|UNHACKABLE HEART: Cole -- Burn his ass and his project|
Cole tossed and turned a good part of the night, wondering if she would accept his offer to be his partner in every sense of the word, praying for it yet again, before finally falling asleep. At five a.m. his cell phone bleeped, so he picked it up off the table beside the bed. Glenn had sent the picture of Tessa and Cole from the night before at Haven. Cole stared at it, a first, together in real-time.
Too early to knock on her connecting door, he rolled to his feet to shower. He no sooner stepped out than his cell rang again. The number indicated it was Glenn, so Cole answered, “You’re awfully busy this morning, little brother.”
Glenn did not reply, but Tessa’s voice growled before asking, “Glenn is your brother? A bet once upon a time between brothers, not buds.” She must have turned away from the phone. “I’m gonna kick your butt,” she said, no doubt to Glenn.
He heard Glenn in a not too far away voice. “I’m gonna kick your butt, brother.”
“Tess, I didn’t mean to tell you this way. Why are you with Glenn?”
She laughed, a self-derisive sound. “It was too late to knock last night when Glenn called to invite me back to Haven so I could meet his fellow ghost hunters. They know where to setup now and what to expect. I intended to ask you if you wanted to join us, before we drive out there, since we’ve had coffee and breakfast, and I’m ready to head out to the haunted house. But I didn’t have your number, thought I’d use his phone. Didn’t realize what an eye-opener that would be.”
Cole pulled on clean clothes. Last night as he turned it over in his head, wondering which choice she might make, any counter-hacks he might need to make to get through to her heart, he still had not envisioned any of those scenarios beginning with her taking off with his brother. So she’d decided to burn him? No, Cole decided, he would not accept that answer. “I’ll be waiting out front of the hotel.”
He immediately slid in beside her when Glenn pulled under the alcove, scooting her in the middle of them. She blew out her cheeks with exasperation before saying, “I could have climbed in the back.”
“No.” Cole was not ready to talk to her yet. She didn’t appear too anxious to talk with him either. And Cole most especially did not want to have this discussion in front of his brother.
“That choice you asked me about last night, are you ready for my answer?”
“Now that I have your number, do you want me to text it to you?”
Her favorite two words not to say but to spell out from long ago? “No.”
She snorted. “You sure do like to say no.” Her green eyes suggested she might be referring to last night when she was ready and willing. “You might try to get a handle on that, dude, before it gets worse and you can’t get out from under the rules locking you down. I’m not a fan of the word no. I’ve never known anyone who liked to say no more than DHS.”
Cole leaned forward and glared at Glenn. “It should have been my call at a time of my choosing. Why did you tell her?”
Tessa poked him in the chest. “Please tell me that I’m misunderstanding you.”
Glenn shook his head and frowned. “Hope this is the time of your choosing.”
“Homeland Security?” Tessa scoffed. “Wow. Can I pick ‘em or what?”
“Let me out.” She turned her face toward Glenn. “Right here. Right now.”
“No.” She tapped him on the chest again. “You, oh you, don’t talk to me.”
She turned back to Glenn. “You have all the information you need for hunting ghosts. I considered it necessary before moving forward, but I don’t need to go out there and face the darkness even in the light of day. I could tell you where to look and you could take care of it? I need to get away, far away, from your big brother.”
Glenn shook his head. “Nope. Not gonna strand you out in the middle of nowhere. We’ll return to town by noon, to catch the sleep we didn’t last night so we are well rested before chasing ghosts tonight.”
Tessa turned to freeze-burn Cole with icy green narrowed eyes. “And I was considering partnering with you in medical security?”
When he opened his mouth, she said, “Don’t say a word to me. When it comes to work, the buck has to stop somewhere and when that call comes at three a.m., bud, I’ll step up. Best way to know what can or cannot happen is to keep my hand in it. A total security freak, not a Patriot Act control freak to cybercop people from any right to privacy!”
She leaned forward and cranked the tunes, closing off conversation.
Cole blew out a calming breath, she was mad enough for both of them. Although not the time he would have chosen, he wanted it over so she would have all the cards for a hand to choose from. He leaned over and turned the music off. “At DefCon, you about walked away when the recruiter led you to believe working medical security would be Big Brother. The CT team you are trying out for? DHS, Tess.”
“Easy,” Glenn suggested to him, to Tessa. “No blood in my truck,” he added before settling the matter by blasting the playlist.
After arriving at her house, morning fog not yet burned off, creepy vibes even in the daylight, she handed Glenn the key to the front padlock. “Thank you for doing this for me, Glenn.” The appreciation in her eyes aimed at his brother kicked up his temper a degree even while his logic knew she meant ghost hunting, landscaping, and not simply unlocking the house.
Tessa blew out a deep breath and stepped across the threshold. She headed straight to the back of the house and to the stairs leading up.
Cole hadn’t been up there. Even when he had no scruples, he had limits when he planted web cams to see what was happening in this house so long ago. He didn’t want to know, didn’t want to see it, most definitely wasn’t going to broadcast her sex life with Sam. He followed her upstairs.
The master bedroom was where Sam Kendall had blown out his brains, leaving a note blaming Tessa for his death. Despite that heat should rise and it was summer, the air upstairs was so cool that gooseflesh spread up his forearms.
Tessa plugged in her earbuds but it was down low enough he couldn’t hear her playlist as she slid open one drawer after another. She walked over to the drawer next to the bed. After sliding it open, her laugh sent another chill to streak over his arms. “The next owners can have it all, Sammy, but not this,” she whispered into the room. She slipped something into her front pocket, spun around and past Cole, down the stairs, and slammed out the backdoor.
More than happy to exit the thick, chilly, extra eerie air in the house, Cole followed her. She slid on her shades, music thumping now, but Glenn stepped in front of her forward charge toward the woods and the cave. Cole saw Glenn unplug one of her ears and wished he could read lips.
However, Glenn walked his way next. “We need to wait for my friend, Paul. He’s a demonologist and that thing is hacking my head in there. He’ll bless us all, a protection for your mind, before anyone comes in to setup.”
“Then why did you bring her out here?”
“Don’t growl at me ‘cause she’s mad at you. She’s mad at herself, can’t you tell? I logged a lot of hours way out here in the middle of nowhere, working on her network. It was like the ghosts in her house ran it. She was cool with me for a long time before she wasn’t at all. Not like that and you know it, stop glaring at me.”
After blowing out an exhale, Cole nodded at his brother to continue.
“I do know her in real-time though. She found what she was looking for, what she wanted to get rid of before anyone else came in this house. She didn’t want to go up there. Don’t push her right now, Cole. She’s mad at herself ‘cause Sam is tempting her even from the grave. Leave her be until after the ghost of temptation passes and she finds peace.”
Cole rocked from heel to toe, hands stuffed in his back pockets, staring at Tessa the same as Glenn, as she jumped and swung one leg over the lowest branch of a huge old tree in the backyard. She climbed rocks too, but she climbed the tree this time, way way up under the canopy of shade. Still a bit foggy on the ground, she disappeared into the treetop.
He groaned. She liked to climb. He liked to climb. Maybe it was time to step out of the shades of gray and into full color in real-time with her, other than his dreams.
Glenn laughed, turning to Cole. “You know how you watch a guy do something really stupid and know how bad he’s got it but you can’t help him? Then you think, better him than me as he makes a fool of himself? Just reminding you, since your logic has fled and you, bro, are in trouble. Wait for Paul to arrive and to bless everyone’s head, before you do something crazy like climb up in that tree after her.”
Cole ignored Glenn’s laughter and went after the woman so far up through the fog she really was invisible at the moment. He climbed up, up, up closer to the playlist he could hear like a beacon.
She leaned back against the trunk in the top branches, her face tipped up, tawny curls tangled against a branch. Although her shades were on, reflecting fog and green leaves, she muttered something too low for him to hear before growling low in her throat. “Grrr.”
“Tessa,” he settled beside her, one branch below, grabbing hold of her hips, bracing her so he didn’t scare her right out of the tree.
She screamed and glanced down. Her shades reflected back at him. Without turning down her music, she shook her head. “Get out of this tree. We don’t suit.”
“We suit well,” he countered after he turned down her music.
“Oh yeah? Won’t happen,” she pulled out her earbuds to hang on each side of her chest as angry don’t-mess-with-me music thumped. “Counting on me to be kinda like those chicks who dig vampires, only to become his prey? Been your prey once, Cole. If then, and, or not, once is all it will happen no matter what language you use.”
“That’s not part of my plan.”
“Gonna have to jack your plan. Jack you up.” She swung one leg from her perch around and down to settle on the branch next to him. “Here’s the plan.”
He lifted his hands, holding her hips as she straddled above him. Bold green eyes stared directly in his, letting him know she was about to come on strong. “Tess, I thought you said this wasn’t going to happen?”
“Gonna jack you up, Cole.” She opened her palm, exposing the pipe loaded with a full bowl. “Sam’s stash; the very reason why we jumped off the fence last time, you and I, landing on different sides of the law. Gonna smoke with former Big Brother, Mr. Privacy-Pirate-DHS, and then screw his brains out.”
He blew out a shaky breath.
She cocked one brow. “You like to climb? You’ll like it. Oh yes, it’s time to kiss and make up. Right after this peace pipe. Then you take that back home to Virginia with you, store it away in your archive, to weigh up with the mind screw you once gave me. Closure?”
She slid the hand with the pipe over the bulge in his jeans. “You want to. Not even known you in real-time for twenty-four hours . . . too much too fast; if this is the end, Cole, why not go for it while it lasts?”
“Right here in this tree,” he repeated to make sure this wasn’t some kind of dream. He could hear a convoy of landscaping trailers unloading, a beeping like a backhoe backed up, still too foggy to see man or machine on the ground . . . which meant they were invisible from them too.
She slid her hand in her front pocket and came back with a lighter and he could almost hear the gong as temptation won her over. She flicked open the gold lighter with a big S engraved on it before flicking again and a flame burned, dancing a bit in the wind, but steady fire.
“Go ahead, Tessa,” he taunted her. “Why stop now?” He pulled her down on top of him. “But I thought you said that would never happen again. Your journal was full of wisdom a decade ago . . . Get high with the guy you marry only if you intend to stay that way to stay married to him.”
“I don’t plan to marry you, Cole, just get stoned with you and then screw you.”
“I don’t plan to get high with you.” Nevertheless, Cole slid his hands over her as bold as she had been. “See how bad choices work? You get tempted; you tempt me; I tempt you. Hurry, Tessa, the fog is burning off. Unless you want guys on the ground to see you having hot sex up in the canopy of this tree?”
She groaned as his hands roamed. She held the pipe in one hand and the dancing flame above the lighter in her other.
“Is this gonna burn me, yourself, or both of us? Gonna get all lit up again and let Sam win the last round?”
“Just say no again. You like that word.”
“Not gonna get stoned with you, Tessa. I don’t smoke. I don’t like it; we’re in a haunted location and it makes me paranoid. And you’d hate me then for sure after that demonologist blesses your head.”
“If your answer is no again, get your hands off me.”
Cole cocked his head in the direction of her house and the paranormal investigators pulling into the driveway. “Finish this and leave your past buried here when you go forward. Don’t fall when you soared passed all this a long time ago. You’re stronger and so much smarter than this test.”
She flicked the lighter closed with her wrist. When she sat the hot lighter on the jeans at his knee, the engraved letter S glinted golden in the sun. She dropped the pipe, spilling the bowl, on his lap. She reached into her pocket again before dropping the baggie with the rest of Sam’s stash on his lap. “Parting gift, something to remember me by.”
She swung down, too fast, hopping down the branches at breakneck speed.
The creepy fog surrounding the house burned off with bright rays of summer sun. He saw Glenn stop Tessa while another man rubbed something on her forehead before making the sign of the cross. Must be the demonologist blessing her head to protect it from the evil inside her house. Cole climbed down and accepted the blessing too. Immediately the turmoil and temptation stopped. It was time to talk with Tessa now.
“Tessa,” Cole called her after following ghost hunters inside and stepping around equipment being setup all over her house. He stopped two of the men setting up cameras and wireless microphones in the back bedroom. “Have you seen Tessa?”
“She’s with Glenn,” a guy answered.
Cole walked around outside and scanned the crew landscaping the yard. No Glenn, no Tessa. Hadn’t she been headed toward the cave earlier before Glenn stopped her and she climbed a tree?
After following a path between the trees, crunching leaves under his feet in the woods, Cole could see a cave. He kept walking but the hair on his nape lifted when he saw the shadowman from last night, only it was in the mouth of the cave now.
Tessa paced into sight, holding up her cell phone inside the cave. “I’m sorry to say it, but you are wrong. It’s not like that with Shadow. He’ll leave. He won’t follow me just because he heard my phone call.”
He could hear Glenn. “Go away, shadowman. Go back to the shadowland. Do not follow Tessa!”
Although his logic said turn around and run, brain will not compute regarding the shadowman pacing in Tessa’s footsteps, his legs continued the forward momentum until Cole stepped into the cave.
Glenn spun around and barked, “He’s attached to her as a jealous ghost. You’re lucky he didn’t come shove you out of the tree. He’ll follow her; I’ve warned her and she still got on the phone in this cave, the only place she can pick up a signal, and called to make flight arrangements. She can’t go, Cole, until her friend Shadow goes through the portal.”
She ignored Cole completely, speaking to Glenn while pointing at the shadowman. “Well if he could follow me, then he could fix my car and I wouldn’t need a flight. But he can’t, Glenn. Same as he can’t get on a plane with me. If convincing him to cross the vortex in here is the only way you’ll drive me back to town, then fine.”
She stepped closer to the thing! She leaned closer yet to the six-foot shadowman that towered over her. “Shadow, can you go toward the light or back to the shadowlands to find a shadow-woman? Don’t follow me.”
An inky black finger pointed from Tessa back to the shadowman.
“No,” she pointed her finger at the shadowman now. “I’m happy in the city where no one knows anything about my past, and life is good to me with the fresh start. It’s easy to be invisible there, unlike here which is backwards but only too true. Go, Shadow, I won’t be around anything that reminds me of my tainted life with Sam. I’m starting fresh once more in a new city with a new career. I’ll be happy. You go be happy too. Goodbye, Shadow.”
The dark shadowy man zipped toward the back of the cave, disappearing into the shadows. A white blinding flash of light blew all three of them to the seat of their pants like an explosion while a loud ringing echoed in his ears.
Tessa was the first one up, dusting off her seat, before holding out a hand to help Glenn to his feet. “See?” she asked with a smile. “He’s gone. Take me back into town now please?”
Cole accepted the hand up from Glenn even though his knees were still shaky after witnessing a paranormal mystery.
Glenn announced, “Time to go. She can’t very well take off without you, now can she?”
This time, Tessa climbed into the backseat before Cole could slide her over in the middle. Wonder if she could crawl out that back window? She leaned up and settled one hand on Glenn’s shoulder. “Listen, Mr. Enterprising, maybe you should buy a couple rental cars for when someone like me gets stuck in the sticks?”
“I gotta get some sleep, Tessa, before hunting out the rest of your ghosts tonight. It’ll take almost four hours round trip, just drive time, to take you to the airport and get back. Even if you decided to rent a car there instead of fly.” Glenn glared at Cole. “You have anything you might choose to share with Tessa, big brother?”
She leaned back into her seat. “I’m not interested in anything he has to say.”
Cole turned around to see her face. “Come on; you think I didn’t want you in that tree?”
Glenn shook his head. “That wasn’t it, Cole. Try again.”
No, it wasn’t. Why that had fallen out of his mouth when he opened it, Cole had no logical reason. If she was mad before, then saying such a thing to her in front of his brother did not bode well for her to want to hear anything more Cole had to say. He turned in the front seat and then squeezed over the back to join her in the cramped space. She squeaked as he came over, right up next to her now. “Babe, you can’t get on a plane.”
“I’m not your babe. And you can tell me what to do until your face turns blue, but that won’t affect my decision one bit. Boundaries are healthy . . . maybe being at Homeland Security has skewed yours.”
At the hotel, after Cole assured Glenn, “I’ve got this,” he followed Tessa into the lobby. She stopped at the desk and asked if the rental car agency from the airport would do as they say in commercials; if they had ever driven almost two hours to pick someone up.
Cole snorted. “The answer is no.” He stood between Tessa and a security camera, blocking her from the shot. He wanted her to go to her room now, where they would have some privacy, but he had enough wisdom not to try and suggest anything to her right now.
The lady at the desk shook her head. “No, they won’t. It’s in the fine print. We’re too far away. We’ve had a guest try before.”
She sighed. “They didn’t used to either.” She turned toward the hallway, tick tap, tick tap, tick tap before Cole moved in front of her, blocking the next security camera around the hall. She slid the keycard through the lock and opened her door. She glared at him and pushed the door shut.
He caught it with his toe. “Invite me in, Tess, so eye in the sky isn’t watching. You can’t just up and go to the airport.”
She cocked one tawny eyebrow. “Do you want a different parting gift, Cole? Don’t tell me; let me guess. No.” She shoved the door and it clicked shut.
“You can’t get on a plane,” he said inside his room beside her connecting door. “Your name is on the list; you’ll be stopped and questioned.”
She didn’t open the door but he heard her growl.
“Yori is looking for you.” That worked; she swung open the door connecting their hotel rooms.
“DHS volunteering information?”
He stepped into her room. “Yori Korskovf, owner of Medatron and head of the Russian mafia, has a price on your lovely head. Now I know you can hack a heart, know Medatron is the supplier with the vulnerabilities in implantable devices, even know he’s the black hat headhunter trying to lure you with riches to work for him. But what I don’t know is what you have on him. He’s pretty determined to make sure you don’t make it to tryouts for his number one enemy. Is that the only reason, Tessa, he’s wanting you dead or alive?”
He’d rattled her enough that she sat down right there, managing to be close enough to the mattress to be seated on the bed. Those green eyes still had frost; she didn’t trust him at all. She certainly didn’t volunteer information, so Cole added, “He wants you to patch his new state-of-the-art insulin pump, right?”
Finally her gaze met his. A red flush crept up her face and her eyes bounced away from his again. Uh-huh, she regretted her time in the tree with him this morning.
“Answer me, Tessa.”
“It’s patched already.”
Cole reached over and slid one finger under her chin. He tipped her face to his. “You protected him then with your program. He’s dangerous, babe. Are you attracted to him like you are me, like something too strong to pass by without getting burned?”
She reached into her shirt, coming back with a fist full of USB sticks. “He thinks I’m dangerous. I can reprogram his insulin pump, exploit it, my code can kill him same as protect him.”
“You are a dangerous woman. Sweet too. It’s a lethal combination.”
“You’re the one who looks like trouble, dude. What possible reason would anyone suspect me and stop me at the airport? What possible reason could exist for me to end up on the no-fly list? I’m no terrorist.”
“A known terrorist, the revolutionary leader of the cyberwar, has made his association with you clear . . . even if your intentions are not. Like before, caught between cops and drug dealers . . . you have landed in trouble before you even jump down off the fence and choose sides.”
“Is that why you’re here? It’s the perfect time to swoop in and screw with my head?"
“If I wanted to mess with your head, I would have the perfect weapon after having your body in that tree, Tessa. Did I do that to you when you were vulnerable? When you wanted to burn me?”
“It’s started again, hasn’t it? By me sending you my picture this morning from Glenn’s phone?”
She had sent him the picture of them together? She hadn’t decided to burn him by taking off with his brother. So she hadn’t made her decision until after she knew they were brothers, and that Cole now worked for DHS? “It’s not starting again, Tessa. I won’t allow anyone to hurt you this time. Let’s finish this, so you can start fresh with me in Virginia.”
“I don’t want to work for DHS, Cole.”
“Then partner with me in medical security.”
“Do you want me to text you my answer?”
He sighed. “I’m not your enemy. I’m not the bad guy. I’m not leaving you unprotected.” He tipped her eyes to his again. “I’m not Sam, Tessa. I don’t intend to take away your hope . . . and hope is a very dangerous thing to lose.”
“Would you please stop? Hacking and counter-hacking a heart last night? That was almost as good as sex. Except we were both thinking. My answer is yes, Cole. Will you help me get rid of Yori?”
“You better believe it.” He grinned at her, his gorgeous new partner. He leaned forward and brushed his lips across hers. “Would you like to hear my plan?”
“You better believe it.”
“Korskovf is being hammered by lawsuits due to the faulty leads on Medatron pacemakers. We both know it’s because Medatron implantable devices can be hacked . . . not faulty leads. He had his attorneys leak that as any upgrades would have the hole patched. You get a suspect to talk by pushing his buttons, not him pushing yours. He knows you can exploit the long range radio signals. If that got out about his newest implantable devices . . .?”
She nodded once. “He’s going to come after me. I’m a liability. Yori doesn’t allow liabilities, at least not publicly known vulnerabilities.”
“He doesn’t know where you are. You ghosted. Resigned from your job. Moved from your apartment with no forwarding address. I’ll help you stay invisible and make sure you don’t take any shortcuts during an emergency. Lure him out, Tess, expose him in public. Hack his insulin pump, and he’ll talk fast to get it fixed before he drops dead.”
“Does he know you, Cole? I don’t want you endangered. Homeland Security, his number one enemy . . . Surely he would come after you if we are both bait?”
“You will not be bait, babe. No face-to-face with Korskovf.” He slipped one finger into her collar, lifting the USB necklace. “Just bring your guns.”
She booted up her laptop and signed into an email account. “This is how I talk with Yori. We both have access to this account. We save encrypted messages as a draft in unsent email. We don’t send anything for someone like DHS to capture.”
“Like before with me so long ago?”
She shot him a lopsided grin. “Yeah, babe. You ruined me.”
“You don’t look ruined to me.”
Later, as Tessa swung on the back of his bike, she blew out a shaky exhale. Her laptops and change of clothes were stuffed in the bags on both sides of his motorcycle. Shortly after twenty-four hours from arriving in the sticks, she was leaving with him, going to his home in Virginia. Not going toward Big Brother and tryouts like she had anticipated with her giant leap of faith and cashing out of the good life in the city. She certainly had not foreseen crossing this man’s path and joining in a partnership with him.
A Medatron spokeswoman was scheduled in DC to release the monetary settlement for people who had filed lawsuits against one of Yori’s legitimate businesses. It would be a media frenzy. Tessa had left Yori a message, a threat, in their shared email account, that she would be going public at the same press conference.
Cole seemed convinced, convinced her, Yori was waiting for her in DC in case she dared show up at tryouts for the cyber CT team. She wished she’d never tried to help Yori or to help him make it right. Folks didn’t want to have surgery to replace a working implant. Yori did, thought it was safe, but the long range capabilities for attack just got sweeter and sweeter for an attacker.
She leaned forward, placing her lips near his ear. “You’re crazy.” She laughed as he opened the throttle and she squeezed his waist. She’d been waiting for this headlong freefall, thinking maybe she might not be able to fall again.
The firewall around her heart had shutdown. This man had done it. She did not feel invisible with him, but she knew they both were. She believed Cole could make it so. Nothing in life had felt so right since she first pursued classes in ISS.
He zipped them in and out of lanes, adrenaline rushing along with the traffic. He didn't stop for gas until the sun set on them both in Virginia. He swung off his bike, pushing one finger back on the sunglasses she was pulling off, pushing them back on her face. “Faith is good, Tess. You have to be able to follow orders too.”
He tucked a strand of her hair under a baseball cap that he had handed her a block back. Both of them knew, eye in the sky at the gas station would not detect her.
An hour later, in a residential area of Falls Church, he deactivated his home security system and pulled into a garage. “Welcome home, Tessa,” he told her as the garage door sealed shut behind them. He swung off his bike and opened the door for her.
She placed her hand in his but he scooped her into his arms and carried her across the threshold. He beamed a high-wattage smile complete with twin dimples carving on either side of his tanned handsome face. She didn’t notice his house, unable to break eye contact with his navy gaze until he lowered her to her feet. She blinked at her surroundings. A command center! “Sweet.”
He booted up and pulled her over on his lap in front of a keyboard. “Check if Yori responded.”
She logged into the email account. Sure enough. She lifted her shirt to pull off a green USB before inserting it in the front port. Then she decrypted his message.
Can’t wait to see you in person again.
Cole surfed off her shoulder. “Woman, you think it might be important to mention you’ve previously met in real-time with Korskovf?”
She leaned back against him. “Don’t growl. I have the capabilities to hack his insulin pump at 500 meters. Do you think I would send him the program in Russia? Or over the Internet?” She snorted. “This will be fun, Cole.”
“No rubbing shoulders or black hats with Yori.”
“I don’t have any implantable medical devices, dude. Yori can’t hurt me.”
He snorted this time. “This is supposed to press his buttons, not mine. You aren’t ready, Tessa, to meet with your Maker. Yori wouldn’t even flinch to fire a bullet into that brilliant brain.”
“Gotta keep my hand in it even if it’s remotely with a long range antenna.”
“So does Jesus. He keeps His Hand in it, the Big Plan. Do you think He doesn’t know every little malicious attack pounding at His backdoor? He holds the key to lock out any possible vulnerability but the door is open for you. His gift.”
Tessa stood. “Jesus as an uber white hat hacker? Thanks for trying to break it down to terms I could relate with. This discussion is over. So where am I sleeping?”
“I need you to step into the Light and believe that. I can’t move forward with you into a deeper partnership if we don’t share the same Foundation. At night, we fight on the same side in the cyberwar so you have to believe good will overcome evil to stay in the fight. You’re more angel than outlaw, Tessa.”
He lifted one finger to her lips. “Think about it overnight; see how things look in the morning light?”
He escorted her through the living room, past a dining room, down a hallway and into a back room. She looked at the masculine master bedroom. She looked at the bed. She looked at Cole.
He’d been her guardian angel for years and years. Real-time left her reeling in his proximity. Is this what God had planned for her long long ago, steering her path to the here and now?
A doorbell rang into the night. Who the heck was at his door in the middle of the night?
He frowned and held out one hand. “Give me your cell phone so I can clone it.”
She snorted. “Not funny.” She followed him as far as the dining room when he pivoted to answer his front door.
“Lord,” he said. “Please help me with this female.”
Cole came back less than a minute later holding a vase of white long-stemmed roses left on his front doorstep. “Let me guess who your secret admirer might be.”
Tessa plopped down on the seat closest to her. Yori had sent her flowers in the city, to her home, to her job, but he’d found her here? “I know you asked me to shut off my phone, Cole, but it’s registered under a male name and an Alaskan address. I’ve never given it to Yori. I’m waiting to hear how the ghost hunt went. I didn’t think he could triangulate my position quite this fast. I’m sorry; I was wrong, okay?”
He held up the card. “Join my enemy, become my enemy.” He shook his head, black hair swaying with the motion. “Not good, babe. Not good at all.”
He strolled to a big screen monitor on one side of the room, turning it on, and tweaking the camera angle on his security system. “And here I thought you were quite the digital handful of trouble of so-not-invisible-packets with danger in the header. In person, Tess, you are much more lethal.” He tapped his heart. “Here.” He tapped his forehead. “And here.”
He pulled her up from the chair and escorted her back into the bedroom. “Sleep in here.”
She pointed at the bed. “No way. It smells like you in here. Think I could sleep? I’m not the one who keeps saying no.”
“You are saying no though. You have to trust me, Tessa, to know what is best in protecting you. I know you’ll warrior-up in a heartbeat, but I don’t think my heart can take any more. It’s been a long day since the tree this morning after dawn.”
“And I don’t want you to do anything that tarnishes your honor code. That’s what I like about you, Cole, the fact you look like you belong to the bad boy club, a bonus for sure, but an uber white hat now. Trust me to take care of Yori tomorrow at the press conference. I understand the plan, hack his pump at a distance, until his insulin level puts him in physical distress and ready to spill, and then patch him back up. Another bonus, John Q. Public will come to understand the security risks in ICDs and we’re starting up a security firm.”
“Baby, your invisibility will not hold now until the press conference in,” he glanced at his watch, “four hours. The only reason he isn’t blowing up this house is because he wants the code around your lovely neck. You may not like to hear this, Tessa, but I love you. You will stay in this room and if you’re as smart as I know you are, you will pray.”
Her cell phone sang out and Tessa checked the text. She sighed. “He’s waiting in the middle of the tunnels. I won’t be able to pick up a signal in the tunnels.”
Cole raked one hand down his face before holding that hand out to her. “Give me the USBs.”
Hand over her arsenal? Her cryptograms? To Cole when a madman was after them? Tessa pulled her necklace out of her shirt, removing three USBs and leaving only the silver one connected.
She handed him her arsenal, her trust. With her other hand, she held up the single remaining silver memory stick. “Get me close to him, Cole, and I’ll give him this. If he plugs in, it’ll kill anything electronic. If he leaves the tunnel without trying it, you have the code with his pump’s looped frequency to reprogram it. Does that sound like a partner thing?”
He accepted the three colored USBs. “Except for the part where you rub shoulders with my enemy, a man as evil as any who ever roamed the Earth. Makes Hitler look like he had a heart.”
She cupped his cheek, a couple days worth of stubble tickling her palm. “I can hack his heart, Cole. Trust me.”
“I don’t feel better yet,” he said before sliding his arm through hers and steering her back into the command center. He muttered along the way, “Jack me up.”
“Wow.” She watched off his right shoulder as he logged into his computer at work, pulling up facial recognition software and setting it to search near and in the transit tunnels. “Talk about perks. So like you to leave a secret door in.” She laughed. “Tear ‘em up, cowboy.”
“You’re making me crazy,” he muttered this time. He pulled up Yori Korskovf’s captured image along a street approaching the tunnel, time-stamped thirty minutes ago and counting closer to now as more pictures popped up of his bearded face in the tunnels. Five men dressed similarly in black stood off to the side of Yori. Cole zoomed in to show her the guns. “Still want to go in there, Tessa?”
“Not so much,” she admitted. “He’s really going to kill me, isn’t he?”
He had so many screens running, six monitors divided in four, cranking a half-dozen computers. On one, he pulled up a radio station close to the tunnels. On another, he pulled up the radio station closest to broadcasting on the other side of the tunnels. On another, he crossed lines of frequency permissions.
“I’m dangerous?” she muttered this time as he hijacked both stations, playing the looped frequency that specifically earmarked the insulin pump keeping Yori alive. To the normal ear, it sounded like the stations had gone off the air. Not an if Yori left the tunnels, but a when . . . his insulin pump would buffer overflow, flooding his system with all the insulin in the pump.
His fingers flew over the keyboard, practically giving off sparks, and a camera angle in the tunnel showed streaming pictures in real-time as Cole typed text, cloning the message into electronic signs above the tunnel. “Pray now, Tessa,” he advised. His text advised the same except to Yori.
“God,” she said aloud. “Please don’t let Cole get in trouble for taking out the number one cyber-terrorist on the globe.”
“DHS will probably want to promote me,” he assured her. “And God helps the good guy during war.”
“Really, God,” she whispered. “Stop him before he does something he’ll regret again. Please do something about Yori, so I can move forward with Cole.”
A lone moving van passed into the tunnel. The front driver’s side tire blew out, spitting rubber, sending the truck into a skid toward a concrete column close to Yori. The van sideswiped the concrete column, snapping carnage of sheet metal buckled, spinning end over end, to slam against the Russian mafia men assembled to the left of the column. She had no doubt all six were dead from impact . . . brought about not by Cole’s hand.
Cole backed out of the systems, one after another, erasing his tracks, putting all things back to the way they were before he went searching for Yori. After he logged off, he spun around in his chair and pulled her into his lap. “Do you believe yet, Tessa?”
“Yeah.” She swallowed hard. “No coincidence that put us on the path to be partners.”
“Finally. Life is good.”
He kissed her until her head spun, brain offline, heart taking on control.
He lifted his mouth and smiled at her. “Can I interest you in a more personal partnership?”
“Oh yeah, partner. I love you, hacker.”
“Yeah,” he sighed contently. “Oh yes. I love you too, hacker.”
Happily Ever After!