It took one hell of an effort for the authorities to finally get the jump on master manipulator Bianca St. Ives. But now that they have, they’re not taking her in. Instead, they offer a one-shot deal that would allow Bianca to walk away scot-free. And all she has to do is run one last mission—the kind she might never return from. But if Bianca wants her normal life back, it’s not like she has a choice.
An intelligence operation is already underway in North Korea, one that’s poised to end the threat the rogue regime poses for good. But first, the US needs one of their own to go undercover as the female hacker who recently stole top secret intel from NORAD. Enter Bianca. She knows feeding fake information directly into the belly of the beast is about as dangerous as it gets. It could mean torture or endless imprisonment—assuming she survives. But it might also change the world. Besides, if Bianca has to go down, she’s gonna go down swinging…
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Friday, December 13th 3:50 a.m.
I am not a traitor.
Like a neon warning sign, the words flashed through Lynette Holbrook's increasingly chaotic thoughts in time to the accelerated beating of her heart.
But then again, maybe she was. If she went through with this. Maybe she should stop, right now, before —
"Finish up, people." Jim Cillizza, her supervisor, stood in the middle of the fluorescent-lit, two-car-garage-sized room looking around at the twenty-four employees of NSA contractor Crane Bernard Sherman, of whom Lynette was one. A portly, balding and good-natured fifty-seven-year-old, Jim had rolled the sleeves of his blue dress shirt up to the elbows because, despite the freezing temperatures of the mid-December night outside, the enclosed space was stuffy and hot. "Ten minutes."
Ten minutes to finish what she was doing and sign out of the program forever. Ten minutes to get the last of the information into the system.
Ten minutes to decide the course of the rest of her life.
It was 3:50 a.m. By four, when she lined up with the others to exit the room, the die would be cast.
Her throat was dry and her palms were damp with sweat as her fingers flew over the keys, typing in the last few pages of what had been document after document containing some of the United States' most highly protected military secrets. The files were ECI — exceptionally controlled information, material so sensitive that it was not kept online, not uploaded to the cloud, and only existed as hard copies stored in safes.
Now all those files had been transferred to a closed computer system located in a SCIF, or sensitive compartmented information facility. This particular one was a state-of-the-art underground bunker beneath a deceptively nondescript office building in DC. The walls were steel-reinforced concrete. There were no windows, and the only door was both constantly monitored via camera and under armed guard. The room had been specially outfitted with the latest anti-surveillance and anti-intrusion technology. The computers themselves were linked to the others in the room, but not to any outside source so as to eliminate the possibility that the system could be hacked. The transfer was being undertaken to make the tens of thousands of pages searchable by the few who had sufficiently high-level clearance to gain access to the room.
For now, those few were augmented by herself and the other employees of Crane Bernard Sherman who had been brought in for this task. Like herself, her co-workers all sat in front of computers busily inputting the last of the files. The click-click-click of computer keys formed a muted backdrop to the hiss of the antiquated heating system. After tonight, the project would be finished and they, the subcontractors, would be gone.
And if she did what she planned, what she'd come in to work tonight intending to do, soon afterward all the terrible secrets, all the lies, all the deadly information contained in those files would be exposed for the entire world to examine and, hopefully, do something about.
Only she was starting to get cold feet.
I am not a traitor.
So why did she feel like one?
"We're talking the fucking apocalypse here! But we can stop it. You can stop it. You'll be a goddamned hero, baby," Cory Allen, her boyfriend, interrupted, rounding on her even before she'd finished voicing her concerns to him. That had been exactly three weeks ago last night. As he'd listened to her, he'd run his hands through his hair with agitation and paced the combination living/dining space of her small apartment. Notwithstanding her security clearance and the nondisclosure agreement that was part of the terms of her employment, she'd found herself unable to keep the enormity of what she'd learned to herself and had told him some of the truly terrifying things in the documents she'd been typing into the system. Not everything, just the worst of it, the parts that had started keeping her awake nights.
The end-of-the-world parts.
"How?" she'd asked, looking up at him from the spot where she sat with her jeans-clad legs and stocking feet tucked up beside her on her well-worn couch. Cory was so good-looking, tall and well-built and even a little adorably nerdy with his ratty cardigan and wire-rimmed glasses, that sometimes she found it hard to believe that he was actually hers. She was a bit of a nerd girl herself, plumpish with ordinary brown hair, unremarkable features, and her own black-framed glasses with thick lenses that had earned her the nickname Mrs. Magoo in high school. When he'd slid onto the stool beside her in the bar where she'd gone to meet a potential match from a dating site who'd never shown up, she'd been so sure he couldn't be interested in her that when he'd asked if he could buy her a drink she'd said a curt no, and kept on nursing her strawberry daiquiri. But when it came time to pay her bill and she'd discovered that her wallet was missing from her purse, and he'd offered to pay for her, she'd let him. After that, one thing had led to another, and here they were. He'd come into her life not long after her mother's death, when everything had been gray and sad and she'd been so, so lonely. Sometimes she wondered if her mother, from wherever she was now, had steered him in her direction. In the two short months they'd been together, he'd made her happier than she'd ever been. She was hoping — fingers crossed, toes crossed, everything crossed — to spend the rest of her life with him.
Assuming that she, and an untold number of other inhabitants of the planet Earth, had a rest of their lives.
Because Cory was right. The secrets in those papers painted a bloodcurdling picture of a looming apocalypse. One that a select few in power knew was hanging over them all like the sword of Damocles, while no one else did.
Unless somebody did something. Somebody like her.
All it takes for evil to triumph is for good men (or in her case, a woman) to do nothing.
Cory had said that to her. He'd also, in answer to her question of how? told her exactly what she could do to maybe stop the worst from happening. And from that moment on they'd talked about it, analyzed it, argued about it, agonized over it, until she'd accepted that it was on her to do something, because there was no one else.
So here she was. Doing what she had to do.
Only she was starting to feel that maybe she shouldn't. Maybe the tightness of her chest and the knot in her stomach were trying to tell her something.
Like, walk away.
"Five minutes," Cillizza boomed from right behind her. She jumped, then gave a self-conscious little laugh as he said, "Sorry, didn't mean to startle you," and leaned over her shoulder to scrutinize her monitor.
Her heart gave a wild thump. Her fingers froze on the keys for just a fraction of a second — Can he tell? Will he know? — then resumed typing as she forced herself to carry on, to look at the printed page she was copying, to key in the words, to act like nothing was wrong.
"That the last page?" Cillizza asked. His face was close enough so that she could feel his breath stirring her hair. He was still studying her monitor, watching with unnerving attention as letters coalesced into words behind a blinking cursor —
What's he looking at? What does he see?
She could feel sweat pop out on her forehead.
Please don't let him notice anything.
"One more." Her throat was so tight she sounded like she was being strangled, but he appeared to notice nothing amiss because he straightened and, to her enormous relief, moved away.
"Three minutes. Everybody should be finishing up," Cillizza said to the group at large. "Chop-chop. Let's get it done."
Lynette barely managed not to collapse in a puddle of flop sweat on the floor beside her chair. She kept typing, her fingers skimming the keys, her mind barely registering the words. She was all too conscious, horribly conscious, of what she had done, of what was happening, of what she intended to do.
The spyder she'd introduced into the system was invisible as it scraped data out of it. The web crawler software was designed to search, index and collate into a single file certain information identified by a series of key words. It was an automated process, and all she had to do to make it work was keep the small flash drive in place in the USB port until the download could be completed.
Which was taking place now, even as Cillizza had leaned over to look at her screen, even as she finished up the last of her work, even as minutes turned into seconds and counted down.
Her sweater, which she'd removed presumably because of the room's heat, was a fluffy pale gray cardigan with a knitted-in pattern of huge pink cabbage roses. Puddled on the desk beside her, it hid the flash drive from view. But she was terrified that there was something on the monitor, some small symbol that would give the spyder's presence away that she might have missed but Cillizza could have spotted. She was terrified that the system itself might detect the presence of an intruder, and could even now be sending out a silent scream to whatever scary government entity monitored such things. She —
"Okay, time's up. Log out, we got to go," Cillizza announced from the center of the room. They'd arrived at 9:00 p.m. and were leaving at 4:00 a.m. so as to avoid having anyone know they were there. The workers in the building above, the cleaning and janitorial staff, even building security were unaware of the project taking place in the sub-basement bunker, just as they were almost certainly unaware of the existence of the bunker itself. Crane Bernard Sherman personnel would exit as they had entered, through a tunnel that opened into the basement of another government building nearby where they were part of the night shift keying in data for the Fed.
Having finished typing in the last of the document seconds before, she began the logout process. At the same time, she cast a furtive glance around to check that she was unobserved — impossible to be sure — and slid a hand beneath her sweater. In use, the flash drive looked like a ChapStick with its cap off. Pulling it from the USB port, she pushed it back into its lid and slipped what now looked like an ordinary tube into the pocket of her sweater. There was nowhere else to conceal it: for security purposes, they weren't allowed to bring anything like coats, purses, cell phones, etc. into the room.
All the while, her heart raced like a frightened rabbit's.
No one yelled, what are you doing? No one grabbed her hand or her sweater or the flash drive. No one did anything at all out of the ordinary.
But maybe they were even now tracking the intrusion into the system. Maybe they were tracing it to her workstation, to her. Maybe they were on their way —
Her logout complete, the screen went dark.
Fighting rising panic, she stood up, pulled on her sweater, got in line with the others, and dutifully shuffled forward as, one by one, her group was processed out the door. Exiting the SCIF was a lot like passing through airport security. Everyone went single file through a portable body-scan machine under the eagle eye of an armed guard. Random pat-downs were conducted by more armed guards. Their belongings, kept in bins just outside the security area, were then returned to them. Once everyone was cleared, they were escorted in a group through the tunnel that took them away from the building.
Tonight the process felt excruciatingly slow.
She realized that she was watching for some sign of a disturbance, listening for the sound of — what? An army of approaching footsteps? An alarm? A phone call?
"Anybody got tickets to the 'skins game on Sunday?" Dan Turner, a wiry, fortyish former math teacher who was two people in front of her in line, turned to ask the group at large as they waited their turn to go through the scanner. No fan of football in general, or the Washington Redskins in particular, Lynette tried to look politely interested as someone behind her replied in the affirmative.
She only hoped no one could tell that, beneath her neat gray slacks, her legs were shaking.
"Doing anything exciting this weekend?" Amy Berkowitz, immediately ahead of her in line, was in the process of untwisting her long dark hair from the ballerina bun she'd wound it into for work as she met Lynette's gaze. Near her own age, Amy was a friend, sort of, of the casual office relationship type that consisted mainly of the two of them grabbing a coffee on the way out of work now and then.
Out of the corner of her eye, Lynette saw Dan reach the body scanner. Covertly watching as he went through the procedure, she tried not to let the sudden explosion of butterflies in her stomach show.
"Going to the grocery. Cleaning the apartment," she replied.
Dan was through. Amy was up.
"Sounds like my weekend," Amy said over her shoulder as she stepped into the machine, turned sideways and lifted her arms over her head. The slight whirring noise as the machine revolved around her made Lynette want to throw up. "Full of fun, fun, fun."
Amy stepped out. It was her turn.
Her heart jackhammered. The pounding of her pulse in her ears was so loud she feared the whole world would hear it.
She stepped into the scanner.
The best way to hide something is in plain sight. Cory had told her that. Together they'd practiced what she would do when she got to the machine.
Reaching into her pocket, she pulled out the ersatz ChapStick, waggled it at the guard and then held it over her head as she lifted her hands. Nothing to see here, folks. No big deal, just a girl with a ChapStick. Standing there, with the hard evidence of what she had done so casually displayed, she was so antsy she was practically jumping out of her skin. Her mouth went dry as she waited to see if the guard would call her on it. It was all she could do not to wet her lips, not to swallow.
I could lose my job. I could lose everything. I could go to jail for the rest of my life. I —
The machine whirred.
The guard, a no-nonsense-looking woman in a blue uniform with a holstered gun on her hip, beckoned her out.
Their eyes met. The guard looked stern. Lynette's stomach went into free fall. The ChapStick felt like a red-hot, pulsing, impossible-to-miss smoking gun in her hand.
"Love your sweater," the guard said.
"Thanks." She managed a smile.
The guard's gaze moved on to whoever was next in line.
Pocketing the ChapStick, Lynette all but tottered away.
Her subsequent walk through the curved concrete dimness of the tunnel felt like something out of The Green Mile. Sweating bullets and praying no one noticed, she chatted with Amy, listened to Dan and a couple of others talking football, and waited for a hand on her shoulder, a guard to confront her, a siren to go off, something, anything, to stop her from leaving, to announce that they knew.
Nothing happened. She made it into the other building, rode the elevator up, pulled on her coat, wound her knit scarf around her head and neck, and exited onto the sidewalk. The air smelled of snow. The frigid wind slapped her in the face. The cold felt even worse because she was so sweaty. A few fat snowflakes swirled through the light of the pale halogens that illuminated the street. Beyond the lights, the night was black.
She had to clench her teeth to keep them from chattering. She was cold to her bone marrow. And the weather had nothing to do with it.
Was she really going to be able to just walk away?
Or would a cop car come screeching up at any minute? Or maybe it would be the FBI. Or the CIA. Or the NSA. Or — somebody. They would jump out and arrest her, take her away.
The thought made her insides quake.
She was breathing way too fast. She did her best to slow that down.
A group of them headed to the McPherson Square station, where they boarded the Metro. Lynette was the only one to get off at her home stop. She trudged up the steps to street level, glanced nervously around. It was still spitting snow, still night-black beyond the streetlights although it was getting close to 5:00 a.m. One other person was in sight, a man, no more than a dark shape on the sidewalk at a distance of about half a block. He headed down a cross street even as she spotted him. The area was working-class residential, tree shaded, considered safe. Her building was five blocks away.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Fifth Doctrine"
Copyright © 2019 Karen Robards.
Excerpted by permission of Harlequin Enterprises Limited.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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