"I'll never forget the day I was nearly killed by a frozen flying turkey." Jeep flipping in a complete circle, her hand had clutched at the grass as the glass broke out of her hardtop, before an earth rocking land upright on the tires, engine smoking, and the frozen Thanksgiving turkey from work slammed down into the steel floorboard.
The old memory had no sooner surfaced along this path of country than her old car sputtered and choked; the power steering ceased to function and she fought the wheel and the brakes to pull over on the shoulder of the rural highway.
"Great. I'll never forget this day . . ." she muttered with disgust as she turned the key again and was met with not even so much as the battery turning over. Of course she didn't have roadside assistance or GPS tracking. "Too bad I like my privacy." She had no pets with her, she was talking to herself! She knew coming here would stretch and test her mental encryption.
After driving eight hours south, in from the city, she was now stranded miles out in lowly populated rural flatlands. She didn't want to miss her appointment with a landscaper who she had been talking to for the last three months. She even considered him her friend now, although she had been acquainted with him for the years she had lived here. It was finally time to fix up and to sell the house and she did not want to delay it any more.
She counted backwards from ten, letting frustration and anxiety blow out her mouth in long exhales. This wasn't going to upset her or delay her timeline. There was a deadline and she never had missed one yet.
"Cars break down. It happens," she growled. "It doesn't have anything to do with why I am here, where I did not want to come again. No omen to it." Patience was a virtue she had long admired because she had none!
She hopped out of the car, nothing for mile upon mile but dark green cornfields, and she held up her cell phone to try and find a signal. "Two bars, great." She dialed the landscaper who she was to meet in thirty minutes.
When his voicemail picked up, she left a message. "I'm almost there, almost twenty miles away. My car conked out on this last leg of the journey. I haven't made it to the house yet to take pictures of the yard like you asked. Would you please call me when you get this?"
Off in the distance and fast approaching with a low purr of a powerful engine, a shiny black and chrome motorcycle pulled over and stopped right behind her. She tried not to drool on the dude's bike. "Nice ride."
He swung one long leg over the bike, standing, before the mirrors over his eyes reflected her image back at her, tawny shoulder-length hair, black jeans and her black t-shirt that said hacker. He pulled off his shades. Dark blue, almost navy eyes seemed to study her. "Trouble?" he asked as he walked closer and looked inside her car. He pointed at the four laptops in her backseat, searching for wireless networks. "You're not from around here, are you?"
Out in the middle of nowhere, she knew it. He knew it. Awaiting another possible vehicle was almost pointless until the next morning.
"Want a ride?" He settled big hands at his hips, not fisted hands on hips like he had an attitude, but palms up like he was confident. He nodded at her once, his longish black hair swayed forward with the force of his nod, before holding out one meaty palm to shake her hand. "I'm Cole Stone."
Oh man, this good looking dude had a bike? The same bike she was nearly drooling on? When she could find no words, he grinned. Two dimples pitted in tan skin next to a blinding gleam of his straight smile as if he might actually know what a gem having her speechless was. Dudes with bikes were off limits! She liked motorcycles and going fast way too much. No need to throw any man she might be attracted to into that dangerous mix. "James Dean meets Jesse James."
He grinned again. "That's me. I knew you'd know me. And you are?"
Her phone chirped out a song, caller ID flashed the landscaper's phone number. She answered her cell phone, "Hey, dude. Do you know him?" She aimed the camera at the man in black and his Harley with chrome and sent it to her friend, Glenn.
He called her back. "I know him," the landscaper chuckled into her ear. "He's Cole Stone."
She turned back to the devastating-to-her-equilibrium man. "Do you know Glenn Reston?"
"Yeah. I know all of them. And I know you best of all."
"Pardon?" she queried. "I'm Tessa."
He grunted. "Just Tessa like Madonna or something?"
She grinned at him then. "No. As in invisible." Why had she told him that? Back away from the man on the Harley, her mind flashed like a neon sign of warning.
"Do you want me to pick you up?" Glenn asked in her ear. "As you know; no such thing as a taxi when you're out in the rural flatlands," his voice crackled over a poor signal. "No cars to be rented out in the sticks. You miss this life, don't ya?" he laughed.
She replied into the phone this time, "I'll be there as soon as Mr. Stone extends that ride he offered me into town. Meet you at the café." She hung up.
It did not seem like a wise choice, but walking for miles did not appeal to her either. It would take the rest of the day to walk into town. No need to ask Glenn, although she considered him a friend, in reality little more than an acquaintance in her company from years ago when he would come to her house to fix her phone or network. She blew out a hard exhale as if the tensing of her body meant she might run. Get on a bike with someone who registered a ping against the firewall of her private invisibility?
He hopped on the bike and nodded his head toward the place behind him. "Come on; I'll take you to Haven, even buy you a cup of coffee."
She bleeped her car alarm, no carrying laptops on the bike, and swung over behind him. "Thanks." She wasn't sure what his grunt meant.
He revved the motorcycle a bit as if impatient to hit the highway. "Hold onto me and not the back of the bike, silly woman." After she slid her arms around his waist, he asked, "Do you still like to fly?" Before she could so much as sputter, he zoomed them away, sailing on the summer airstream, gliding with increasing speed as a wind like freedom whipped her hair.
Wow, it had been a very long time. She simply relaxed and laughed her enjoyment, the scent of man and leather tickling at her cheek. No. He didn't need to stick around; neither to share coffee nor to share ideas. A few strains of classic music riffed through her mind, Highway to Hell. Been there. Done that.
When they reached the small town, he pulled into an angled parking space.
"Thanks," she rushed as she hopped off his bike and out of his proximity. Tessa prided herself for not running into the coffee shop, Haven, where the inside smelled of coffee, books, and computers.
She recognized the blond man who stood in front of her, one of his elbows crooked up on the bar-high counter. He looked precisely like his picture online with his landscaping business. She'd shared lots of ideas with this man, even if they had never shared a cup of coffee.
Kinda awkward, she decided. She knew him, had talked with him online for several months now, after she decided to hire him out to landscape her house. They laughed a lot, had a lot of fun, never spoke of the past. Face to face, he seemed larger than life and even more ruggedly handsome. How could she have forgotten that about him?
"Hey you," Glenn greeted her with a crooked little grin. His light gray eyes appeared almost silver, as easy on her eyes as she had probably ever seen. His sun-bleached blond hair curled up from under his cap. He looked like an outdoorsman, tall, tanned, hard muscles, and large calloused hands. He looked to her like someone who still believed that a handshake and hard-work meant something.
But the door swung open behind her, another person entered. The six foot security scanners along the doorway flashed red lights.
Beep! Beep! Beep! Beep!
One dirty blond eyebrow shot up as Glenn looked at Cole coming past the alarms. "Thief," Glenn nodded once toward Cole before shutting off the security system. "I'll make a call to turn that frequency down or it'll be squawking every time anyone with a cell or a set of electronic keys walks in."
Ever had your keys or phone set off the department store security alarms when exiting the store, Senator? She remembered urging the U.S. Senator regarding radio frequency transmitters. It can be tapped and harnessed; the radio signals can be maneuvered as easily in a pacemaker or in an insulin pump. People could die if an attacker were to decide to want that person's penthouse apartment. The range for these airwave attacks are long distance, no longer does the attacker need to get within a couple feet of the victim. "Griefers."
She blinked out of the stare zone, brought about by the security alarms, and into the here-and-now when Glenn set a cup of coffee in front of her. Good, Big Brother didn't like it when she got all riled up like that, spouting off like a hacktivist.
Smiling at Glenn, knowing him without knowing him, she replied, "Thanks, dude." She waved one hand at a large collection of computers in the dim back room as the strong scent of sweet coffee swirled around her lungs. "Mmm. Heaven."
Glenn laughed. "No, welcome to my Haven."
She glanced at one of his big strong hands, hard and calloused, holding his cup out to her in salute. Tessa asked, "I thought you were a landscaper now?"
"That too. Sometimes even a land developer."
"No wonder you are so busy all the time." She smiled and nodded toward the computers. "I'm gonna look up some numbers to call a mechanic and to call a tow truck. I'll leave a set of keys here for the mechanic. And I don't have any pictures of the house, didn't make it there yet, so you could show me here how you would landscape it."
He leaned in, forearms on his knees. "I drove by not too long ago and the place certainly has some kind of charm."
"Beware, be forewarned, how much eerie charm there is on the inside."
"I'll take you out there in about an hour and take the pictures myself. I took a few last time I drove by. Maybe I'll buy it from you, to develop it."
"Great, thanks for taking me out there to snap the shots. I appreciate the offer to buy it, but you don't want to live there. I need to stop and get six laptops out of my car."
He didn't even blink at that. She liked that about him. He waved toward the computers. "Knock yourself out while you're waiting for me to consult with the next customer."
She didn't waste a second. Tick tap. Tick tap. Tick tap. She hated that noise, not quite the click of heels, but calling to the non-courteous to inquire as to its origins. She slapped one hand over her stomach, halting the rhythmic tapping of her USB sticks against her belly button ring.
She took another sip of coffee and then lifted her shirt to reveal the long necklace, to remove four different flash USB sticks which she promptly plugged into each of the last four computers in the back corner. No one to look over her shoulder this way, she nodded. It really tripped her trigger when her privacy was invaded.
Her deadline still ticking, she needed every possible moment to be practicing, to be honing her skills, and to be preparing for the big certification test . . . tryouts for a brand new career. So far, she had only one headhunter who would not leave her in peace. He wanted her to hire out, consulting he called it, and this headhunter wanted her to work with him as a malicious intent cracker. No way had she wanted to steal information from people or to ruin their lives! She liked to believe her intentions were a bit nobler.
She no sooner sank into the moment, busy now, fingers flying over the one wireless keyboard she had unrolled from her jacket, than she found something interesting to tweak.
"What are you doing!" Cole exclaimed with something akin to laughter in his voice.
Tessa shrieked like he had jumped out and said Boo in a game of hide and seek. She nearly jumped out of her skin.
He laughed. "Now I really want to know." But as he slid around behind her and the four computers busy with batches, she stood up.
"I intensely dislike shoulder surfers."
"You had four of six running in your car too. Do you need four computers to be online?" He pointed at her black shirt and the white letters spelling out hacker.
She tapped a few function keys, then turned back to face him. She crossed her arms over her chest. "Thinking me unintelligent would be your first mistake, bucko. Open your mind."
"Well your mind is cracked open all the way if you think you're invisible like you told me on the back of my bike."
"How rude is that? Being invisible is important to me. Scientists are studying the secrets of invisibility. I've wanted an invisibility cloak like Harry Potter for simply years and years."
The big dumb jerk, looking good enough to nibble, just laughed at her.
"My ethics on this are pure. I don't wish to lurk around or to steal, I simply want to do my own thing and no one see me. I've tried all different invisibility tactics. I was thinking about going there and making a position for myself. It would be pluses all around, 'cause I do know what I'm doing when it comes to security."
He held out a new cup of coffee to her. "So tell me, Just Tessa, what it is that you are doing?"
"I'm not hurting you. I'm not hurting anyone. Thanks for the ride and the coffee, but go away now."
The tanned face tightened a bit more like Cole was an outlaw, his clothes and bike stamped him with a look like a rebel. He sighed deeply before pivoting and walking away.
One of the computers bleeped several minutes later and a box flashed, offering a private message from Glenn. She accepted as she had often done from him. She smiled toward him at the high front counter. Flash. He was fast, quick-witted, funny. He sent a link and she trusted him enough to click on it.
A new chat room popped up on her screen.
Flash: He's cool like ice. So cool u gave him the cold shoulder 2X.
Pixie: The headhunter u mentioned?
Thor: That would B me. I don't use a badge anymore, lady. Why did u bury ur gunz?
Pixie: I can't shoot them again.
Flash: And ur black hat?
Tessa stood abruptly, knocking the chair back a foot. "Glenn," she growled despite a room full of people, and then she unplugged four USBs from as many computers. She ended the conversation before he could betray what she had told him about the black hat headhunter pursuing her.
Cole stood too from a computer on the other wall. "Pixie like Pixiedust?"
"No. Like I'm gonna hammer you with my wand of good will."
Glenn ambled toward the back where she stood nearly trembling with anger. "Chill down that hot and spicy temper, Tessa. Your green eyes are shooting sparks at us. You told me yourself the Golden Age of Hacking was gonna get more and more golden. For the attackers. You are a protector. Maybe he needs your help?"
Ah yes, appealing to her greatest virtue . . . the desire to save the world. Flip the coin over and the other side was her greatest flaw, the desire to save the world.
Cole slid in a couple steps closer to her also, lowering his voice as he lessened the distance. "I've seen what you do to take care of folks who scare kids. Heard what you did to protect a woman who came to you, told you her troubling story, and the nasty little remote access program you put on a disc for her to insert in his computer."
"Oh. Well. If you put it like that, you make it sound bad."
Those two dimples appeared again along with a streak of white in his dark-toned skin. Cole laughed. "How do you see it?"
"That was a long time ago. Some man who thought he was an untouchable bigwig complained to the university board about me giving him a virus. I honestly deny it was a virus. My boss was ready to fire me if I hacked that dude. I've never met him, never talked to him, never touched his network."
Glenn laughed this time. "So did a ghost do it or what, Tessa? Cause the cops found no fingerprints on the CD. And the mayor was ticked."
"She needed protection; she needed some help. I didn't crack that dude," she insisted.
Cole pointed one big finger her way. "You gave it to her and she did it. It's all about intentions. I think you're sweet."
She sighed. "What is this, you profiling me? What do you want?"
"I want to know what your intentions are for your immediate future." Cole lifted each hand like he was weighing scales. "Both sides are schmoozing you."
"Are you in some kind of trouble, Cole Stone? You looked like trouble right off to me." She looked him up and down pointedly. "Do you need something?"
"I would like to flick that chip off your shoulder and then talk with you for starters, yes."
Glenn hitched his thumb toward the backdoor. "Let's go out to your house now. The sooner I start the sooner I'll be done and you can put it on the market and move onto that future you told me about." His silver eyes soothed her, warm and shining like something from his inside smiled.
Cole slid in one step closer to her, at the minimum distance perimeter of her personal space, almost but not quite setting off her internal proximity alarms. "And I'd like to talk to you about that future. I wanna ride shotgun on your successful real-world break-in. I wanna see you hack a heart. I want to record it, prove it can be done in more than theory, and shove it down the throat of legislators. Glenn told me that you've tried to make them listen again and again."
Glenn nodded. "Yup. You riding in my truck with me or on the back of his bike?"
Cole winked at her. "You have no car. Think wisely about it before you flat out refuse us both and you end up stranded out there."
She shuddered slightly. She intended to stay in this town in a hotel . . . with high speed access of course. Not miles upon miles out in the sticks in her old house. She'd been through and survived a siege there.
Her heart beat heavy, faster, so she shut her eyes to slowly exhale out the struck-like-lightning terror. Another bolt of fright, and the memory shimmered across her mind's eye and shimmied a streak of fear up her spine.
Rusty chains creaked as if in protest to the wind pushing a child's forsaken swing. Although weathered posts had fallen and the twisted barbed wire was broken in places, openings to the property appeared no more inviting than during its prime. Weeds swayed like they were trying to pull up their roots and run away as thick white fog rolled in to blanket the lonely wooden house in utter isolation. No trespassing signs displayed the only fresh paint around carefully tended flowerbeds. Yet even the budding roses seemed to shudder as fragrant petals closed like a sheltering cocoon from the cold evil clouds eating up the ground. Right before darkness fell, the metal screen door stuck and then squeaked open to slam against the chipped front porch. The fog paused at the entrance, beckoning its equally frigid master, before swallowing all the rest of the rural land.
Tessa huffed out two quick hard breaths, panic striking her from a memory long past. No; she didn't want to be there by herself. She didn't want to be anywhere near here if it shoved memories to the surface. This is why she had put it off. Her plan was to go in, get it done, and get out as fast as possible.
She glanced at first one and then the other man. "I'm leaving here as soon as I can."
Glenn tilted his head and studied her. "You said that before, Tessa."
His voice echoed in her head like she heard his words in a decade past when he worked for the ISP she used, back to when she really was sweet. She remembered holding a gun, making sure he saw it, and saying, "Just in case."
She shivered. Yikes. Did Glenn remember that too and still wanted to go out to that scary house with her? He hadn't called the cops, but he'd tried to help her until she pointed her gun at him and told him to leave her alone.
As if he had heard the rusty chains swinging in her memory, he added very softly and very matter-of-factly, "You left and have lived quietly and successfully in the city."
She nervously tapped the necklace of hard drives under her shirt against her belly button ring. Tick tap. Tick tap. Tick tap soothed her now as a reminder she was safe with her security at hand.
She turned to study Cole. Glenn had told her about a friend, a headhunter in medical security, looking for a partner. She had strong beliefs in it and a part of her would like to talk to Cole. She grunted as an unwelcome and unfamiliar urge to do more than talk to him flashed non G-rated pictures in her head. "Dangerous," she muttered.
Glenn held out one big calloused palm her way. "Come on, Tessa."
"Would you please be so kind to as to ferry me back in town, to the hotel, after taking pictures and talking?"
"Yes," said Cole first.
"Sure thing," Glenn added.
The landscaper, er-developer, Glenn. Yes, oh yes, he was the safer bet. Going out to the house? No car? Stranded for miles of rutty mud holes and a little bit of gravel? Woodland or cornfields all around, even across the street, blocking her in? He said he'd take the pictures, the sooner the better to get this show on the road, the house on the market, so she could move on.
"It's time to fly, Tessa." Cole held out one hand her way, too. Her silly mind couldn't decide whether to jump him or to flee from him. And his strange comments implying he knew her? She had never come face-to-face with this man or she would definitely remember it.
Who should she ride with for the next thirty minutes until they reached her house way out in the sticks?
Hackers and Ghost Hunters