DAYTON INGRAM had never thought of this area of Milwaukee as particularly dangerous. The restaurants and businesses on Mitchell Street were bustling with customers, but two blocks made a real difference. He should have waited to find a parking space closer to the Wild Chili, but it had been light out when he arrived at the restaurant, and now that darkness had fallen, the welcoming feeling faded as he walked into a neighborhood he wasn’t familiar with. Dayton picked up the pace and began walking faster toward his Ford Fusion. He’d was just approaching it when a cry reached his ears. He stopped, listening intently the way he’d been taught, to pick up the direction, hoping he would hear it again.
It came again, louder this time and much more frantic. “I have done nothing to you,” a young voice pleaded in Spanish. “Leave me alone.”
The reply came, also in Spanish, menacing, growly. “Why should we?”
Instantly Day headed in that direction. He reached for his phone and pulled it from his pocket. He pressed the button to wake it up, and it remained dark.
“Shit!” he swore, kicking himself for not checking it earlier. He’d felt it vibrate a few times during dinner but had figured it was Facebook or something like that. Instead the damn thing had been telling him it was almost out of power. He needed to see about getting a new battery for the piece of shit—he’d charged the fucking thing just before he’d left the house.
“Leave me alone.” The cry repeated, this time in distress and accompanied by the sounds of a scuffle and an overturned trash can rumbling on concrete as it went. Day took off in the direction of the sound, rounding the corner of a small alley that stank of garbage and God knew what else, where two heavyset men in ratty sweatshirts and stained pants hanging halfway down to their knees loomed over a teenager, or someone not much older than that.
“Just give us your money, and we’ll let you be, maricón,” the man spat, puffing up his chest in a display of machismo. “Otherwise we’ll cut your balls off.” The man held up his hand, a knife flashed, and Day stopped a few feet away, just out of arm’s reach.
“Huye!” he cried at the top of his lungs to the kid. “Get out of here,” he added as the men advanced on him. Dayton kept his cool and widened his stance, carefully watching the glazed eyes of both men. The one with the knife came first, jabbing it at him a little clumsily. Dayton danced back out of his reach and waited for another pass. It looked like the fat man’s friend was going to see what happened before he entered the fray. Stupid mistake. They might have been able to get to him if they worked together—might. But alone, no way in hell!
“It’s two against one, gringo,” the man warned, and Dayton caught a hint of alcohol on his breath. “Give us your money too, and we’ll let you live.” He swung the knife, and Dayton caught his arm before it reached the apex of the arc. Holding the man’s hand firmly in his, he twisted around and flipped him over his shoulder. The knife flew out of the assailant’s hand, clattering to the concrete, and he landed on his back with a hard thud and didn’t move. Day swung around to the other man, ready for his attack, but none came.
He expected the man to flee, but whatever he was on must have made him brave and too stupid to know better. He’d grabbed the kid and was holding him as a shield. “Stay still,” Dayton said and locked gazes with the man. His eyes were wide, and Dayton guessed he’d been drinking, at least, and maybe had taken a hit of something else. As he took a step closer, not looking away, the man’s eyes widened enough that they caught the light. His pupils were huge. Yeah, he was definitely high.
Dayton breathed evenly, remembering his training, pushing aside the nerves that threatened to cloud his concentration. What he’d been taught and practiced had worked once already. He did his best to keep his racing heart from pounding too loudly in his ears.
“Back up, gringo.”
“Let the kid go, and you can leave,” Dayton said levelly, even as he was starting to wonder if this whole situation was getting out of control. He’d meant to help the kid, not make things worse.
“Instead I maybe break his neck,” the man said, smiling to show a mouth full of rotten teeth.
Dayton crouched slightly, and when the man’s gaze shifted to the kid, Dayton took a step forward. He swept his leg out in a kick that caught the mugger’s leg. The man lost his balance, falling to the ground. Dayton was ready in case the kid fell too, but he managed to jump away. “Call the police,” Dayton ordered, and the kid nodded, pulling a phone out of his pocket while Dayton grabbed the man, rolled him over, and held his hands. “Give me your belt.”
“What for?” the kid asked but then opened his belt and handed it over. Dayton used it to fasten the man’s hands behind him. The other one groaned, and Dayton warned him not to move unless he wanted more. He thought he heard the man mutter, “No más.”
Sirens sounded, and Day looked around. “Are you okay, kid?” He nodded. “I have to go. Tell them what happened, and the police will see to it that these two are taken care of.”
“You’re leaving? You saved my life,” the kid said in English as he continued shaking a little.
“I’m glad I could help,” Dayton said with a smile. Then he turned and walked calmly down the street, got in his car, and drove slowly off as police vehicles began to arrive behind him. As he drove, Day plugged in his phone, got the beginning of a charge, and called in to the office.
“I need to speak to Gladstone,” Day said when the call was answered and then waited to be transferred. He steered his car onto the freeway as his boss answered. Day switched the phone to hands-free as he sped up. “Remember you said to tell you if anything unusual happened…,” Dayton began and then relayed the incident.
“Did the police see you?”
“No. I left before they got there,” Dayton answered.
“Okay. We’ll take care of it, but come into my office first thing in the morning.” The call ended abruptly, and Dayton hung up and drove the rest of the way to his South-Side home.
He pulled up to the house, sliding past it before turning down the alley. He parked his car in the garage that he paid a little extra to use and then walked to the house. He unlocked his ground-floor door and then took the stairs up to the second floor of the duplex. It was a nice place—compact and affordable. Once inside he closed the main door and walked back to the bedroom. He set his keys in their place on the dresser, along with his wallet. Then he plugged in his phone and arranged it in its place next to his wallet. Finally, he took off his shoes, filling in the space they’d left on the floor of his closet, then left the room and returned to his living room.
He sat on the serviceable but old sofa he’d found at a thrift store and covered with a slipcover to make it look less hideous. He’d done the same thing with the two chairs. They were comfortable enough, and that was all that mattered to him. He made do, and there was something familiar and almost homey about it. The same could be said of the mismatched chairs pushed into place around the table in his small dining room. And no one would know how old and scarred the tabletop was unless they lifted the sapphire tablecloth to peer under it.
Day turned on the television and did his best to relax, but the incident in the alley kept running through his mind. He’d been trying to help, and in the end he had, but he’d also put the kid in more danger, if momentarily. His boss hadn’t said anything about whether he thought Dayton had done the right thing. Well, it was too late now, and if he’d screwed up with his rashness, so be it. He’d helped the kid and had gotten him away from the men.
Laughter came from the television, pulling him out of his thoughts for a little while. He turned his attention to the rerun of Will and Grace, laughing a few times before changing the channel once the show was over. He settled on an episode of The Mentalist. It was an unrealistic portrayal, but it was entertaining. Secretly, however, he wanted to be just like Patrick Jane—keenly observant, a student of human nature—and have the ability to get in other people’s heads. After watching the episode, he turned off the television.
The tiny second bedroom in the apartment acted as Dayton’s office. Before going to bed, he sat at his desk, started up his laptop, and checked his personal e-mail. It was mostly junk, but there was a note from his brother about his latest lame scheme to make himself a pile of money so he could continue his wandering lifestyle forever. Like all the other “opportunities,” Stephen made it sound as though it were the deal of the century, but Dayton could see the holes in it a mile away and shook his head. He should call him, but he wasn’t in the mood to have that conversation tonight. So after checking the last of his e-mail, he closed the computer lid and headed to the bathroom, where he cleaned up and got ready for bed.
THE FOLLOWING morning, pressed and dressed, he left his apartment and drove to a brick office building that had once housed a bank. It still looked like a bank, which was probably why it worked so well for its new purpose. The sign out front read “S L S Inc.” It stood for Scorpion Logistics Services. But everyone inside knew those words meant something very different than the public might take them to mean. People asked him if they were a trucking and shipment management company, and Dayton always answered yes but was vague about what he did.
He parked in his space alongside the building and pulled his badge out of his wallet. He scanned it at the door reader, and it clicked. He pulled the door open and entered the building. He scanned his card at the next door and placed his thumb on the pad. When the door clicked open, he walked farther into the building.
“Good morning,” the receptionist said professionally, barely looking up from her keyboard as she typed.
Dayton knew she wasn’t being rude, just efficient, and he returned her greeting before continuing on to his cubicle. He sat down and started up his computer, entered himself into the system, and checked the programs he’d set to run overnight. They had finished, and he smiled before picking up the phone.
Jason Gladstone. Everyone just called him Gladstone, and a few people dared to call him Glad, but Dayton never had and doubted he ever would.
“You wanted to see me this morning?” Dayton said.
“Uh… yeah. Come to my office in an hour. Uh… good morning.” He hung up, and Dayton placed his phone back in its place. His boss was a weird duck. Smart as they came, but social niceties tended to get lost in his intensity. Not that Dayton minded. He went back to work analyzing the data he’d collected, and then, once he’d finished the report, he sent it off to the requestor. He saved the information in case it needed to be reworked but set it for auto-purge in a month. Then he went to Gladstone’s office.
“Dayton,” Gladstone said after he knocked on the doorframe. “Come with me.”
He stood slowly and nodded, following his boss through the building and into one of the small conference rooms. Gladstone closed the door and motioned Dayton to take a seat while he sat just opposite him. Fuck, he was in trouble. That was the only explanation.
“We got some additional information on the incident last night from the police. Apparently you left out some details when we talked last night.” Gladstone stared at him intently.
“I believe I told you everything.”
Gladstone smacked a file onto the table and slid it over to him. Dayton glanced down at it and saw it had his name on it. “You never told any of us that you speak Spanish.”
Huh? Dayton covered his confusion. Even in the office, he’d learned to maintain a façade of strength and unflappability. “It’s a new skill. I decided to learn about a year ago, and I’ve been practicing with a number of people conversationally online. I was surprised at how quickly I could pick it up.” He didn’t smile, even though he was fucking proud of himself. He spoke a number of other languages as well, so he did have a gift for them.
Gladstone pulled the file back and opened it. “You were hired away from the NSA six months ago, and the reason you gave for wanting to join us was that you wanted to do fieldwork, and that wasn’t going to happen there. Well, up until last night, no one thought you had what it took for fieldwork, but you’ve changed some minds.” Gladstone didn’t look happy. “And your newly acquired skill seems to have sealed the deal.”
“All right. Do you have a new project for me?” Dayton kept his excitement out of his voice. He loved gathering and analyzing data, especially when there was an external challenge involved.
“Don’t know yet. A team is being assembled, and you’re on the short list for consideration. Doesn’t mean you’ll be chosen, but the powers that be are moving quickly on this, so be ready to go, and make sure your affairs are in order to be away from home for a period of time.”
“How long would I be away?” Dayton asked.
“That wasn’t shared with me,” Gladstone answered flatly. “But they were also interested in your more clandestine computer skills as well as… your looks.” Gladstone’s possum-like eyes bored into him. Dayton didn’t flinch. Gladstone was never going to win any beauty contests. He’d been in the clandestine-operations business for quite a while and knew his way around, but the man had most definitely been hired for his skills.
“My looks?” Dayton asked. That seemed the most unlikely of all his traits to have garnered him consideration for a field operation. “I work hard, and I’m fucking good at what I do.” His hackles raised in a split second.
“Cool down, Ingram. I wasn’t casting aspersions on your qualifications, just stating facts.” Gladstone’s expression softened slightly.
“So what do I do now?” He really wanted to get into fieldwork.
“Nothing. If you’re chosen you’ll be contacted, and they’ll arrange to meet and brief you. That division of the organization is as secretive and closemouthed as they get. They tell no one anything they don’t need to know, and that even goes for me.” Gladstone paused. “You’re here in part because of your skills, and in part because you know how to keep your mouth shut. There may be training involved, but I don’t know for sure.” He stood up, a signal that the meeting was over. “Just be prepared to pick up and go at a moment’s notice.” Gladstone picked up the file and left the room, closing the door behind him.
Dayton wanted to crow to the rooftops. He was actually being considered for fieldwork. How fucking awesome was that? Of course, he kept his cool and left the room a minute after Gladstone, his expression schooled and his walk as normal as he could make it. He went back to his desk and got to work.
“What did the Weeble want?” Kyper Morris asked, popping his head over the cubicle. How Kyper had gotten his job, Dayton didn’t know. He was gossipy and tended to talk. A lot. Granted, Dayton never heard him say anything he shouldn’t, but how he could talk so damned much and not accidentally spill something he shouldn’t was beyond Dayton. “Did you do something? I heard there was an incident last night.”
Just like any office, there was a rumor mill here as well, but it tended to be quite subdued. “He wanted to talk,” Dayton answered.
“You’re no fun,” Kyper said, and Dayton heard the chair squeak, which meant Kyper had plopped himself onto his chair in a show of disappointment. “You know, we all took this job because of the potential excitement, and what do we see? The same four walls and reams of data. We might as well be working at Walmart.” The clicking of keys was nearly deafening. When Kyper got pissed about something, he typed as hard as hell.
“Give it a rest,” Dayton called as lightly as he could. The pounding eased off, but the typing continued. Dayton went back to work, searching for the data locations he could use to put together the analysis request he’d just been sent.
“So, was it good news?” Kyper asked a few minutes later. The man was like a dog with a bone—he never let anything go. Dayton ignored him and continued working. It hadn’t worked before, and it wasn’t likely to work now. Kyper’s special skill was that he never gave up. If there was a way to get something he needed, he would stop at nothing until he had it in hand. The only time he’d ever given up on anything was when Gladstone had threatened his ability to have children. Even then, he’d only backed off, and a few days later he was crowing about solving the problem.
Dayton took a break and got a cup of coffee from the snack area. He brought it back to his desk and settled in to work for the rest of the morning. He left for lunch and returned with takeout that he ate at his desk. When he was done, he wadded up the paper and tossed it into the trash.
Dayton turned around and shivered as a man with a pair of black, almost hollow eyes stared right back and through him. It was the coldest gaze he’d ever seen in his life. “Dimato,” the man said with no emotion whatsoever. Dayton knew instantly that it wasn’t his real name.
“Ingram,” he said, standing up and offering his hand.
The man stood there and did nothing. “Come with me.”
Dayton lowered his hand and followed Dimato out of the cubicle area and up the stairs. They passed through various secure areas, with Dimato getting them access.
They entered an office, and Dimato closed the door. “All right,” he began, pointing to a chair. Dayton sat, and Dimato pulled another from around the polished conference table and lowered himself into it, getting comfortable. “As you’ve been told, we have been looking at you for an assignment.” Dayton had expected him to have a file or some information, but he simply sat and watched him. Dayton forced himself not to squirm. Dimato’s attitude was designed to make him uncomfortable, but he’d be damned if these kinds of games would have an effect on him, so he waited, refusing to break eye contact.
“Yes. I was told nothing other than it would require me to be away for a period of time.”
Dimato nodded. “We have a situation, and we need someone with your particular blend of skills.”
“And what would that be?” Dayton pressed, leaning forward.
“Your computer skills are top-notch, you speak multiple languages, including Spanish, which tipped the decision in your favor, and frankly, your appearance was a plus as well.” He crossed one leg over the other. “We do have concerns, one being your lack of fieldwork. But we were all new once, and you have good instincts. The other is… harder to explain. In the field you must put the mission and the safety of the team above everything else. Last night, according to the information gathered, you were cool under pressure and saved the kid. But by getting involved, you put yourself in unnecessary danger. In the field, choosing your battles can mean the difference between success and failure. This isn’t a game. It’s dangerous.” Those emotionless black eyes were making Dayton’s skin crawl.
“I understand that.” He’d always known what was required. “When will I meet the others I’ll work with? I’m assuming I won’t be sent in alone.”
“I’m expecting him at any time,” Dimato said. He didn’t move, but his gaze did shift slightly. Dayton had noticed a set of world clocks on the wall when he’d come in, so Dimato was checking the time.
“He’s late,” Dayton said flatly. Dimato didn’t react, other than a slight twitch of his lips. The office door opened. Dayton turned in his chair as an older man stepped in and closed the door.
“This is Knighton from Records and Research,” Dimato said. “He’ll be your partner on this particular assignment.”
“Him?” Dayton asked, eyes widening. That was hard to believe. He seemed a little old, with gray hair at the temples and a slight slouch to his posture. He seemed a little like he’d been rode hard and put away wet. Granted, he was handsome enough, with a strong, chiseled jaw covered with stubble that looked like he hadn’t bothered to shave as opposed to a fashion choice, and piercing eyes that Dayton doubted missed much.
“Yes, me,” Knighton said firmly in a rich baritone. He sat down at the chair across from Dayton and made himself comfortable. “What’s the deal, so I can decide if I want to take it?” He leaned back in his chair, hands behind his head.
Dimato stood up and walked to where Knighton sat. He braced his arms on the edge of the table and leaned over it. “This is your final chance for fieldwork.” So there was emotion Dimato somewhere. “You’ve buried yourself in the research department for almost two years, and it’s time you either shit or got off the pot.”
Dayton wasn’t sure he should be here for this. He swallowed hard and turned away. But like a train wreck, it was hard not to watch.
“This requires your skills, and we need you. So get over yourself and get back on the horse. Once this is over, you can go back to research for the rest of your life for all I care.”
Dayton turned slightly. Knighton’s expression hadn’t changed, except his lips curled up into a slight smile, making Dayton wonder if this was all some act for his benefit. He didn’t see what the motivation could possibly be, but it seemed to him this sort of conversation should have been held behind closed doors.
“Since you asked so nicely…,” Knighton began.
Dimato moved back to his seat as though nothing had happened.
Dayton acted the same way and turned toward the man he assumed was his boss now.
“One of our departments picked up some chatter coming out of Mexico. We get it all the time and turn most of what we suspect over to the DEA, but this is different and doesn’t seem to be drug-related. It’s centering on an attack of some type on the electronic intelligence infrastructure here in the US.” Dimato stood and retrieved two folders from his desk. He handed one to each of them. “These are to be destroyed if you are in danger or compromised in any way.”
“Understood,” Dayton said as he took the file with a slight tremor of excitement in his hand. “May I ask why the CIA isn’t involved?”
“We brought it to their attention, and they, in their infinite wisdom, punted it back to us, claiming budget cuts. The truth is they don’t see this as the threat we know it is.” Dimato shook his head. “So we’re sending you in to neutralize it. We believe—and the details of what we have are in the folder—that they plan to make this attack in the next two weeks.”
“When you say electronic infrastructure, you mean the Internet, correct?” Knighton asked.
“But isn’t there security already? Websites have security and so do their back-end systems. It isn’t flawless, but how can someone attack that when it’s so dispersed?”
Dayton gasped and looked at Dimato, but he just sat quietly.
“That’s easy. Any security system can be gotten around. It’s a multibillion-dollar business,” Dayton said to Knighton. “Hackers and threats get more and more sophisticated each year, and so do the security precautions that guard against them. It’s a never-ending cycle.” Dayton then turned to Dimato. “There are a number of systemic holes that could be exploited. Some I suspect have been anticipated but others probably haven’t. The terrorists may have hit on some as yet undiscovered hole and are working on a way to exploit it.”
“Could you do that? Exploit a security hole?” Dimato asked.
Dayton smiled. “I do it every day. That’s how I get some of the critical data we need. We don’t use it for nefarious purposes, and I schedule it all for deletion once we are through with it, but if I can do it, so can others. Do we know the exact threat?”
“No,” Dimato said. “That’s part of the problem. Gentlemen, we need you to determine the source of the threat. It’s originating in the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico, and we believe it’s near the border with Belize. That area is sparsely populated, with plenty of remote areas where a plot like this could be hatched and carried out. The team here will supply support, but we need boots on the ground, and that’s you two.”
“How are we getting there? By plane?” Knighton asked.
“No. We need to make sure you slip into the area under the radar. If this group, and that’s our assumption, is savvy enough to do this, then a plane or anything out of the ordinary would be spotted.”
“We could fly over at night, and you could drop us out of the plane. We’d hit the ground, ditch the chutes, and no one would be the wiser. That area is dark as shit at night.” For the first time, Knighton seemed really engaged.
“We can’t take the chance. We’ll only get one shot at this. If we blow it, they’ll move, and we will have to start all over again. The team is still trying to figure out how to get you in with no one noticing.”
“How about a cruise ship?” Dayton suggested. “You said this is near the border with Belize. There are cruise ships that stop in Costa Maya, which is in that area. A friend took one last year. They run Sunday to Sunday. I think she left out of Fort Lauderdale. We could arrive on the ship in Costa Maya. No one would be looking for us in a group of tourists. We simply book an excursion inland and then disappear. When we don’t return, the ship will sail on without us.”
“Aren’t ships like that booked?” Knighton asked.
Dayton shrugged, but Dimato was already out of his chair and picking up his phone. “Research cruises leaving this weekend from any port, docking in Costa Maya, Mexico, and arrange for a cabin. If they’re full you’ll need to arrange for existing passengers to be waylaid or shifted off the cruise. Everything must be done not to raise suspicion.” He hung up and sat back down. “We’ll arrange for both of you to have access to the transmissions we’ve intercepted.”
“Excellent, sir,” Dayton said. He was anxious to see what they were getting into and to look for clues about this mysterious threat.
No one said anything more, and Dayton wondered if the meeting was over. He waited for Dimato to stand and then did the same. Dayton stepped toward the door, with Knighton remaining behind.
“By the way,” Dimato said. “Your desk and things have been relocated to this floor. See Eileen just outside. She’ll show you where it is and give you a new badge and explain the security requirements to get on this floor. It’s good to have you on the team.”
Dayton pulled the door open, stunned, and stepped outside, where Eileen was waiting for him. The middle-aged woman screamed efficiency, from the tailored way she was dressed, down to her highly polished, sensible shoes. She led him briskly toward what appeared to be an office. There were two desks inside. “This space will be for you and Knight. We find that operational teams need to be kept together so information can be shared in a secure environment.” She stepped inside and directed him toward the desk closest to the window. “We set up your things there. Here’s your new badge.” She took the old one and bent it in half. “I’ll have this shredded. You won’t need it any longer.”
“Will I be restricted from any parts of the building?”
“Only the computer operations center. Everything else will be open to you. If you need something and you aren’t getting cooperation, let me or Dimato know, and we’ll take care of it.” She paused. “Is there anything else I can do for you?” She obviously didn’t anticipate anything because she was already turning to leave the room. She closed the door, and it took all Dayton’s self-control not to jump up and pound his fist in the air. Instead, he booted up his computer to clear the work he’d left undone and then opened the file folder he’d been given and began to read.
AN HOUR or so later, the door bounced open. He jumped and then looked up, and Knighton walked in, surveying the space as though he owned it.
“I see you already took the desk near the window.”
Dayton was about to argue and say that his things had been put there for him, but he kept quiet and returned his attention to the file.
“You aren’t going to find much in there other than the standard information and a little more detail about what we’ve already been told,” Knight said. A folded piece of paper landed on Dayton’s desk.
Dayton ignored it for the time being. “Do you always enter a room like a herd of elephants? I understand we all have skills. Is that listed among yours?” He raised his eyebrows and then went back to the file. He was nearly done and wanted to make sure he had all of the information in his brain before he went to work on the messages that had been intercepted. A series of encrypted files from Eileen had been waiting on his computer in his new office. He’d only glanced at them and realized he needed the background information before he could dig into the transmissions themselves.
“Look, kid, I have years of experience at this sort of thing. So let me do what I do best, and you can do the computer stuff, and maybe we’ll get out of this alive and back home so we can go on with our lives.” Knight dropped the file on his desk and schlumped into his chair.
“If you don’t want to do this, then tell them instead of acting like a grumpy old man,” Dayton countered. Then he sighed. This was not the way to start what should be a partnership. &ldqu