No one could tell who was telling the truth…
About the Author
A multi-published, award winning, Amazon and USA Today best-selling author, Desiree Holt has produced more than 200 titles and won many awards. She has received an EPIC E-Book Award, the Holt Medallion and many others including Author After Dark’s Author of the Year. She has been featured on CBS Sunday Morning and in The Village Voice, The Daily Beast, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, The London Daily Mail. She lives in Florida with her cats who insist they help her write her books, and is addicted to football.
Read an Excerpt
Copyright © Desiree Holt 2018. All Rights Reserved, Totally Entwined Group Limited, T/A Totally Bound Publishing.
“You understand if you fail we will have no choice but to erase you. We cannot leave any loose ends.”
Eightball—or Eight, for short, a nickname chosen in recognition of expertise with a pool cue, although lately it also seemed to reflect the reality of what was happening—took a slow sip of water, swallowed back a surge of fear and studied the person across the table. Fingers tightening on the glass were the only outward reaction to the frightening statement. It didn’t take an interpreter to know what “erase” meant.
This situation had become a chokehold. Working for Software By Design had been the best job ever. Liam Benedict was one of the best in the business and chose his programmers very carefully. Even though Eight had worked with him at Winters and Pryce, Liam had spared nothing in the intense vetting process. It was a damn good thing Eight’s dirty little secret had somehow not shown up. The gambling problem was under control, out of necessity. But then a discreet invitation to a private poker game came from one of the players at the casino. Who knew that such an invitation would create such havoc?
“I do not intend to fail. I will not fail. I keep telling you that.”
Shan leaned forward slightly. “Just so you understand the price of failure.”
“Just so you understand that if this is some kind of trap, you won’t like the outcome.”
God! If only gambling hadn’t grabbed hold like a leech, refusing to let go. If only she was better at it instead of losing again and again. Even a fat salary didn’t cover the losses now. If only the people holding the markers offered more than two choices—payment or death. This had seemed so simple to Eight after that first contact. Obvious now that they’d sniffed the situation out, offering sympathy at first. Then the carrot on the stick.
The risks were significant but the money! That much money would make it all go away. And with it a vow never to gamble again. Ever.
Their conversation paused when a waiter stopped at their booth, bringing them a fresh pot of tea. Meeting in a restaurant hadn’t been Eight’s first choice of location, but Shan always insisted. Probably because the place was owned by either a friend or a relative and they had a small room with absolute privacy. Even so, prior to beginning conversation, Eight always used a tiny little gizmo to sweep the room for bugs of any kind, audio or visual.
“So suspicious.” Shan’s mouth curved in a slight condescending grin.
“Because it’s my ass on the line,” Eight said, emphasizing each word.
“Perhaps we should not proceed with our arrangements.” Shan lit a cigarette and deliberately blew the smoke at Eight, knowing how annoying it would be. “But then, of course, you would still have that obnoxious debt hanging over your head.”
Eight gripped the tiny cup that held the steaming tea, determined not to give any sign that Shan’s little games and tricks had any effect. This was the source of the money—a great deal of money—so there was a logical reason for putting up with it. Enjoying the sparring, though? Not so much. Just the price to pay for the money Eight would be receiving.
But at once Eight shoved the thought aside.
“Well?” Shan prompted.
Eight forced a calm that was necessary and blew out a slow breath. There was only one way to play this.
“If you are pulling out of this, just let me know.” Eight stared across the table. “There are other customers equally as willing to pay the price, you know.”
“But would they dissolve your unmanageable debt as well as give you money to hide away someplace?” Shan laughed, an unpleasant sound. “I do not think you want to fuck with me and my friends.” Narrowed eyes telegraphed a warning. “We would not take kindly to it.”
Eight leaned forward. “And I would not take kindly to being jerked around. Liam is planning to run three final tests on the program. Then I can insert the altered code and make sure it works without leaving a trace.”
Shan blew another stream of smoke. “And how soon will that be?”
“Soon. Possibly next week.”
“You guarantee it?”
Eight shrugged. “Nothing is guaranteed and you know it. Just be assured that before the software is delivered to the client, the hidden codes will be inserted and you will receive a thumb drive with them.”
“Tell me again why you can’t just give us the program itself on a thumb drive?”
“I told her.” Eight bit back another surge of anger. “I already explained this. When Liam runs the final test, he inserts what are called duress words that will signal him if anything is being copied. He’s paranoid about it. I have one shot to insert the back door and, trust me, I will get it taken care of.”
“You’d better. If you yank our chains, you could stop breathing without warning.”
And that was no lie. She knew it. But they were in this too deep to back out now. The image of all that money overrode everything else.
“And what if your boss finds out?” Shan persisted. “How will you handle that?”
“He will never find out.” Eight made a face. “I’m smarter than he gives me credit for. Anyway, right now he’s too busy with a proposed offer from a big conglomerate to buy an interest in Software By Design and fold him into the corporate structure.”
“An offer? From who?” Shan’s eyes narrowed, body tensing. “You did not tell me that. What if the dynamics of the company change? What if he wants to bring in more people? How will you handle things? This could make things difficult.”
Eight glared across the table. “I don’t see how. I’ll be doing this the same way if there are two people or ten there. It won’t disrupt our business at all. In fact, it might even make it better. He’ll be too busy to pay a lot of attention to me. Besides, I’ve been with him from the beginning. He has no reason to suspect anything.”
“I still say this could be a problem.” Shan leaned forward. “What is the name of the corporation? Do you even know? That could make a difference, too.”
“Yes. Wait.” Eight thought for a minute. “It’s some company out of Texas. Arroyo, I think.”
“What?” Shan’s anger was almost visible, the controlled rage vibrating in waves. “And you didn’t think to inform us of this before?”
Eight frowned. “Why would I? What difference would it make? Big companies acquire smaller ones all the time. Then they let them operate independently. Big fucking deal.”
“You idiot.” Shan’s voice had a lethal edge to it. “Arroyo is one of the biggest conglomerates in the world. The woman who owns it sticks her nose into everything. This could put a serious dent in our process. How could you not mention this before?”
Eight made a rude noise. “I just told you. Because it didn’t seem like such a big deal to me, except for the possibility of a fat raise in salary. Why are you so worried about them, anyway? They aren’t even in this state.”
The look in Shan’s eyes was enough to shrivel the hardiest person. “They will want to change things at Software By Design. Alter the process of everything. Perhaps even want to bring in their own people as supervisors.”
Eight’s stomach clenched at the words. “I don’t think that will happen.”
“But you can’t guarantee it. If I had known about it sooner, I could have sabotaged the situation.”
“And ruined everything?” Eight slapped a hand on the table. “Trust me to handle this. No one will ever know about our arrangement or be able to trace what I will do.”
“Perhaps we should consider removing you from Software By Design altogether. Isolate you to work on your own.” Shan took a sip of tea, staring at Eight over the rim of the little cup. “We are about to have too many cooks in the kitchen.”
Eight just glared, beginning to get pissed off. “I need to stay there until the beta testing is finished. Only then can I alter the code. I cannot do that unless I am there. I have to be able to do it after all the testing and before they’re locked down. There’s a small window of opportunity I cannot lose. Besides, if I leave, I might as well send an email saying I did this. No, I can handle my boss and Arroyo.”
“Overconfidence can be one’s downfall,” Shan said. “Don’t sell Arroyo short. Taylor Cantrell has an international reputation for being sharp, intelligent and very aware of everything going on. And your boss will be on edge making sure nothing goes wrong with any of the current projects. Who knows what he might stumble over?”
“I’m clever enough to do this without ringing any warning bells.” Eight was ready to smack the other person. Only the knowledge of the big payoff prevented it. “We design software that theoretically prevents hacking into the buyer’s computer system and stealing files. Protects the highly sensitive files on their computers. Liam creates the original software, at least right now. But then he assigns it to two of us to tweak for the specific client.”
“Why two?” Shan interrupted.
“So there’s always backup. If I can write that kind of code, don’t you think I can incorporate a back door into it without tipping anyone off?”
Shan released a deep sigh. “Fine. As long as there are no traces that would track back to you—to us—there will be no problem. We will still be keeping an eye on things to make sure nothing interferes with our plan. So. Shall we say one week from tonight? For the next report and update?”
Eight’s jaw tightened. “Yes. One week from tonight will work.”
“Then we will meet here again. Same time.”
Eight really did not like the choice of meeting place. This was Shan’s territory and anything could happen. However, they were close to delivery of the software. No more than a couple of weeks away. Once the code was delivered, the first payment would change hands. A thrill of excitement danced in the air.
So, Eight nodded. “Same time, same place.”
The meeting was over. As always, Eight left first, knowing Shan had people watching every move from the restaurant to the car. If Shan decided to counterattack the Arroyo connection in some way…
No. Victory was on the horizon! Keep that in mind. Victory and untold wealth by the time this was finished. That was enough to banish any and all reservations and leave a smile on Eight’s face.