Read an Excerpt
As the cruise ship rocked and rolled in open water, Roger McGeary stood in front of the mirror and tried for the fourteenth time to tie his damned bow tie. He had looked up the directions on the Internet and watched the demo through to the end, but that wasn’t much help.
He knew for sure it was his fourteenth attempt because that was something Roger always did—always had to do—he counted things. His arms ached. His hands shook. Beads of sweat had popped out on his brow, and the underarms of his freshly starched and pressed dress shirt were soaked through as well. A glance at the clock told him he was already ten minutes late to meet up with the girls in the bar for a predinner beverage.
When the doorbell to his stateroom buzzed, he gave up, dropped the ends of the still untied tie, and pounded the dresser top in frustration. The blow sent one of his cuff links skittering across the polished wood surface and onto the carpeted floor, where it immediately disappeared from view under the bed. Roger was on his hands and knees searching for the missing cuff link when Reynaldo, his cabin butler, stuck his head around the doorjamb.
“Turndown service,” he announced. “Or would you rather I come back at another time?”
“No,” Roger muttered. “Now’s fine.”
“Can I help you with something?” Reynaldo asked solicitously.
“I’ve lost my damned cuff link, and I can’t for the life of me tie my damned tie.”
Crouching at the foot of the bed, Reynaldo quickly retrieved the missing cuff link and dropped it into Roger’s over-sized fist. Leaning on the bed, Roger heaved himself upright. “Thanks,” he said. “Appreciate it.” And he did.
“As for the tie,” Reynaldo offered, “I’d be happy to help with that and with the cuff links as well.”
Feeling embarrassed and self-conscious at his own obvious incompetence, Roger surrendered himself to Reynaldo’s ministrations. It took only a matter of seconds and a few deft movements on Reynaldo’s part before the tie was properly tied.
The butler stood back for a moment to admire his handiwork. “Cuff links next,” he said, and Roger handed them over. Once the cuff links were fastened, Reynaldo retrieved the jacket from the bed and held it up so Roger could slip into it. The jacket settled smoothly onto Roger’s massive shoulders as though it had been made for him—because it had. Aunt Julia had seen to that.
“You’re going on a cruise, Rog,” she had told him. “You’ll need a tux for formal nights on board, and by God you’re going to have one.” A lifetime’s worth of experience had taught Roger that arguing with Aunt Julia was a losing proposition. He’d gone straight out and ordered the tux. At Aunt Julia’s urging he’d also invested in a new sport coat and some big-and-tall dress shirts as well.
“After all,” Aunt Julia had counseled, “it’s a two-week cruise. You can’t go down to the dining room in the same thing night after night.”
The big-and-tall shirts were necessary because Roger was a big man. Standing next to him, Reynaldo was tiny by comparison. Once the jacket was properly in place, the butler reached up and dusted off a tiny speck of lint before giving Roger an approving nod.
“Very good, sir,” Reynaldo said. “Take a look in the mirror.”
Turning back to face the mirror where he’d spent the better part of forty-five minutes battling with the tie, Roger McGeary was startled to see the reflection staring back at him. He looked . . . well . . . good.
He’d never worn a tux before. Members of the Dungeons & Dragons Club back in high school weren’t the kind of kids who went to proms or homecoming dances. And if they did somehow get around to getting married eventually, they didn’t do so with a full contingent of bridesmaids and groomsmen. When there had been geeky weddings in Roger’s circle of acquaintances, he himself had never been called upon to perform bridal party duties. And so, at the ripe old age of forty and a half, he was astonished to see that the tux made all the difference.
Of course, his shoulder-length hair—still mostly brown but beginning to go gray—was maybe a bit incongruous with the tux, but it was too late to do anything about that now. Besides, Roger had worn his hair that way from the moment he turned twelve and realized that having a son with shoulder-length hair was something that drove his father nuts. Anything that bugged the hell out of James McGeary was exactly what his son would do.
Roger grinned at Reynaldo. “Thanks for your help,” he said.
“Don’t mention it, sir,” the butler replied, beginning the turndown process. “That’s why I’m here.”
That was something else his old D & D pals would find astonishing—Roger McGeary on a cruise? In a stateroom with a damned butler? Get out!
Feeling somewhat jaunty, Roger stopped long enough to pull his cell phone off the charger and slip it into his jacket pocket. Earlier when he’d been looking for directions on the tie, he’d noticed that the charge was lower than it should have been, and he’d plugged it in while he was showering and shaving. If the phone was losing its ability to hold a charge, he’d need to go looking for a new one once he got back home.
Roger took the phone along with him to dinner more out of force of habit than because he was expecting calls. After all, he was on vacation, and his office in San Jose, California, was many time zones away. Letting himself out of the cabin, he started toward the elevator lobby. He’d taken only a few steps when a sudden pitch sent him bouncing off first one wall and then the other.
It’s the English Channel, after all, he told himself. What do you expect?
His stateroom was fairly well aft. As he tottered down the long corridor, he couldn’t help thinking again of the kids he’d hung out with back in high school. The only one he still stayed in touch with—sometimes by text and occasionally by running into each other at cyber security conferences—was Stu Ramey, the guy who had once been Roger’s best friend. They had met up in Adams Junior High—junior prison, as they called it.
Smart, overweight, and both wearing glasses, Roger and Stu had bonded immediately. From junior high on, the nerdy outsiders had been bullied and disparagingly referred to by their classmates as Tweedledum and Tweedledee. That was in Phoenix, where at least he’d had a friend or two. Once his mother pulled up stakes, moved Roger to L.A., and dumped him into the zoo that was Sepulveda High School for his senior year, he’d had no friends at all, and he had been utterly lost.
It was hardly surprising that Roger had never attended any of his high school class reunions. He’d still been locked up in a mental health facility in Napa for his tenth. As for the twentieth? Thanks to Aunt Julia, he’d been back on his feet by then and had actually received an invitation to the one in L.A., but he’d had no interest in attending. He had no friends or happy memories from Sepulveda High, and he doubted anyone from back there remembered him, either. As for South Phoenix High? Kids who had come to the school via the special ed route hadn’t exactly been welcomed with open arms. He supposed he could have crashed that reunion, but since his only friend at the time had been Stuart, there wasn’t much point.
As for Roger? Years of therapy hadn’t completely fixed his self-esteem issues or his overweening insecurities, either, although seeing himself in the mirror in his tux was maybe further progress. And the next time he saw Stu, he’d have to ask him about the reunion situation. Maybe Stuart Ramey had more balls than Roger did. Maybe he’d gone back and braved the ravening horde—arrogant jocks, perky cheerleaders, and all.
In the elevator lobby, Roger stepped aside for a couple heading back the way he’d come. The woman had a decidedly green cast to her skin, and she clung to her companion’s arm with something close to a death grip. Roger thanked his lucky stars that he wasn’t prone to motion sickness and wondered if any of the girls were, either.
Calling his prospective dinner companions “girls” was a bit of a misnomer. For one thing, they were all north of sixty—possibly even north of seventy—but very well preserved. In the dining room the previous evening, the first night of the cruise, their four-top table had been next to his two-top by the window. As the wine flowed and plates of food came and went, they noticed that he was on his own. The next thing Roger knew, the three women had drawn him into conversation, asking where was he from, was he traveling solo, and what did he think of the cruise so far? By the time dinner was over, they had invited him to accompany them to the bar for an after-dinner drink, and before the evening ended—sometime after midnight—he had agreed to join them for the following night’s formal dinner.
Aunt Julia would have called them “classy old broads.” They were well dressed, well manicured, and no doubt well heeled. Roger had no doubt that the bits of jewelry on display were the real thing—diamonds as opposed to zirconium. So, although he was happy to have been included in their circle, he knew he was completely out of his element.
He didn’t mention to them or to anyone else on board that the two-week cruise, complete with his two-room suite and an attending butler, was a freebie. Roger had detected and successfully prevented a massive data breach that would have thrown the cruise ship line into a nightmare and disrupted their entire reservations system. Not only had he preempted the attack, he’d also managed to catch the culprit—a disgruntled former employee. As far as Shining Star Cruises was concerned, Roger McGeary was a hero, and they were prepared to treat him as such.
When Roger stepped off the elevator on deck five, he stood for a moment, staring in through the open doors of the ship’s piano bar, the Starlight Lounge. The place was crowded. The girls—Angie, Millie, and Dot—had managed to snag seats at the bar and were evidently holding a spot for him. The barman, a cheerful guy named Xavier, caught Roger’s eye as he stood in the entryway, nodded, and immediately turned to prepare Roger’s preferred beverage—Campari and soda—which was poured and in position in front of the single open stool before Roger made it across the room.
This was only the second night of the cruise, Roger noted, so how was it possible that Xavier recognized individual customers on sight and had already memorized their preferred beverages? Roger was entirely at home in the cyber world in front of keyboards and glowing computer screens, but Xavier’s people skills—his easy humor and pleasant gift of gab—were completely absent from Roger’s skill set. He’d never be able to be a bartender, never in a million years.
Dorothy Campbell, aka Dot, was a divorcée with a thick southern accent. A little slip of a thing, with brightly hennaed red hair and a slick black sheath dress, she was also the self-proclaimed ringleader of the group. Dot launched herself off her stool and tackled Roger, greeting him with an enthusiastic hug.
“My goodness gracious,” she said, looking him up and down. “If you don’t clean up nice.”
“Why, thank you, ma’am,” Roger replied, trying to match her accent with a sort of ersatz cowboy gallantry and then flushing in embarrassment because he felt like he’d already made a jackass of himself.
“You’re not just having Campari and soda, are you?” she demanded. “Shouldn’t you have something a little higher octane than that? How about joining us in a Kir Royale?”
That’s what the girls had been drinking at the bar the previous night, and that’s what they were having tonight as well. Roger wasn’t much of a drinker, and he didn’t do drugs, either—any kind of drugs other than his doctor-prescribed antidepressants—but he’d allowed himself to be persuaded. Once he’d made it back to the room the previous night, he’d looked up “Kir Royale,” which turned out to be a heady combo of champagne and crème de cassis. Roger had attempted to tell them that he couldn’t dance—wouldn’t dance. With a couple of Kir Royales under his belt, they had managed to cajole him onto the dance floor, sometimes with all three of them at once. By the time the girls had wished him good night, everybody had been flying high—Roger included.
“See you tomorrow,” Dot had admonished him, shaking a finger in his face on her way out. “Drinks in the bar at seven; dinner at seven-forty-five. Don’t be late.”
Xavier had watched the three women leave the bar and head tipsily for the elevator. Shaking his head in mock sympathy, he turned to Roger. “I believe you have your hands full, sir. Would you care for a refill?”
“Those were a little stiff for me,” Roger had told him. “I’d better not.”
Now in the predinner cocktail hour, canapés came and went, and so did a second Campari and soda and finally a third. When seating at the bar proved too noisy for conversation, Dot commandeered a nearby table. In the ensuing conversation, Roger began to learn a bit about his companions. The three women were old college chums who had all attended Wellesley and had stayed friends through thick and thin ever since, including taking two-week cruises together each and every year.
Roger didn’t know exactly where Wellesley was, but he was pretty sure going there was a pricey proposition. And knowing how much the cruise cost on the open market, he estimated there had been a whole lot more thick in the women’s lives than there had been thin. Dot had a cabin—a Star Suite like his—all to herself, while Angie and Millie bunked together in the next category down, a Veranda Stateroom. In the bar and again when they moved into the dining room, Roger listened to their harmless dinnertime chatter, feeling as though he was being given a window into another world, one he’d never even imagined.
Somewhere between courses three and four, between the mixed green salad and the pappardelle pasta, Roger came to the realization that these women had most likely been contemporaries of his late mother, may she rot in hell. Unlike Eloise McGeary, however, the girls actually seemed to like him.
After the surf-and-turf main course—prime rib and lobster—and dessert—a delectable flan topped with a layer of crisp caramel and three perfect raspberries—Roger felt the buzz of an incoming text. But the wine had been flowing—white followed by red—and he was on vacation. If someone from work wanted to be in touch, they could damned well wait. And if it was Aunt Julia? Well, then, she could wait, too. It was afternoon in Payson, Arizona, and she’d be out looking after her horses. Taking the phone out of his pocket but without bothering to look at the screen, he powered it off.
Once dinner was over, the group migrated back to the bar, where a piano player accompanied a talented vocalist who sang everything from Patsy Cline to the Beatles. The passengers were mostly of an earlier vintage, Roger noted, and so was the music.
A couple of hours went by, and more than a little booze passed Roger’s lips, booze that was definitely of the high-octane variety. Halfway through his third Courvoisier, he realized that Millie and Angie had both disappeared from the picture, and he was left with an increasingly aggressive Dot, who was feeling him up in a most insistent and suggestive fashion. Roger was just drunk enough to find it laughable that this very spry older woman was hitting on him, but once she mentioned, not so coyly, that he was the “only fresh meat” to be found on board, it didn’t seem nearly so funny anymore.
Excusing himself to go to “the little boys’ room,” Roger fled the bar, ducked into the elevator, and made his way back to his own deck. The ship was rocking and rolling underfoot, but this time it wasn’t just the roiling sea that sent him staggering back and forth from wall to wall all the way down the corridor. He was drunk—as drunk as he’d ever been in his life. He tried his key in the door. When it didn’t work, he finally realized that he was trying to enter the wrong suite.
Once he got inside, he felt like he was going to puke. Closer to his lanai than the bathroom, Roger fought his way through blackout curtains, pulled open the slider, stumbled over to the rail, and cut loose. Then, incredibly grateful that he had made it in time, he stood for a time savoring the wind and the sea and the pounding rain and trying to pull himself together. He didn’t care if his tux got wet at that point because it would for sure have to go to the cleaners anyway. He was almost ready to go back inside when his phone buzzed again.
How could that be? Hadn’t he turned it off during dinner? Swaying back and forth next to the rail, he fumbled the phone out of his pocket and scowled down at the screen in frowning puzzlement. What he saw there wasn’t really a text—at least it didn’t look like a standard text. The words appeared one at a time, scrolling past as though a very fast typist was typing them in real time.
He had read through only a sentence or two before he recognized what he was reading. The words on the screen were all too familiar, and standing there in the wind and the rain, he could almost hear his mother’s voice, berating him in the car as they drove to his high school commencement:
What on earth did I do to deserve such an incredible little shit? You’re just like your father, Roger McGeary, utterly and totally worthless, and you’ll never amount to a hill of beans. What have you got to show for that supposedly high IQ of yours? You barely graduated, for cripes’ sake. Your GPA isn’t good enough to get into college, and what the hell would you do if you got there? Screw around the same way you did in high school? If you think I’m going to let you sit around the house on your lazy ass, buster, you have another think coming. James McGeary, that worthless father of yours, finally had the good grace to do the world a favor and off himself. With any kind of luck, you will, too.
Roger recognized the words—Eloise McGeary’s words. Months earlier, during a course of psychiatric treatment, he had recalled them all and written them down verbatim in a document for his therapist, Dr. Amelia Cannon. She had assured him that writing out exactly what his mother had said would be a healing exercise—a way of recognizing his mother’s meanness and spite for what it was as well as a way of negating Eloise’s powerful hold over him.
At the beginning of Roger’s senior year in high school, Eloise had uprooted her son and moved to L.A. Lost in an unfamiliar situation—overwhelmed and unable to cope—he’d barely managed to graduate. A little over a week after commencement, Roger McGeary had attempted suicide. Deeming him a danger to himself and others, Eloise had made it her business to have her son locked away in a mental institution where he had remained for the next ten years of his life. It was only in the past few years, at Aunt Julia’s urging, that he’d finally gone for counseling. It had been in the course of his supposedly confidential sessions with Dr. Cannon that Roger had written down these very words—ones that now seemed to have developed a life of their own on the screen of his cell phone.
Roger’s hands trembled. If the words he had written for Dr. Cannon could surface here, that meant they could surface in other places as well. They were out in the world somewhere, most likely all over the Internet, where eventually they were bound to be used against him. Somewhere down the line, some boss—a guy somewhere far up the chain of command—would bring those words to bear and use them to imply that Roger was mentally unstable; that, if he was undergoing therapy, he most likely couldn’t be trusted with the kinds of security clearances necessary to perform his duties. He’d be done for—out of a job, unemployed and unemployable.
And in that moment, on a night that should have counted as a social triumph, Roger found himself sliding back into the same kind of blinding despair that had kept him in a state of mental paralysis for the better part of ten years. He wouldn’t go there. He would not. He couldn’t. He had fought so hard to climb out of that snake pit of unending darkness that he couldn’t stand the idea of falling back into it again. Could. Not. Stand. It.
The words had stopped scrolling, and suddenly the screen went blank. He punched the power button and the phone came to life, starting over from scratch—as if it had been completely powered off. When the start-up sequence finished, Roger went straight to the texting app, looking for the message he’d just seen, but it wasn’t there. There was no sign of it at all.
So where had the words come from, then? If he hadn’t seen them—if he’d just imagined them—maybe he really had gone nuts. Again. And that was something else he could not and would not endure.
By then he was soaked to the skin, but that didn’t matter. Making up his mind, he put the phone down on the lanai’s patio table and then pulled one of the deck chairs over to the railing. He clambered up onto the chair and then stood for a moment—hearing the words again—not as they had appeared on the screen but as he had heard them more than two decades ago, in his mother’s shrill voice. He was still hearing them as he plunged over the side of the ship and into the black water far below, with no one on board the ship any the wiser. And it was only then, as the icy sea closed over him, that Roger McGeary finally moved beyond the reach of his mother’s earthly torment.
Abandoned on the lanai’s small patio table, the phone remained there for some time, glowing silently in the dark, before finally shutting down for good.
It was Reynaldo, coming the next morning to deliver Roger’s breakfast, who found the sliding door open and the carpeting inside the stateroom soaked by lashing rain. Out on the lanai, a spray-soaked cell phone lay face up on the table. The butler immediately tossed a life vest over the rail before calling in to sound the alarm: man overboard.
By then, of course, it was far too late.
• • •
Half a world away, in a basement lined with electronics racks filled with hundreds of computer blades, a man sat hunched over a single screen. Alive with anticipation, he watched the action and listened to the dialogue. This was his show, after all. He was the director, producer, sound engineer, and cameraman, if not the star. He didn’t consider himself a cyber bully. He was more a cyber god. He liked to think of himself as Odin, and Frigg was his all-knowing artificial intelligence sidekick and companion.
He was jacked up on coffee and speed. That was what it took to stay awake and alert when you were tuned in to a life that was spinning toward the drainpipe eight or nine time zones ahead of you. Odin had chosen to let the game play out tonight—on the night of the cruise ship’s formal dinner. For a time, listening in through the remote access malware he’d inserted into Roger’s phone, Odin had worried that one of the women might opt to go back to Roger’s room with him or, worse, that he’d go to hers. Luckily that hadn’t happened. Odin was aware that if things didn’t come to a head tonight, the ship’s data-throttling capability might come into play and make him have to give up on the project altogether for the time being. It was also possible that if Roger noticed the unexpected power drain on his phone, he might suspect there was a problem.
Odin remembered being told once that it was always the shoemaker’s kids and the blacksmith’s horse who had to make do without new shoes. With Roger McGeary, a rock star in terms of corporate cyber security, his phone should have been completely impenetrable. Odin had had zero luck in accessing his work accounts, but an overlooked security issue on Roger’s personal cell phone had left the device vulnerable to attack.
Odin had paid a small fortune to procure powerful new malware that had been developed in Israel. Once installed on a smart device of any kind, it allowed full access to everything on it—keystrokes, e-mails, texts, cameras, and GPS locations, as well as recording devices. Customers paid a hefty six-figure installation fee for the software and then continuing fees based on the number of people being monitored by the program.
Theoretically the system was only sold to properly vetted entities—usually government agencies of some kind. Searching the dark Web, Odin had found a disenchanted software engineer, one the software developers who had been fired for cause, had been more than willing to sell him a black market copy. Since Frigg was available and fully capable of handling all necessary monitoring requirements, Odin was able to keep the whole operation in-house without incurring any ongoing fees.
Tuning back into the distant conversation—the laughter and the clinking of glasses—Odin heard Roger excuse himself to go to the restroom, except he didn’t. The next sounds he heard had nothing to do with someone taking a piss or washing his hands. There was the distinctive ding of an arriving elevator followed by a recorded voice saying, “You are on deck seven.” After that, Odin heard a strange series of thumps followed eventually by the slamming of a door. Moments after that, there were hurried footsteps pounding on a metal surface. The footsteps ended with the noise of someone heaving his guts out.
The noises made sense then. Roger, probably drunker than he had ever been in his life, had rushed headlong into his cabin, unlatched the lock on the slider, and then made for the rail before being sick. All of which meant that Roger McGeary was exactly where Odin had wanted and needed him to be for this final chapter—outside and alone on the cabin’s balcony.
Odin gave Roger some time to recover his wits before launching the attack. While the texted words scrolled silently across the screen, Odin watched the pallid face, captured by the cell phone’s camera, as it registered first astonishment followed by hopelessness and finally utter despair.
Odin couldn’t help smiling at that. It was exactly what happened to weak people when their darkest secrets were exposed to the light of day . . . or, as in this case, the light of night.
Odin felt his own heartbeat quicken. He may have been the one holding the gun, but the final decision was really up to Roger. Would he pull the trigger or not? Waiting for the man to choose seemed to take forever. Later, reviewing the video, Odin would measure the elapsed time with his stopwatch. All told it was little more than a minute from beginning to end, although it seemed much longer. At one minute twenty-seconds, Roger set the phone down on something. He did so carefully and with drunken deliberation. Odin couldn’t see exactly where the phone had been placed, but fortunately it was still face up—on a patio table, maybe? From Odin’s vantage point, all he could see was a light-colored overhead surface of some kind—probably the ceiling area of Roger’s balcony, formed by the floor of the one above his.
Odin leaned closer to his computer and upped the volume. There was a lot of noise in the background with raindrops showing on the face of the phone, so he suspected it was stormy with plenty of wind and rain. After a few moments, Odin heard some kind of grating sound—wood on metal, maybe?—followed by a grunt of exertion followed by nothing—nothing at all.
Odin felt vaguely disappointed. He had wanted to witness firsthand Roger’s despairing headlong plunge into the sea, but the unfortunate camera angle on the cell phone robbed him of that. Oh well.
Just to be on the safe side, Odin gave it five minutes—five long minutes of wind and rain and nothing else. There was no way to know for sure if it had worked. Either Roger McGeary had thrown himself off the ship or he had not, and that meant it was far too soon for Odin to gloat over a job well done. Hours from now someone would notice if Roger McGeary was really missing. In the meantime, Odin saved the video file for his private collection and then waited for as long as it took for his remotely installed malware to perform its self-deleting exit program.
Once the purge was complete, Odin finally gave himself permission to stand up, stretch, and look around. By then it was coming up on five o’clock in the afternoon. He’d been up and at the computer for close to twenty-four hours. Even so, he needed to shower and dress for dinner. His mother was fine with him spending his days and nights behind the locked doors of the computer lab inside his spacious basement apartment. Irene didn’t seem to mind what her son did during the day as long as he showed up promptly each evening just as dinner was being served.
As far as Odin was concerned, spending an hour and a half each day with his annoying mother was a small price to pay for having virtually unlimited funds as well as unlimited freedom. Besides, he didn’t need to be there in the lab personally keeping watch. He’d done his part. The rest was up to Frigg. If and when the man-overboard alarm went out on board the Whispering Star, either now or hours from now, Frigg would be among the first to know, and once Frigg knew, so would Odin.
In the months leading up to this night, Odin, with Frigg’s very capable help, had learned everything there was to know about Roger McGeary, including all the telling details necessary to pull the underpinnings out from under him. Odin would wait until tomorrow. Once Roger’s death was confirmed, it would be time for Odin and Frigg to go hunting again.
Odin had every confidence another victim was out there just waiting to be found—someone who, with the benefit of enough information and a little encouragement on his part, would be more than willing to end it all, with Odin on hand to watch the performance to the bitter end. If that wasn’t the perfect way to commit murder, Owen Hansen didn’t know what was.