Computer hacker ‘Nicole Jones’ finds herself on the run from an unknown enemy in this tense and twisting novel of identity and suspense
The computer hacker formerly known as Nicole Jones is now living as Susan McQueen on a remote island in Quebec, Canada. She is living a quiet life, working as an artist – but she has not given up her computer. While in an online chatroom, she sees a shadow – someone is inside her laptop, watching her every move, and somehow knows exactly who she is.
Afraid that he will track her down, Susan is on the run again – but from whom? Is it the FBI or someone associated with her past crime sixteen years before? Making her way across the border and back to the USA, some unsettling discoveries make Susan realize that she won’t be able to escape her past a second time.
About the Author
Karen E. Olson is the award-winning author of the Annie Seymour and Tattoo Shop cozy mystery series. She has won the Sara Anne Freed Memorial Award, was a finalist for the Gumshoe Award, and nominated for a Shamus Award. She lives in Connecticut.
Read an Excerpt
By Karen E. Olson
Severn House Publishers LimitedCopyright © 2016 Karen E. Olson
All rights reserved.
He is looking for me.
I'm not afraid, but I'm uneasy. The messages are cryptic – half in French, half in English – asking to meet, making it sound almost like a date.
He doesn't know where I am, doesn't know that I'm online and have seen him there. I'm shrouded by several different identities, by a VPN that keeps my IP address at bay. These are not foolproof, though. Not when it comes to him. If he suspects I'm lurking, if he put some effort into it, he likely could find me.
I could stop going to the site and end it now. Yet every day I scan the conversations, looking for his name, looking for that day's message.
I am doing just that, along with my morning ritual of a cup of coffee and slice of toast, when I spot it, the phrase we'd devised to identify ourselves to each other.
'Le soleil brille aujourd'hui,' I read. The sun is shining today. The French is more familiar now that I'm using it every day, even if it's Québécois and not Parisian.
After that, the link to the URL where we could chat privately.
I wonder for a moment where he is, if the sun really is shining where he is. Here, I see nothing but gray, hear the tap-tap-tap of the rain against the window.
I take a drink of coffee, a bite of toast.
He knows who I am. I'd like to say he's a friend; he's helped me in the past. I have trusted him more than I've ever trusted anyone.
I know him only as Tracker.
I am curious, more than I should be. My fingers itch to respond.
Instead, I pick up my coffee mug and plate and get up from the table. The house has an open layout – a dining area between the living room and kitchen – and it only takes me a few strides before I stick my plate in the sink. I turn and lean against the counter, cupping the coffee mug in my hands.
The wood stove sits cold in the corner across the room, unnecessary now that summer has finally arrived, but very necessary in the dead of winter when the unyielding snow and frigid temperatures wrap themselves around the house.
When I first looked at the house a little over a year ago, I wondered if it wasn't just a little too brown. Wood paneling, a wooden built-in cabinet on the wall that backs up against the staircase that leads to the bedrooms and bathroom upstairs. A beige sofa and a wooden rocking chair. Wide hardwood flooring and a wood table and chairs. But the longer I live here, the cozier it feels, and now I wouldn't change a thing. I've added dashes of color: a locally hand-woven red and gold rug, red and orange ceramic mugs and bowls on the cabinet shelves. And then there are my paintings, which splash the reds and oranges and pinks of the island's sunsets and sunrises across the walls.
I am comfortable here, settled, on Ile-aux-Coudres. The island is small – smaller than Block Island, my previous home – in the middle of the St Lawrence River in Quebec's Charlevoix region, and has two roads: one that circles the island for sixteen miles and one that cuts through it. The mainland is close, two miles, merely a fifteen-minute ferry ride.
I've gleaned some trivia tidbits about the island: how it was discovered by Jacques Cartier in 1535, who named it after the hazelnut trees, and how seamen would stop here to bury people who'd died during voyages. Coastal shipping was a big business at one time, but that gave way to trucking, and now the economy relies on tourism and the island's reputation as a summer resort.
I remind myself that I'm not doing bike tours here, like I did when I lived on Block Island off the coast of Rhode Island, so I don't need to know these small facts, but those years seem to have piqued a curiosity in me that I never knew I had.
I do spend a lot of time on my bike, discovering the island's gems. I frequently visit the two small, processional chapels perched at the side of the road: Saint-Pierre and Saint-Isidore. Their stark interiors are smaller than my kitchen, but there is a peacefulness that I find soothing. I am not a religious person, but I have discovered a spirituality here.
I've learned how to make my own bread, using the flour that's milled at Les Moulins down the road. Kneading the dough is therapeutic, back and forth until it's smooth as stone. As smooth as the stones that Odette uses at the spa at La Roche Pleureuse. I am addicted to them, to the quiet peace that envelops me while she works her magic. Sometimes when she's done I have to remind myself who I am, because I am too relaxed and I worry that I won't answer to the name I've adopted.
I've been Tina Adler and Amelie Renaud and Nicole Jones and now I'm Susan McQueen.
I have painted the chapels and Saint Louis Church and the windmill, filling my canvases with the broad brushstrokes that distinguish my style from other artists here, and the galleries that sell my work find that they are popular among the tourists.
One other thing that is curious: I am not afraid to go to the mainland here, as I was before. It is almost as though stepping off that other island set me free, but I know better than that. Yet I revel in my new life, eager to discover this new place, taking my bike across the river and pedaling as far away as Tadoussac, four-hundred-some-odd years old, where the freshwater Saguenay spills into the saltwater St Lawrence. I've seen beluga and minke whales in the waters there. The Charlevoix region is more like Europe than North America, with tidy houses that sport a bounty of colorful flowers and mountains that rush to the edges of the St Lawrence, with steeples piercing the cobalt sky in small, picturesque villages along the coast.
I have escaped twice now to find refuge in a place that is even more remote than the last one, and I am thankful for my own resourcefulness and the kindness of others. Luck might have more to do with it than any so-called higher power, but regardless of how I got here, I am safely enshrined. Or so I hope.
I might have remade myself yet again, but this time I have kept bits of myself from before: the biking, the painting. And the laptop.
The laptop is a transgression. It is my weakness. I start out with rules: in the morning for only an hour, again in the evening after supper. I set the timer so I can adhere to this, but as they say, rules are made to be broken and there are many days when I lose track of time and hours pass.
It was harder to control my addiction in the winter, the deep snow and chill keeping me indoors, where it's cozy and warm. But once the weather turned, the island lured me outdoors, and I've been able to keep it under control. At least a little bit.
I turn back to the sink and when I finish washing up, glance back toward the laptop on the coffee table. Sometimes it whispers to me, but right now it's shouting.
I pour myself a second cup of coffee and allow myself to be lured back. I touch the keypad and the screen jumps to life. Tracker's message is still there, waiting for me.
When I saw his name and the cryptic French phrase last week, my first thought was to wonder what had taken him so long. My second was, why now? It's been over a year.
The only logical explanation is that something has happened that he means to warn me about. Tracker would not try to reach me merely for the sake of catching up. Our relationship has always been a practical one.
I have been waffling because I don't know if I want to know. But the longer it goes on, the more anxious I get, the more I feel I should find out what's going on so I'm not caught off guard again.
My fingers hover over the keys, and I close my eyes and quickly click on the URL link he's left for me.
My hands are shaking so much that I can barely type.
'Non, le ciel est nuageux.' No, it's cloudy.
This is the code that will tell him it's really me and not someone else.
I can't tell if he's here. He is a ghost, and even if I start poking around to try to uncover him, I doubt I will be able to. Tracker is very good at hiding.
No, all I can do is wait to see if he'll come to the chat.
My heart begins to pound, anxious now that I have not covered my tracks sufficiently, that he is, right at this moment, tracing me to this very spot. I double-check my VPN, make sure that it's working properly. I have given myself away in only one way: my screen name, which is no longer Tiny or BikerGirl27, but a jumble of letters and numbers that are meaningless to anyone but me. It's one of five that I've been using for this site as I lurk among the conversations, picking up new tips and getting to know the other hackers here.
I see it without realizing it at first: a blip on the screen that could be a hiccup in the wireless Internet, nothing that's unusual out here.
But I know it's not that innocent.
The button next to the webcam shines a bright green.
I'm being shadowed.CHAPTER 2
Instinctively, I put my hand over the webcam and think for a second. Even if I shut the laptop down right now, it doesn't matter. Whoever it is has already seen enough.
I was stupid to click on the link without a second thought. But it was Tracker. Wasn't it?
I click to disconnect the VPN. It doesn't disconnect. I try to shut down the Internet, but that doesn't work, either.
Whoever is there has taken control of my laptop with a remote access Trojan – or RAT. He's a rat, all right.
As if reading my mind, a small box appears on the screen, with a message: 'Your computer has been hijacked. All of your files have been encrypted, and in order to get them back, you must follow our instructions and make this deposit as soon as possible.' Below that, there is the figure of one million bitcoins and an account number.
Incredulous, I laugh out loud, the sound echoing in the small room, bouncing off the wood paneling. I can barely believe the irony. I've been hacking since I was fourteen; when I was twenty-five, I stole ten million dollars from bank accounts and because of that, the FBI has been looking for me. I had a close call with them last year, but managed to escape. I ended up here, one of the most isolated places I've ever been.
And now a hacker has hacked me. Me.
After this initial reaction, the embarrassment sets in. How could I have been so stupid? I clicked on that link like an amateur; I let my guard down because I thought I was going to talk to Tracker. He would be the first one to chastise me for being careless.
And then there's the worry. Who is it, exactly? Is it Tracker? I really don't want to think so. Maybe it's some hacker, like me – or is it the FBI?
The RAT must have been embedded in the URL that Tracker sent me. Is it possible that Tracker was hacked first? That idea is unfathomable, since Tracker is the best I've ever known. But maybe he's not perfect, either. Maybe he was like me and let his guard down for a second, long enough to let this hacker in.
It's quite possible that this hacker is inserting RATs into URLs all over the chat rooms, just to see whom he can hack, who would be willing to give into his ransom demand. The only way to get any answers is to go to the chat room, see if there's any chatter about someone hacking into accounts. It's a chat room for hackers; it seems like fertile ground for any of us, even though I'd like to think we have a code. A code that says: don't hack your fellow hackers.
Which again makes me wonder if it's not the FBI. It's possible – and more than likely – that they are randomly hacking into hackers' accounts to try to catch any of us at something nefarious. But would the FBI ask for a ransom? And in bitcoins? The virtual currency is more for criminals. The FBI probably would not have made such a demand. They would merely watch.
I am in denial that it could be Tracker. It doesn't seem in character. But I am suspicious of everyone and everything; that's what being a fugitive for sixteen years will do.
I realize that I've taken my hand away from the webcam, exposing myself.
Without waiting for another message from the hacker, I finally manage to disconnect the Internet. I need to find the port that the shadow has opened and shut it down. I can't go into safe mode, because then the RAT could load into the memory, and I'll never get rid of it. I make sure that every program that can connect to the Internet – email, messages – is closed.
I should be on autopilot. I should be scanning the ports, seeing what's open, looking for anything unexpected. I need to search the source code to make sure my shadow hasn't inserted a back door, somewhere he can get inside even if I think I've gotten rid of him. Instead, I stare at the laptop as it sits on the table and another emotion overcomes me. I feel betrayed. Ridiculous, really, but nevertheless, that's how I feel.
A sudden, awful, sinister thought startles me. I could do the same thing as this hacker. I could hack into computers and hold files for ransom, too. It wouldn't be that difficult. Not with my skills.
RATs are easy enough to get; I've seen the other hackers talking about it in the chat rooms. Forty dollars and anyone can buy the code, insert it into a URL, and email it to unsuspecting victims who click on it only to find themselves with a locked computer and a shadow who is able to access all their passwords and usernames and information.
What am I thinking? I get up and walk over to the front window. The rain has stopped, and the clouds are beginning to clear. A small sliver of sunlight pierces the sky and illuminates the river below.
I begin to wonder how hard it would be to hack the hacker. Granted, whoever it is will see me if I log back into the laptop, but would I be able to shroud myself in some way in order to trap him, to turn the tables on him? I'd have to keep that port open for him, give him a false sense of security. And then if I got another computer, one that is not compromised, I could go into the chat room and poke around a little. Everyone there is leaving a footprint. I could follow those prints and see if they end up in my laptop.
I am always up for a challenge, and this one intrigues me. But I need to think it through, and the best place is on my bike. The laptop is no longer connected to the Internet, so I can leave it alone for now. I go upstairs and change into a pair of leggings and slip on a T-shirt with a fleece over it. Even though it's July, it's been raining and is cool outside. Welcome to Canada. I pull on my sneakers and make my way back downstairs. I grab my daypack and helmet as I head out.
My bike is leaning against the side of the house. There is no need to lock anything up here. I climb on the bike, and soon I am flying down the road, my legs pumping the pedals, my head reeling with thoughts about my shadow and the ransom demand. A million bitcoins seems excessive. Does he really think that someone he hacks has that kind of cash? I couldn't access that much money, either in real or virtual currency. To get bitcoins, you need to have an actual bank account, and I don't have one of those, so even if I wanted to play along, I can't.
The road curves; I can smell fresh bread in the air. I am distracted by the delicious scent, but just for a moment.
I am curious about my shadow. Is he an amateur, a script kiddie, who is using the RAT designed by someone else? Or is he a black hat and did he code the virus himself? I have no way of knowing.
Even though I was careless and clicked on that link, I have no bank account numbers to compromise, no credit card numbers to steal. There is something, however, that I do want to protect. While I use a VPN, someone inside my laptop will see that I have been hiding behind it and he will see what I've been trying to keep secret: my IP address.
He will be able to find out where I am – or at least the general vicinity. While the island is remote, it is still accessible. There's no way he can know who I am, though. I've seen postings online about ransom requests like the one I received and news stories about hackers taking pictures through webcams and then demanding payment or the pictures go public. The moment he got into my laptop, he must have realized I have nothing to steal, no files to encrypt and hold hostage. If he saw me through my webcam for that moment, he would have seen a nondescript middle-aged woman.
If he is so inclined to track me down despite that, he can ask anyone here about me and they will tell him my name is Susan McQueen and that I am an artist, an American expat who decided to leave the States for a more peaceful life.
Excerpted from Shadowed by Karen E. Olson. Copyright © 2016 Karen E. Olson. Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I want to tell you now, this book deserves 10 stars! This is the first time I have read anything by this author and I was blown away by the book. Susan McQueen, known previously as Nicole Jones, is a computer hacker. She has been living on the run for sixteen years in a quiet place in Quebec, Canada. The internet is her downfall, her fingers itch to feel the keys beneath her fingers and she craves it, needs it and she is soon back in the chat rooms, until a shadow finds her. Her quiet life is over, she is running again, this time back to the states, back to looking over her shoulder, back to a world revolving around firewalls, source codes and bitcoins. She doesn't know who is looking for her, maybe the FBI or the man she stole a lot of money from. Can she escape her past or is it to late? Will she have to keep running forever or will she finally collapse under the pressure? While I am a huge fan of cozy mysteries, the description of this book was intriguing and I wanted to see what it was all about. I am thrilled I gave this book a go, it was so intense and fast paced that I felt I was running with her, looking over my shoulder to see if "they" were following me. Ms. Olson is a wonderful storyteller and her attention to every little detail was shown in her story. I will be keeping my eye on this author and reading any others in this series. This book is a perfect for anyone who loves a good suspense/thriller themed book. I received an ARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for my fair and honest review.