Invasion of Privacy384
Invasion of Privacy384
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|Publisher:||Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||6.20(w) x 9.90(h) x 1.40(d)|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
“Felix will be there in ten.”
“Nothing out here but tumbleweeds and horseshit.”
“Welcome to Texas.”
Special Agent Joe Grant of the Federal Bureau of Investigation stared out the window of the Chevrolet Tahoe. The ground was barren, scrub sprouting here and there out of the dirt. Across the yard stood an old windmill, the kind with the tiller and the spoked wheel. Farther down the road he spied a telephone pole strung with wires. Beneath it sat the rusted carcass of an ancient tractor. He sighed. The place had probably looked the same in 1933.
“Stay back a ways once he pulls in. Don’t want to spook him.”
“Now you’re even talking like a cowboy,” said Fergus Keefe, a supervisory special agent from the Cyber Investigations Division and his colead on the case. “That ought to go over big in D.C.”
“Ain’t there yet.”
“If half of what Felix says is true, this is your ticket to the show.”
“I’ll believe it when I’m holding the plane ticket in my hand.”
Sacramento’s the last stop, they’d promised him. You’ll get to D.C. straight after that. But that was before Semaphore came around. Semaphore threw a wrench into everything. If he wasn’t so good at his job, Joe thought, he’d be in Washington right now, looking at the dome of the Capitol Building and giving briefings on the Hill. Instead he was parked in the questionable shade of a cedar tree on an abandoned cattle ranch smack dab in the middle of Texas Hill Country. D.C. might as well be on the far side of the moon.
“Felix is turning onto RR 3410,” said Keefe.
“Roger that. Wait right there. He sees that dust behind him, there’s no telling what he’ll do. He’s nervous enough as it is.”
“Felix” was the confidential informant’s code name. For Felix Unger, the OCD half of the Odd Couple.
“I’m pulling over,” said Keefe. “He’s all yours. And don’t take any chances.”
“You think he’s packing? Felix? A PhD from MIT? The guy’s annual 401(k) contribution is bigger than my entire salary.”
“I prefer to think of him as a pill-popping drunk with two DUIs and a reckless endangerment under his belt.”
“Point taken.” Joe laid a hand on his Glock. Tell an agent to be careful and he’s going to check that his piece is where it should be—in Joe’s case, holstered on his waist, butt facing out for the cross draw. He forgot about the weapon and switched off his phone, staring at the picture of Jessie and Grace on his wallpaper. He ran a fingernail over their faces, but it didn’t bring them any closer. Getting so big. He said it every time, just like he said he’d be home more often and he’d stop letting “the job” take precedence over his job as a father.
Someday . . .
Joe drummed his fingers on the steering wheel. The exterior temperature gauge read 102, but it felt hotter. Across the yard a clump of tumbleweed rustled. He leaned forward, eyes glued to the windmill. Come on, he whispered. Give us a breeze. The windmill shuddered but did not turn.
Times had changed. You didn’t need a windmill to pump water out of the ground. And you sure as heck didn’t need wires to send a voice from one person to another. Joe knew all about phones and cables and all things telecommunication. He knew more about digital technology than he’d ever wanted to. Semaphore had taken care of that.
Officially it was Operation Semaphore, and it had brought him to Austin two months earlier. For the record it was a routine transfer, a lateral move from Sacramento to shore up the Austin residency’s glaring manpower shortage. He came billed as an agent who knew his way around municipal corruption cases, with a stint overseas policing piracy of intellectual property.
But the record didn’t say everything.
There were rumors about a chronic inability to follow orders. People said that Joe Grant was a cowboy who left a trail of wreckage in his wake. They said that Austin was his last watering hole and that he couldn’t retire soon enough. And whatever you do, don’t partner up with him.
The rumors were bullshit—disinformation designed to give him leeway to act on his own. No one knew about Semaphore except Joe, Keefe, and the task force in D.C.
The sound of an engine made him sit up straighter. He caught a flash of red in the rearview. It was Felix’s Ferrari. Joe believed the model was called a LaFerrari, and it retailed for a cool million five. It was also the most conspicuous car on the face of the planet. He felt certain the boys up in the space station could see it right now with just their eyes.
Felix parked close behind Joe’s car. A scrawny man with a mop of dark hair climbed out and hurried over. The door opened and Felix slid into the seat, eyes bugging, sweat rolling down his forehead. “You’re going to need a bigger boat,” he said.
“Relax,” said Joe. “We’re safe here.”
“Safe. Yeah, right. You got no idea.” Felix spun and peered over his shoulder. His eyes were red-rimmed and sagging with fatigue. He might have just pulled an all-nighter banging out code at the office, but Felix didn’t bang out code anymore. Felix’s real name was Hal Stark, and Stark was senior vice president for special projects at ONE Technologies, the biggest tech company in the United States. ONE was a player in everything: software, hardware, online sales, wireless communications; a gargantuan cross of Oracle, Google, Cisco, and AT&T.
“Why don’t you take a breath, chill for a second. Then you can give me an idea.” Joe pulled a pack of Juicy Fruit from his pocket. “A stick of gum makes you hum.”
“What’s that from?”
“What movie? I don’t know. My wife says it sometimes. Have a stick.”
Stark pulled out two and folded the chewing gum into a double-thick square before ramming it into his mouth. A moment later he was checking over his shoulder again.
Joe lowered both windows. “Hear that?”
“What? I don’t hear anything.”
“Exactly. This is Dripping Springs. Austin is twenty-five miles in the other direction. No one’s on your tail. We’ve been watching you the whole way out. You didn’t bring your phone, did you?”
“What do you think?”
“Okay, then. We checked your car earlier. It’s clean. As far as anyone knows or cares, you left the office for a doctor’s appointment. You’re safe.”
“All right, then. I believe you. I’m safe.”
Joe put a hand on Stark’s shoulder. “You have any problem getting it out?”
Stark pepped up. “They didn’t take a second look. The security guard had it right there in his hand. He had no idea he was holding the crown jewels.”
“What did I tell you?” Joe looked at the Ferrari’s nose in his rearview mirror. “Is there anything about that car that’s inconspicuous?”
“That’s the point,” said Stark. “Nothing’s run-of-the-mill on that car.”
“Anyway, thank you, Hal. On behalf of the United States government, we are grateful. Now give me the goods, let me tape you swearing that you downloaded the information of your own free will, and we’ll cut you loose. No one will ever learn about your cooperation.”
“My ass,” said Stark. “What about you? You get the DUIs off my record?”
“Expunged is the word,” said Joe. “And yes, both have been expunged from your record.”
“That was cheap,” said Stark. “Preying on a man’s weaknesses like that.”
“A guy like you can’t afford to hire a driver? That’s the second time you were popped in the past twelve months. And next time make sure your date isn’t a minor.”
The DUI was their way in, the chink in the enemy’s armor. Stark was right. It was cheap, but Joe had to use what he was given. He’d yet to meet an informant who volunteered his services of his own free will.
“The pressure,” said Stark. “You have no idea. He’s relentless. Always more. Always better. Always faster. He’s not human, I swear it. He’s some kind of superman. No . . . a supermachine. Men have feelings. He says he’s beyond feeling. He’s proud of it. He says he’s ‘becoming.’ Can you believe that? Becoming what?”
“Okay, Hal. Let’s calm down. Just begin at the beginning. You’ll feel better once it’s off your chest.”
“And you expunged the felony, too?”
Yes, Joe said. He had.
Hal Stark sat up straighter. “All right, then, the first thing you need to know is that you don’t know the half of it. What you guys found—the reason you came after me—that’s the tip of the iceberg . . . no, no . . . the tip of the tip.”
Joe took this in without comment. He felt the hackles on his neck stand up as they always did when he was about to get the goods. “Go on.”
“The incursion . . . well, you know that wasn’t the first time, don’t you?”
The incursion referred to a hack of the FBI’s mainframe eight months earlier that had triggered the red flags and gotten Semaphore off the ground.
“Of course,” Joe lied. “Exactly how long has it been going on?”
Stark laughed. “You didn’t know. Well, like I said, he’s a supermachine. Amazing you found it in the first place.”
“We’re no slouches ourselves.”
“You might want to reserve comment until I’m done.”
Joe looked away, drawn by the rustling of the large tumbleweed. Finally a breeze. He glanced at the windmill, but the wheel didn’t budge. He looked back and the tumbleweed was still.
“What is it?” asked Stark.
“Nothing,” said Joe. “Keep going.”
“It’s all about the company we just bought. The one that caused all the headlines.”
“Merriweather,” said Joe.
“Yeah, it builds the fastest supercomputer in the world, called Titan. He’s got plans for it.” Stark shook his head. “You won’t believe it.”
“We’re going to need a bigger boat.”
“You sure as hell are,” said Stark.
Joe kept his eyes on the tumbleweed. He decided the heat was playing tricks on him. Nothing moved without wind pushing it. There was no wind, so the tumbleweed couldn’t have inched closer. He razzed himself for being paranoid. Once a sniper, always a sniper. Dripping Springs was not Iraq. Smiling, he looked back at Stark and saw it: a thin column of dust rising into the air five hundred yards behind them. Someone was approaching on the inbound road.
“Everything okay?” asked Stark.
“Shut up.” Joe picked up his phone. “Boots, that you?”
“Boots” was Keefe’s nickname, earned God knows how or when.
No one responded.
“Boots, come back.”
Stark turned halfway around in his seat to peer out the back window.
“Get down,” said Joe, as he drew his weapon and thumbed the safety off.
“What’s going on?” asked Stark, eyes locked on the pistol. “I thought you said no one followed me.”
Joe started the car. “Buckle your seat belt. The ride may get a little bumpy.”
Stark muttered something, then elbowed the door open and threw himself out of the car.
“Get back here,” said Joe.
“I can take care of myself.”
Stark looked around the clearing. “Government never protected anyone. I can take care of myself.”
“Give me the drive.”
“Go screw yourself. I was an idiot to trust you.”
“I’m out of here.” Stark took a step toward his car, then hopped back toward Joe. “Hey,” he said, “I got it. Where that line about the gum came—”
Stark’s head exploded in a spray of blood and brain and he dropped to the ground.
Joe caught a muzzle flash from inside the tumbleweed. No rifle report. A sniper like him.
Desperately he slammed the Tahoe into drive. The windshield shattered. He threw himself flat onto the seat and a second bullet struck his headrest. He drove blindly for a few seconds, then raised his head. A bullet hit the steering wheel, cracking it. Another hit the engine block. Steam escaped from beneath the hood. The car ground to a halt.
Joe lay still. His phone had fallen into the footwell. He picked it up and dialed. “Answer,” he whispered feverishly. “Pick up. Please.”
He heard a car stop behind him. Doors opening. Male voices. The unmistakable metal crunch of a clip being loaded into an automatic weapon.
Joe held the phone to his ear. “Come on. Pick up.”
The phone answered. “Hi. This is Mary. I can’t take your call right now, but if you leave a message, I’ll get back to you as soon as possible. Have a great day.”
Joe closed his eyes. “Babe . . . where are you?”
“Not today,” Mary Grant whispered, grasping the steering wheel harder. “Do not make me late today.”
It was four o’clock, and traffic on Mopac was blocked solid as far as she could see. Rush hour started early in Austin.
“Everyone doing okay?” she asked, looking over her shoulder.
Grace gazed out the window, sipping her Sonic limeade, her thoughts a million miles away. Jessie sat beside her, headphones on, eyes glued to Mary’s phone, fingers ferociously tapping away.
“Jess, hon, what are you doing with Mom’s phone?” asked Mary.
Jessie didn’t answer.
“She can hear you,” said Grace. “She just doesn’t feel like answering.”
“What’s she doing?”
“I don’t know. Probably Instagramming.”
Mary watched Jessie’s fingers go pat-pat-pat on the glass surface. More like writing an article for the encyclopedia, she thought. She could feel the throbbing bass of the music assaulting her teenage daughter’s eardrums, an angry voice shouting something she knew she’d rather not understand. “Jessie?”
The cars in front of them began to move, and Mary forgot about the phone. She drove fifty yards before traffic came to another halt. At this rate they’d be lucky to make it home by five.
Today was her and Joe’s seventeenth anniversary. Mary couldn’t quite believe it. All those clichés about the years going by too fast turned out to be true. She glanced in the mirror. Her eyes were a little more tired, her skin not as taut as it once was, but if she smiled and kept her features alive, she did a pretty good job of keeping the years at bay. She’d even managed to lose six pounds so she could fit into her favorite little black dress. One hundred twenty-five pounds wasn’t bad for a five-foot-four-inch, thirty-nine-year-old mother of two.
She began to think about the night ahead. A dirty martini at the hotel bar to get things started. Dinner at Sullivan’s. There was no stopping her once she set foot in a good steakhouse. She couldn’t just have the steak. She needed all the trimmings. Creamed spinach, garlic mashed potatoes, and a big ol’ wedge of chilled iceberg lettuce with plenty of blue cheese dressing. She wondered how she would fit into her dress after eating a bone-in cowboy rib eye.