason he wasn’t in the house with his parents.
He used his sleeve to clear off a swath of dirt-spattered window. He stared up the lonesome hillside at the house, hoping he was wrong about everything.
What would the men do?
He retrieved his phone and logged into his Black Swan repository. His mind raced. He felt his heart thrum in his chest. Shallow breaths caught in his throat.
He needed leverage. If he were captured, he’d need something that would guarantee they wouldn’t kill him. He had put certain safeguards into place in case he was ever arrested by the authorities back in Moldova. He’d created a protocol that would automagically clone all his Black Swan data assets and provide access credentials to a trusted third party.
He was reluctant to involve Kaden Baker. But what choice did he have?
He hadn’t made any real friends since he’d moved here months ago, the first step in his ambitious career path. The good people of Ashville, New York, were welcoming enough. But none of them could understand the desperate circumstances of his background. How much he had overcome. To them, he was an outsider. A cipher. The fellow hackers he knew on apps like Telegram and Signal hid behind fake identities and were hardly the types he could count on.
No, it would have to be someone he could count on to do serious damage by releasing these files if he were harmed. Someone with a spine of steel. He kept coming back to the same answer.
The American. Even though he now lived in America, she would always be the American.
And didn’t she owe him a debt of gratitude for sending her those secret files?
He hoped their brief video call would prep her for what to expect next. He foraged around in his Black Swan account. There! Finally he spotted her file with the credentials to access her private server. The account had far more sophisticated encryption than most—but it was no match for his talents!
After three minutes on his smartphone, he gained access. He hit Execute, sending the decryption key to her secret ftp account. He made sure to add his trademark signature, Scørpiø.
The girl would be his insurance policy in case things went south. “Now we’re in this together,” he said aloud.
The feeling of triumph lasted only seconds. Shouts rippled down the hillside. The angry voices of men inside his parents’ house. Even at this distance, he could hear his father curse at them in return.
Now the third black SUV arrived at their house. Instead of parking out front, it pulled right up onto the lawn. No one emerged. He couldn’t see anyone through the dark tinted windows.
The front door of the house banged open. Ion, the family’s German shepherd, began barking fiercely in the doorway. Two of the men dragged his father out the door while two others gripped his mother by her armpits. The men forced his parents onto their knees on the snow-covered front lawn.
Ion raced outside after them. Anton felt a surge of protectiveness and pride well up inside him. He didn’t have a brother or sister, but he had Ion—he’d taught her to protect their family. His back tensed as he watched Ion come after the gunmen who stood on both sides of his mom. He cracked open the window. He heard the shepherd growl as she latched onto the shorter gunman’s right calf. The assailant shrieked and cursed with a Russian dialect that sounded eerily like the accents he’d grown up around in the Little Russia neighborhood of Tiraspol.
Anthony “Scørpiø” Bors stood and braced himself. His body began to tremble.
How could this be? How could they have tracked me down? How could it all have gone this wrong this fast? Please, God, make it go away. I promise I’ll take it all back.
The door of the third SUV flung open. A broad-shouldered figure emerged. Anthony could make out his features. Gaunt and pale, he wore a bulging gray parka, jeans, and a black ski cap. Parka Man moved with noticeable limp in his right leg and slowly approached the group in front of the porch. He halted ten feet from the others.
The taller gunman laughed at his partner not being able to escape Ion, still growling and hanging on tight to the back of his calf. The tall one raised his weapon toward the dog.
“Don’t touch that dog!” Parka Man shouted.
It sounded to Anthony like an American accent, different from the others. Parka Man fired two shots into the ground in front of the shepherd. Ion yelped and disappeared behind a dormant grapevine at the far end of the house. Parka Man looked around at the pastoral surroundings. No neighbors lived close by on this side of Shermans Bay. This was the side of town where cows and horses outnumbered people.
He watched Parka Man begin to interrogate his parents. He moved in front of Anthony’s father, who was still wearing his plaid flannel pajamas—one of the few items he’d allowed himself to buy since their move to western New York state. The two men who stood behind his dad tightened their grip and twisted his arms until he screamed in agony. His mother struggled to get loose, but they’d tied her hands behind her.
Anthony felt the adrenaline kick in. Fight or flight—what should I do? Try to save my parents? If I give myself up, would they let us live?
Even from this distance, as he watched the men bloody his father’s face and grip his mother’s hair, he knew the answer. They would hear no excuses. They would accept no pleas for understanding. There would only be summary execution.
He hadn’t cried in years, but tears came to him freely now. How could I have been so stupid?
Parka Man shook his head as if to say he’d heard enough. He brought his right hand down. The tall gunman positioned himself directly behind Anthony’s father, took aim, and shot him point blank in the back of the head.
Anthony yelled, “Noooo—” then caught himself. His voice bounced off the flaking interior walls. His stomach began to wrench.
His father’s body buckled and collapsed to the side onto his kneeling, screaming mother. Anthony’s heart leapt into his throat. His mother began swinging wildly with her arms, a knot of hysteria and rage. Anthony started toward the exit. Maybe I can save her. As he reached for the door handle, he turned and peered out the window. Parka Man said something and turned to go. The second gunman ended his mother’s wailing with a bullet.
Anthony drew back from the doorway, stunned and horrified. What have I done? If I get out of this alive, I’ll never forgive myself.
He collapsed to his knees and watched from a corner of the window, well out of sight. The hit team—that’s what it was—began to spread out, surveying the neighboring houses. One of the men retrieved Anthony’s desktop computer from his bedroom and placed it into the back seat of the nearest SUV. They wouldn’t find much on there, if they got past the encryption.
What was so damn valuable in those files that they sent a hit team to take out me and my family?
His heart thrashed in his chest. His mind fogged up, but he needed a plan. He couldn’t return to the house—not ever. They’d be watching. His friends in Moldova lived seven thousand kilometers away.
He realized his new reality. He was sixteen. Homeless. And on the run.
He slumped against the base of the cold, hard wall and gathered himself. He had to get out of there.
First order of business: