Touch of Secrets © Kyra Fox Author
Less than ten stone steps separate me from the heavy oak doors I’ve been walking through almost every day for the past two months. Since last week, I’ve been meeting them with rising apprehension.
Squaring my shoulders, I plaster on my brightest smile and make the ascent, entering the DC branch of Cuthbert Bank, the central branch of the third-largest bank in the country. It holds the accounts of some of the wealthiest people in the world, and it’s where most of the upper management sits.
My time here is almost through, and I have yet to untangle the web of lies and deceit I stumbled into last month.
Fluorescent lights and an eerie quiet greet me as I enter the building, my eyes taking a moment to adjust to the fake brightness after the natural morning winter sun. As my rapid heartbeat subsides, I start picking up the soft speech of the earliest of bank patrons already sitting at a clerk’s desk.
“Top of the morning to you, Maddie,” Craig, the security guard, greets me cheerfully from his post a few feet from the doors.
“Craig.” I stride to him with a broad smile, less forced this time, and open the top box of donuts I got for the ground floor employees, the sweet scent of the freshly fried dough easing the sense of pending doom.
“You’re the sweetest.” He salutes me with the donut he picked. “Have a good day, Maddie.”
“You too, Craig.”
My heels click over the white marble floor as I make my way to the rec room, the clerks who don’t have meetings rushing after me to get their hands on their donut of choice before someone else does.
“Dang, just one cronut left,” I say in a purposefully loud voice and laugh at the horrified gasps before taking a step back to reveal a cronut-filled box. Cronuts are surprisingly popular here, and it’s always good to have the little guys on your side when you’re an outsider. It’s much easier to collect information and gain access this way. Not to mention how difficult it would be for someone to make me disappear when I have people who notice me coming and going. “Have a great day, guys.”
I wave over my shoulder at the reciprocations as I head back through the lobby to the elevators that take me down to the server room, my kingdom of solitude. I’ve been cleaning out the bank’s system and improving the resilience of its digital security for the past six weeks, give or take.
Hacking into these systems is what I do for fun. Making sure no one else can is what I do for a living.
I don’t do espionage, hack to gather the secrets of other countries, or get myself involved in politics. I digitally fortify banks all over the world because they hold the money of every Jane and John Doe. I make sure no one is skimming off the top or laundering through the banking system, and whether or not I’m asked to—I make sure the bank plays a fair and legal game with people’s money.
At first, Cuthbert seemed squeaky clean aside from the random identity theft and a couple of clerks half-assing some paperwork. Nothing overly suspicious, but I’m nothing if not thorough, so I fine-combed every transaction that seemed out of the ordinary.
Two weeks in, something caught my attention—my program flagged a random account because of a sudden cash withdrawal of $2,000. Nothing major in terms of activity I usually sign off on, but something was off with this particular account.
One line of code embedded into the bank’s system, designed to transfer small increments out of a single account to dozens of smaller ones inside the bank. None of these transfers were flagged as suspicious by my code, but experience and instinct trump technology. The small withdrawals, the excess code that seems to exist solely to take money from this account, it all felt wrong.
I’ve been following this account more closely and set up my Federal Reserve issued computer to scan for similar activities in other accounts while digging into the code and its source. So far, I’ve discovered a few more accounts connected to this one. Some are corporate accounts, and some private. It seems like the transactions stop when an account reaches either $500,000 or $1,000,000, and up to that point, the only activity is the small deposits from the main account. Other than that, they just sit there.
It’s the most bizarre embezzlement operation I have ever encountered. A complicated trail of too many transactions, spanning over too many years and too many accounts. It’s practically impossible to untangle.
The hacker in me is squealing like a schoolgirl as I shrug off my coat and sit at my station, firing up the computer. These routine jobs seldom present any real challenge, and this code is making me work for it, which is a novelty.
I’m being bested by a specter, some unknown human entity who managed to write a simple line of code that I can’t seem to crack. Me, globally ranked at the top of my field of financial cybersecurity, and somehow a stupid worm in a bank’s mainframe has me chasing my own tail for over a month.
I sip on my coffee as I scroll through the output, seeing the same thing I’ve seen every day. Additional accounts in the web of intricate operations, the social security numbers they’re associated with probably belonging to more deceased individuals and presenting another dead end.
Another sip, and I switch to the output from the command I ran on the code during the night. Still nothing, another sip. This one has the distinct taste of defeat. One last window to check. The data in this one is usually static, so I don’t have high hopes.
“What the…?” I place my coffee on the table and lean closer to the screen.
This doesn’t make sense.
My eyes keep darting over the data, verifying the only logical conclusion—the code was built to appear like a worm, but there are too many variables that don’t add up, specifically the fact that a new account with an almost identical code was opened by someone up in management, who proceeded to deposit the exact amount of cash that was originally deposited into the main account I’ve been investigating.
If someone in upper management has access to these accounts and is depositing money into them, shuffling their own funds around inside the bank just to withdraw them later, it means an embezzlement operation is highly improbable.
I pick up my phone and dial. I’m still not entirely sure what I stumbled onto, but whatever it is, I’ve been doing cybersecurity for banks long enough to know it indicates high-level inside involvement. That means I need to call in the big guns before said involved bank officials catch wind of my discovery.
“Hey, Maddie.” The warm voice of my uncle soothes some of the nervousness that had started to settle in the pit of my stomach.
“Hey, Lee. I’m wrapping up early at the bank today. Want to grab a coffee?” The silence that follows my question tells me that the savvy FBI agent on the other end caught my subtle hint that this isn’t a friendly call.
I never call him Lee, always Uncle Lee. Even at thirty-three, it’s something I haven’t managed to shake.
Maybe because he’s my godfather, or that he’s been my dad’s best friend since forever, or that he stepped up and helped raise my little sister and me after my mom died.
It may also have something to do with him being the father of my older half-brother.
Whatever the reason, it’s enough to tip him off as to the nature of my call.
“Sure, is our usual spot in an hour good?”
“Can we make it ninety minutes?”
“I can do ninety minutes.”
“See you there.” I slip my phone into my pocket and pull a drive out of my bag, connecting it and bypassing the Fed’s firewalls meant to prevent me from copying info to an external device.
My movements are mechanical, my fingers pressing all the right keys though I can’t seem to remember my brain sending the order. I’m on autopilot, which is probably for the best since I’ve got about an hour to dig as deep as I can, and an adrenaline rush won’t do me any favors.
This is the last chance I get because if this is as big as I think it is, I can never set foot here again once I leave this building.
“Sawyer?” Jonah’s harsh whisper snaps me out of my daze.
“What?” I blink, looking up from the photo in my hand, the one I picked up after Jonah slid it across the table, fighting to keep my hand steady as I lower it from eye level.
“I asked if you remember Phoebe’s cousin, Maddie,” he says, repeating the question I couldn’t hear over the buzzing in my ears, brought on by what might have been an instant and extreme heart attack level spike in my heart rate. “About five times.”
“I just got back from a three-week protective duty from hell,” I answer, hoping the excuse I’m about to lay thick on him will settle his mind and hide why I was so out of it. “I’m tired as fuck, Joe. Give me a break.”
Jonah raises an eyebrow, but being my boss, he knows how crappy this last A-lister detail was, so he can’t argue.
“I wanted to meet early so we could discuss this job privately. Andrew is going to be here soon, so I need you to focus.”
I nod, not trusting that my voice won’t disclose to my best friend how a photo of a girl I knew for a week feels like a punch to the gut even a year later.
The photograph was taken at Phoebe and Andrew’s wedding, a closeup of Maddie’s smiling face. To a bystander, it looks as if she’s posing for the camera, but I wasn’t a bystander that night. For a brief and glorious moment, I got to be part of Maddie’s world.
I’m the one she’s smiling at with that sly grin I grew so fond of during our week together, her mesmerizing cat eyes, remnants of Egyptian ancestry, fixed on me as I gave her a smile of my own. Her smile was a dare, and the troublemaker in me couldn’t resist the invitation.
The photographer hadn’t even lowered his camera before her arms were wrapped around my neck, her head thrown back and mouth open in unrestrained laughter—she was bursting with life, and I was caught up in her vibrant exuberance as I spun her on the dance floor. There are photos of that somewhere as well, though I have no intention of ever seeking them out.
Then something happened and Maddie ghosted me without so much as a word, leaving me all sorts of mind fucked.
Finally feeling like I’ve gained control over my voice, I casually toss the photo back to Jonah. “Why are you showing me a photo of Phoebe’s cousin?”
Jesus, you can’t even bring yourself to say her name out loud.
“She needs our help. Off the record.”
“Did Barbie break a fingernail?” I lean back and pick up my beer, forcing myself to seem disinterested though I’m ready to get on a plane this second and fly to wherever Maddie is at the mere thought of her being in trouble.
“No.” Jonah doesn’t elaborate. Instead, he’s examining me with a calculated gaze.
Shit. I recognize that look. I’ve been through the trenches with this guy, commanded him for five years. He was my left hand while Andrew was my right. I know them better than I know the people who gave me life. Like them better, too. And right now, I can say with certainty that Jonah is reconsidering his choice to assign this mission to me.
The thought sends a rush of panic through me, blocking out whatever little sense I have and leaving my impulsive nature in charge, which means my next course of action will be embarrassingly stupid, and either a stroke of genius or an epic fail.
I flash a grin at the waitress who passes by our table, a pretty twenty-something with auburn hair in a ponytail and bright brown eyes. She blushes and hurries off.
“Seriously?” Jonah raises an eyebrow, dark eyes glaring at me. “Is there anything sporting a skirt and a pair of boobs that you wouldn’t try to sleep with?”
“One or two I can think of.” I throw a glance at the photo still laying between Jonah and me before looking back up with what I hope is my most shit-eating grin. “And it doesn’t have to be a skirt.”
“You’re beyond professional help.” Jonah sighs and rubs his eyes, but there’s a small smile playing on his lips. “Can we get back to the mission at hand, please?”
I silently sigh in relief. My distraction tactic worked. As far as Jonah is concerned, I’m still the same man-whore who isn’t in the market for anything serious and who wouldn’t risk his job and his friendships for a random fling with an asset.
“So, Maddie,” I force myself to say her name out loud. “Does the trouble she’s in have to do with her cybersecurity work?”
“It does.” He presses the pads of all five fingers onto the picture and pushes it closer to me, indicating it’s mine for the taking. “She’s in Chicago.”
My heart starts racing at the thought of meeting her face to face, the photo burning against my fingertips like a scathing warning when I pick it up again, but I can’t stop myself.
“I guess it’s time for a home visit.” I tuck the photo into my inner jacket pocket and take a long swig of my beer, the bitter taste drying my mouth and the amber liquid like cement going down my throat.
Handling both Maddie and my mom at the same time may be more than my psyche is equipped for, but Maddie’s laughter is still playing in my head on repeat, and I can’t bring myself to make a different choice.
I scan the floor of Blue Ghost Bar and Grill, the local bistro in the small town of Glassmont Grove, where Andrew lives, making sure he hasn’t arrived yet before returning my gaze to Jonah. “What kind of trouble did she get herself into?”
“Two weeks ago, she found a discrepancy in Cuthbert Bank’s system, took it to Agent Lawrence.”
“Sounds pretty straightforward.” I tap the table with a single finger, a feeling of discomfort settling in my chest. “Which begs the question–why are we being called to action?”
“The accounts are tied into Daniel Harlow’s operations.” I choke on the sip of beer I just took.
“Dan…” Jonah shoots me a warning glare, and I take a deep breath, forcing myself to lower my tone. “Daniel fucking Harlow?”
Andrew’s approaching voice prevents Jonah from elaborating, and he leans across the table to whisper, “Top secret, Commander.”
I nod and look up to see Andrew making his way to us with Micah, Jonah’s older brother.
Micah’s about my height, a few inches shorter than Jonah, though much broader and more muscular. His neatly trimmed beard and meticulous undercut are a darker brown than Jonah’s almond-colored hair, but there’s no mistaking the DNA that runs strong through all the men of the Peak family.
“If it isn’t my favorite wingman,” I greet him as he slides into the booth next to Jonah. He’s a couple of years younger than me, but since Andrew’s married and Jonah doesn’t go out as much, Micah and I became fast friends and nightlife buddies.
“Welcome back, Commander.” Micah claps his palm into mine with a wide grin, giving it a firm shake, Andrew bumping shoulders with me as he slides onto the bench next to me.
“I have some news,” Andrew declares, getting everyone’s attention, his greenish-blue eyes twinkling in the way they only do when he’s thinking about his wife. “Phoebe’s pregnant.”
“Really?” Jonah practically jumps over the table, and I catch Andrew around the shoulders and squeeze, wide grins all around.
“Damn, Double-A, that’s really something.” I clap his back and laugh as Jonah slides back into his seat across from us. “How far along?”
“About four weeks.” His smile broadens. The sheer joy that radiates off him is contagious but also stabs at me a bit.
At thirty-six, I’m the oldest of us three with not one serious relationship to my name. I’ve never been keen on the idea, and my service was always a handy excuse. I was married to the navy until I wasn’t.
Part of me wants to find what Andrew has with Phoebe. Something real. Something that matters other than the mission.
I thought I had found it once, but I was wrong. It was enough to set my mind at ease that using my service as justification to live a life of one-nighters and casual, short-lived flings was never the issue. No. Strong, smart, resilient women that I could actually imagine a future with were just not a good match for me.
Micah orders a celebratory round of shots and turns to Jonah. “You remind the prodigal SEALs about first candle at Nona’s Tuesday?”
“Don’t forget about Hanukkah at my mom’s on Tuesday,” Jonah repeats dryly.
Micah shakes his head. His brown eyes, much lighter than Jonah’s, dance with amusement as they turn my way, and he asks me about my latest assignment.
I let myself get dragged into the conversation, forcing myself not to think about Maddie and the danger she’s in. But it’s all I can think about, and I know that by the end of the night, I’ll have the first available flight to Chicago booked.