With a price on her head, computer hacker Tina Adler is determined to stay offline. Only one person knows how to reach her, and he's in as much danger as she is.
A chance discovery leads Tina to abandon her South Carolina hideaway in search of her old flame, undercover FBI Agent Zeke Chapman. What is Zeke doing in Paris, France? And what is his connection to the disappearance of American college student Ryan Whittier?
En route to Paris in search of answers, Tina realizes that someone is on her trail: someone who's getting disturbingly close. Has she been set up?
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Four months later
Sometimes I go to the library just to look at the bank of computers. I pretend to peruse the books, picking them up one by one, but always with an eye toward the machines that have defined me, that lure me with their promise.
I don't touch them. I don't dare.
I've done it before. Stayed away. But it was easier the first time, before my relapse. The withdrawal is all too real. My hands shake; my heart beats so fast I can barely breathe. Beads of sweat form at my temple, and I dab at them, my face flush. I close my eyes and see the code, pinpoint the back doors, navigate my way inside in my head. None of it is real.
I want to find him online. I want to see what's happened to him. However, there's no guarantee that I'd find him there. We went our separate ways; I have a price on my head. I can't afford the risk of exposing myself. While the Internet offers anonymity, it's a false promise. Anyone can be revealed. Anyone can be found.
No, the best way to protect myself is to stay offline. I have no Internet footprint. No social media. No chat-room screen names. No bank account. No phone number.
Only one person knows how to reach me, and he's in as much danger as I am.
Someday I might be able to come out of hiding.
But someone will have to die first.
I sip wine from a small plastic cup, standing in the corner of the gallery, hoping no one will talk to me. Maybe if I act as though I'm merely someone in off the street, they'll leave me alone. No such luck, though, as I see Randy heading my way, his hand under the elbow of an elegant elderly woman with a mass of white curls swept up in the back and held in place with a blue porcelain comb. Her cocktail dress matches the comb; her long fingers are adorned with diamonds.
I won't be able to escape.
A wide smile spreads across Randy's face. 'Tina,' he says with his usual drawl. 'I'd like you to meet Madeline Whittier.'
I force a smile and hope that it's warm, holding out my free hand. Madeline Whittier takes it limply in hers. 'So you are Tina Jones,' she says, her eyes narrowing at me, searching my face for something that I can't make out.
'I've been admiring your work,' she says. 'I especially love the beach scenes.'
I glance up at the watercolors across the room: long streaks of blues and pinks and oranges, sunrises, sunsets, the pier, surfers dotting the waves. They are an assault of colors that are a mix of reality and my imagination.
'Thank you,' I say.
'You look so familiar, my dear.'
A small panic rises in my chest. I look like my father, and she looks like she could have been one of his clients – one of the people he conned out of money way back when. But I force the anxiety back down. I have shed the name 'Adler' in favor of something more neutral in the hope that I can keep my anonymity. Randy is convinced he can 'make a local celebrity' out of me: someone who is not a local but who taps into local emotions. I admire his ambitions and it's incredibly flattering, but the threat of exposure frightens me, so I play it down and say that sort of thing is not for me, which frustrates him. I agreed to come to this event with the caveat that I am allowed to keep my privacy otherwise. He does not know where I live, and he pays me in cash.
I am not sure how someone like me manages to attract people like Randy: generous, kind people who seem to only see the good in others. I am the least likely to garner such trust, but I am my own worst enemy. While I want to sequester myself, hide away in a corner, these people find me and feel compelled to draw me out. And I allow myself to be drawn. Just so far, however.
I found my way to Charleston, South Carolina, six months ago. I cannot stay too far away from the ocean, and it's a charming, relaxed, easy-going kind of place with plentiful art galleries eager to discover a new artist. I had depleted much of my cash before I arrived here, so I found an art supply store on Calhoun Street and made sure to befriend the staff, which eventually led me to Randy Patterson, who is connected to everyone in the art scene in the city. He's lived here twenty-five years, since following his husband to his hometown. Randy's gallery is sought-after by local artists, but when I stumbled on it in the weeks after my arrival, I had no idea who he was. I saw a tall, slender man with a splash of white hair who could be anywhere between forty and sixty-five. He welcomed me in and admired my watercolors over a glass of bourbon. When I lived on Block Island, I was partial to oils, but I had more time there. As a perfectionist, I am embarrassed that I choose watercolors for how quickly I can produce a number of pieces, but money – or lack thereof – is a motivator. I have no idea how long I'll stay here, so I have so far not been tempted to try my hand at oils or even acrylics again, although Randy has been encouraging me.
Madeline Whittier gestures toward one of the watercolors of a salt marsh with her glass of wine, sloshing it slightly. Randy and I pretend not to notice. 'Beautiful.' She steps closer to it, studying it. Randy raises his eyebrows at me, a signal that he's certain he'll make a sale.
I shift a little and set my plastic cup on a small table next to me. I don't like this part of it, the schmoozing. That's Randy's job, and he is so good at it that he doesn't need me. I begin to excuse myself, but he gives a quick shake of his head. Madeline Whittier turns just at that moment, but she doesn't notice. What she does do, however, is give me a wide smile. I notice that the smile doesn't reach her eyes, but it could be more because she's clearly had some work done to smooth out her lines and not because she doesn't want to be warm.
'Where are you from, Ms Jones?' she asks.
I tense up.
Randy intervenes. 'Tina's from Portland,' he offers.
She nods. 'I love Portland,' she says, 'although I love Seattle more.'
I chose Portland because everyone thinks I'm either from Oregon or Maine. I never correct them; I've never been to either city. I run the risk of someone actually asking me something specific about one or the other, but so far no one has. I merely nod back. Rarely do Randy's clients really want to know anything about me. They just want to know that they've bought something beautiful that perhaps their friends haven't discovered yet.
'You do look familiar,' she says again, leaning toward me to study my face. 'You're sure we've never met before?'
'No.' I can hear the tightness in my tone.
'Wouldn't that watercolor look magnificent on your porch, Madeline?' Randy interrupts, and I am grateful to him as he prepares to make his sale.
I excuse myself, heading toward the restroom in the back.
My heart is still pounding, and I pause for a second as I glance inside Randy's office, which is next to the small lavatory. A laptop is perched on the desk.
I hesitate in the doorway, unable to tear my eyes away from it. My need is palpable. In a few keystrokes, I could find out if Madeline Whittier was one of my father's clients, if she will be able to identify me.
I should walk away.
In a split second, I make a decision. I step inside the office and approach the laptop, my fingers tingling. I don't even try to stop myself; I touch one of the keys and the screen comes to life. I tell myself I'm not doing anything to show my hand as I glance back to make sure no one is coming. Randy has not set his laptop up with a password, which is something I would normally point out as dangerous, but he can't know.
I again tell myself I'm not doing anything that can be traced back to me. That I am completely anonymous.
I put Madeline's name and 'Charleston' into the search engine and scroll through the results. I don't dare put in my father's name, but if she was one of his victims, it will probably show up. I'm not exactly fooling myself. Trying to find out about her is just an excuse. A reason to break my fast.
I don't find anything except some society pages from the local newspaper. I am about to erase the search history when I see one last headline that catches my eye. I click on the story and what I find startles me enough that I gasp out loud.
While I still don't know if Madeline Whittier was one of my father's clients, I do discover that a young man named Ryan Whittier, a student at Charleston College, vanished in Paris four months ago. The last time he was seen was at an ATM near a hotel on rue de Rivoli, not far from the Place de la Concorde. The camera that was trained on the machine captured a stranger installing a skimmer on it just moments before Ryan Whittier took out three hundred euros. While police are quoted as saying there was no indication that Ryan Whittier's disappearance was linked to the stranger or his actions, they are looking for him because he may have seen something that could help them find Ryan.
The article includes a still shot of him, taken by the ATM camera. The stranger's hoodie had fallen down slightly, and from the angle the photograph was taken, it would be hard for anyone to identify him. At least anyone who doesn't know him. But I know who he is.
He's FBI Special Agent Zeke Chapman.
I skim the story a second time. This was four months ago. Zeke was in Paris. Is he still there? I have no way of knowing. I don't have time to dwell on that, though; someone's coming. I quickly delete the search history – I can't completely erase my presence but there's nothing really incriminating here – close the laptop and move away from the desk, pretending to be intrigued by a small still life in oil.
'Oh, here you are,' Randy says, pursing his lips and shaking his head. 'You are too much of a recluse. I really need to get you out more.'
I give him a small smile, trying to remember how to breathe. 'I don't need to get out more,' I say, but I'm distracted. What was Zeke doing, putting a skimmer on an ATM? Did they ever find him? My fingers itch to get back online, to see if there is an updated story that has more information. It has been four months and since I am more than familiar with trails that grow cold, I am realistic. But at the same time, a surge of adrenaline rushes through me. I have missed him, and I had no idea just how much until I saw that grainy picture.
I am not paying attention. Randy is talking to me.
'What?' I ask.
He gives me a funny look, then volunteers that Madeline is buying one of my watercolors. 'She wants you to come to tea.'
'Tea? Do people really do that?' I ask.
He chuckles. 'In Charleston they do.' He hands me a business card. 'This is her address. Tomorrow. Three o'clock. She wants you to help her decide where to hang it.' The watercolor, I assume. I reluctantly take the card. I don't need any more friends, and I don't especially like tea, although the need for more cash flow is a good motivator.
I glance over at the laptop, forcing myself look away again. It only took one second and the craving is back. I didn't even do anything but a simple search. It takes so little.
'If you go and be nice, she'll buy more.' Randy winks, misunderstanding my hesitation.
'OK, sure.' Even though I really am not sure at all.
'And dress nice,' he says as he starts out the door. He knows my predilection for shorts and T-shirts.
I make a face at him, and he chuckles. I follow him, but I can't help but look back one more time at the laptop.
I don't come into town too often, usually only to bring Randy my work or to go to one of these gallery soirees. The sun is setting as I walk along King Street, glancing in shop windows, until I come to Queen. If I go further, I'll end up on Meeting Street, which would lead me to the City Market and the throngs of tourists. I'm not in the mood for that tonight. I turn in at a local restaurant for a drink. The walls are brick, like many of the homes around here, and I sidle up to the bar and order a bourbon. I don't make eye contact with anyone except the bartender, who recognizes me from the few times I've been here and gives me a nod as he puts the glass on the bar in front of me.
As I sip my drink, I keep an eye on the door. It's habit from being on the run for so long, from being a target. But I must be out of practice because I'm so deep in thought, that picture of Zeke circling around in my head, that I don't even notice someone has slid into the seat next to me until my elbow is jostled.
'Excuse me.' Even though he's polite, he isn't looking at me when he says this; he's trying to get the bartender's attention. He is tall, with thick black hair that's cut too short on the sides. His suit jacket strains against broad shoulders and muscled arms. I study his profile, which is dominated by a hooked nose. Another woman might find his swarthiness attractive – sexy, even.
I turn back to my drink, shifting a bit in my seat so there won't be any more physical contact.
He notices and stares at me. 'I won't bite.' He is not smiling and definitely not flirting, despite the words. His gaze unsettles me, and I swallow the last of my bourbon, suddenly anxious to get out of here.
I can't explain how I feel, and I'm certain that I shouldn't show the fear that's now creeping up my spine, grabbing hold of me so hard that I'm not sure I can breathe. I have no idea who this man is. I have never seen him before. I tell myself that I'm spooked because of seeing Zeke's picture online, and as I perch on the edge of my barstool, ready to flee, the man turns to me.
'You're that artist. At the gallery tonight.'
His words surprise me, and I try to remember whether I saw him there. But there had been about an hour or so where there were a lot of people going in and out, so I can't be sure.
I reluctantly nod.
'I like your work,' he says.
I shift uncomfortably as I throw some bills down on the bar. I can't really explain what's bothering me about him, but my instincts tell me it's time to go.
'It was nice meeting you,' I say, even though I haven't actually 'met' him, and slide off the stool and rush out. I glance behind me to make sure he's not following, and he's not. He's chatting up the bartender with no indication that he's even noticed I'm gone. I need to chase away the panic attack that's sitting at the edge of my chest.
I take a few deep breaths and my heart slows considerably. The air sticks to my skin and I think about Miami. The humidity and palm trees, though, are the only things that remind me of my hometown. This city has a soft gentility about it, a Southern charm that urges me to relax and not take life too seriously. None of which I can do.
I pull my cellphone out of the backpack and punch in a familiar number. I give the cab company an address about three blocks from here, and the walk calms me further. I don't have to wait too long before the car pulls up next to me; the driver leans toward the passenger seat, a question in his eyes. I nod and climb in, settling in for the ride home.
I shed my dress and heels and put on a pair of shorts and a T-shirt before heading outside with my phone. It's dark now; the clouds hang low in the sky over the water, and the crash of the surf soothes me. It's been all I can do not to scream with frustration, but this has been a daily exercise in selfrestraint. Today, however, it's worse. Ever since I saw that picture online.
I hit the speed dial.
'What's wrong?' It didn't even ring. It's as though Spencer Cross was waiting for my call.
I met Spencer six months ago in Miami. He and Zeke go way back to their teenage days of hacking and brief prison terms. Zeke turned to law enforcement, but Spencer started a lucrative cybersecurity company that landed him on the pages of Wired, Rolling Stone and GQ, among others. It was only when he blew the whistle on the government by revealing that two refugees who turned terrorist weren't properly vetted that he ended up underground with Incognito, an offshoot of Anonymous.
I don't bother identifying myself, since he clearly knows who it is. 'He's in Paris. At least he was a few months ago. Don't tell me you didn't know that.'
'I didn't know that. He's been under the radar. I haven't seen him anywhere online. And I'm not in Paris.'
I almost ask him where he is, but he won't tell me any more than I'd tell him where I am, although I'd be surprised if he didn't know. He gave me the phone; I'm sure there's a GPS installed somewhere in it. Maybe it's because I want him to know where I am that I haven't bothered to try to find it and get rid of it. I am so tired of hiding.
'What's going on, Tina?' Worry laces his words.
I tell him what I saw – the news story, the picture of the man who put a skimmer on an ATM.
'Are you sure it's him?' I hear the familiar tapping on a keyboard; he's looking for it. Before I can answer, I hear him say softly, 'Oh, shit.'
Excerpted from "Vanished"
Copyright © 2017 Karen E. Olson.
Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
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