By Frank Burns,2014-05-11 13:16
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    This novel is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to real-life people is entirely coincidental. This novel is not in the public domain. It may be used only for individual reading. It may not be distributed or republished without written permission from the copyright holder. This novel was provided on www.booksforabuck.com as a service to our readers. If you enjoy this book, visit www.booksforabuck.com to see more affordable eBooks by Amy Eastlake and other authors

    Copyright 2000, 2006 by Robert Preece, all rights reserved. This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission, except that a single printed copy may be made for the personal use of the registered user.

Chapter 1

    The minute he walked in the door, Heather Webb fell in love. His suit fit him so perfectly that it had to be custom tailored. The white shirt still sparkled with newness, and small gold coins that Heather recognized as bearing the portrait of Maximilian of Mexico graced the cuff-links.

Even his shoes spoke of wealth.

    If a man this obviously rich had to come to a run-down private detective agency without even calling ahead for an appointment, he was desperate--and she wouldn't let him walk out of here without a fight. A client like this could finance the agency for a month. She slurped a swallow from her coffee mug then waved the mug toward a chair somehow managing not to send coffee everywhere. "Won't you sit down?"

    He straddled the chair. "Are you the boss?"

    The visitor's distrustful blue eyes personified danger and control. That didn't surprise her. In her experience, people didn't get rich without stepping on some toes.

    His voice was deep and sexy, but in a carefully manipulated way, as if he had taken voice lessons to develop just that rasp of sensuality. He certainly didn't fit the normal government-worker model that most of Washington D.C.'s privileged copied in their efforts not to seem too elite.

    "I'm Heather Webb."

    He ignored her implicit invitation to introduce himself. "I understand you do computer break-ins."

    She didn't want to scare him off, but suddenly he seemed just a little too perfect. "I run a general purpose private detective agency," Heather explained. "One of our services is computer security audits." She'd put the ball back in his court and let him define himself through his words and actions. One of the best things about her job was that it gave her an excuse to be nosy.

    "I'm looking for someone who can find out whether the computers at a company I'm interested in are secure."

    She sighed. "We don't do third party work." In her circumstances she couldn't afford to take the risk, no matter how much money he might offer.

    She should have known that having Mr. Rich Guy walk into her office was too good to be true. Especially a rich guy who looked like he'd be cool and collected in the middle of the Sahara desert. Despite Washington D.C.'s brutal August humidity, Mr. Rich-guy appeared completely comfortable in his wool suit and perfectly knotted silk tie. The man looked at her curiously.

    "I'm Jack Eastland," he told her.

    "Ah. Jack Eastland," she answered as if everything were suddenly clear. She didn't exactly hang around in D.C.'s high society, but you can't live in Washington without picking up some sense of who is doing what. His name meant exactly nothing to her.

    His eyes widened slightly and she had the feeling that he had just run her through a cat scan and investigated every secret cranny of her being.

    The sensation was a little frightening, but it wasn't altogether unpleasant.

    He was built better than most businessmen she had known. In fact, he probably had to have his suits custom made, since his broad shoulders would burst through anything he could buy off the rack. He was a little old to be a professional athlete, probably somewhere in his mid-thirties, but he moved with a grace that spoke of power and economy of motion. He cleared his throat. "What makes you think I'm asking for a third-party search?"

    "There must be some sort of convention going on," she told him. "Five minutes before you arrived, someone called asking for me to break into a major computer center.

    Yesterday I got three calls. Everyone must want to find out what their competitors are doing. I don't blame them, but I can't help them. I don't do that kind of work."

    "Aren't you walking away from a lot of business?"

    She shook her head ruefully. "It's not worth losing my license over." More to the point, she couldn't afford to get her parents messed up in an investigation. Of course she wouldn't tell Mr. Eastland, or whatever his real name was, that.

    "Well, Heather ..." he paused, "May I call you Heather?" She smiled. "Of course." He could call her Fido if he wanted, as long as he paid his bills.

    "Fine," he told her. "I'll get to the point. I've recently picked up a company. Since then, my competitors have been eating me alive. Before I go on a rampage and make accusations about an inside job, I want to make sure that my competition isn't stealing my secrets off my own computer.

    What you said about what's going on out there makes me even more certain that I need to look into this. Somehow I'm not convinced everyone shares your morals."

    He reached into his suit pocket.

    Heather fought her instinctive urge to reach for the automatic in her desk. Instead she set a false smile on her face. When his hand emerged with a gold business card box, she let out her breath in a whoosh. The card was printed on stiff linen stock paper that felt like money, only thicker. Jack Eastland, CEO, Wildfire Enterprises, the card read. Everything appeared too easy. In her experience, companies the size of Wildfire, one of D.C.'s biggest private companies, didn't send their CEOs out to hire detectives. Still, why shouldn't things be easy for once? All summer, business had been so bad she'd stooped to serving summonses for a couple of the law firms she worked with. A major computer security audit deal could be the break that made her company. Her parents' work in computer security was pretty well known in hacker

    circles, but a high-publicity job would give her the chance to expand the agency.

    "You understand I'll have to check on this?" she asked him. Jack Eastland looked like he could be a CEO, or anything else he put his mind to. Then again, she'd met con men who could assume the same air of power and arrogance.

    "Of course," he said smoothly. "I hope you understand that I am in something of a hurry."

    A year and a half in business for herself had trained Heather to go for the jugular. "I'll put together a complete proposal. In addition to the computer audit, I recommend that you hire my agency to handle on-site surveillance. I can practically guarantee that you'll have holes in your computer security. That doesn't mean that's where your leaks are coming from."

    "I'm only interested in the computers," he answered.

    His quick rejection of her suggestion piqued her curiosity. Clearly money wasn't the issue. In her wildest dreams, she wouldn't charge enough to make a company of Wildfire's size notice. So why was he dead set on ignoring her advice?

    "It's your money," she told him. "You want me to do only half the job, I'll do half the job."

    "Fine." Eastland gave her a smile that showed a row of perfect teeth set against a deeply tanned face.

    She almost choked at his smile. No man had a right to look that good. Maybe he really was an actor. She'd certainly stand in line to watch him.

    Abruptly he ended his smile and nodded.

    Heather felt like she'd had the wind knocked out of her. That wonderful, warm, confiding, smile had been a fraud, an act. If he wasn't an actor, he should be. And not just because he was pretty to look at. He stood and looked to the door. "When can I expect the report?" "I have no idea."

    That got his attention. His eyes snapped back to her. "Exactly what is that supposed to mean?"

    "I already told you, I've got to check you out. Once I do, I'll put together a proposal. I'll estimate how much time and how much money the job is likely to cost."

    "Let me rephrase my question, then. When can I expect the proposal?" Heather picked up her desk calendar and examined it closely. As she'd suspected, her August schedule remained distressingly similar to September and July--nearly blank. "Why don't you come by tomorrow afternoon. I'll be able to give you an estimate then." Eastland pulled a thin book from his suit jacket pocket and examined it closely. "I can get free between two and two-thirty."

"That should be plenty of time."

    He nodded curtly. "I'll see you then."

    Heather stood and held out her hand. A handshake wasn't a legal tie, but it tended to put people on more personal terms. The last thing she needed was for him to take his business elsewhere, especially since she was going to the trouble of putting together a proposal. Customers didn't seem to understand that a proposal is half the job. Jack's hand swallowed hers.

    At his touch, a tiny thrill went through her body, almost like static electricity, except it couldn't have been that since she felt certain Jack Eastland would never allow human things like static electricity into his life.

    He tightened his grip enough to let her feel his controlled power, then released.

    "If I have any questions--" she started.

    "You have my card. I'll instruct my secretary to page me without asking you anything."

    "That should do it. See you at two."

    Heather watched as he turned and strode toward the door. Something about him didn't quite fit. Sure, rich businessmen were dangerous. But Jack Eastland looked dangerous in a more active way than any simple executive should. He looked more like a man who'd take an enemy and break him in half than he did a capitalist out to exploit workers and customers.

    Although he stood over six feet tall, Jack didn't move awkwardly. In fact, he somehow managed to step without a sound on the squeaky step she'd spent so much time installing outside her office. She revised her initial thoughts about the man. He might be bringing in some valuable business, but she wondered what his business would end up costing her.

    * * * *

    Jack checked off Heather Webb's name from his list and grabbed a taxi. He had time to visit another agency before lunch. With luck, he could finish this grunt work this week and get back to his real job. With her honey-blonde hair, hazel eyes, and legs that didn't know where to stop, Heather had been nice to look at. Unfortunately, she also seemed to see too much. He wasn't certain she'd bought much of his story. Still, she'd agreed to prepare a proposal--after she checked him out. He wasn't worried about her checkup. In his line of work, fail-safe paper trails were automatic.

    He wondered how much Heather would try to gouge him for. Since he had no intention of actually buying anything, that wasn't much of an issue. Before she could put together a proposal, she'd have to do enough research to tell him what he needed to know.

    Jack checked his notes on the next agency. This one was supposed to be even slimier than Heather's.

    "Where too?" the driver demanded. His distinct Russian accent made him almost incomprehensible.

    "Nineteenth and M," Jack answered, absently slipping into Russian to match the driver's accent.

    The driver gave him a sharp look and floored the engine. He probably thought Jack was KGB, set to reactivate him.

    * * * *

    Heather took a yogurt from her office refrigerator and returned to her desk. Everything seemed to check, but it bothered her. Jack Eastland was too perfect--a rich man who just walked in off the street to offer her a legitimate job.

    Private detectives don't stay in business without learning to suspect everyone, especially anyone desperate enough to want to hire a detective.

    She wiped her forehead and checked her desk clock. In an hour of intensive computer digging, Eastland came up clean.

    His recently deceased father had supposedly left him more money than he knew what to do with, although the father had lived in a modest Texas suburb and left almost no computer record at all. With the new-found wealth, Eastland had bought a couple of companies. Wildfire was his latest and largest acquisition.

    More interesting than what she found on Eastland was what she didn't find. After a normal high school and college career, he had almost dropped off the computer trace.

    That might mean he was just careful. Or it might point at organized crime. His low profile father with all the money pointed at the same thing. Despite what her parents thought, Heather didn't consider all businessmen the equivalent of the Mafia. Capitalism might be theft, as they claimed, but it was thievery without broken kneecaps and midnight executions.

    The mob often took over and cleaned out mid-sized companies. If they had taken over Wildfire, they would put in an apparently clean front man. Eastland looked dangerous enough to lead a gang and tough enough to stay in control.

    He'd be a perfect choice.

    The job he'd hired her to do made some sense. In today's world, the mob would want to make sure their computers were leak free. The whole world knew how the FBI loved breaking into Mafia books and fingering the men with the money.

    An organized-crime involvement could explain Eastland's unwillingness to let her extend the investigation to the rest of the company. He knew what she'd find. Still, wouldn't the Mafia have their own computer


    The floorboard outside her office creaked and she looked up. "Darling, we've finished the Andreson audit." Heather's mother, Karen, peered at her through Coke-bottle-thick glasses and handed over a neatly typeset report.

    When she'd gone into business as a private investigator, Heather had been concerned about having her parents as employees. Things had worked out wonderfully. Karen and Pete had worked incredibly hard and asked for almost nothing. She knew she was prejudiced, but she had never managed to reconcile her feelings for them with the notion that they were most-wanted criminals.

    "Anything special?" she asked. Andreson had been another bluebird, like Wildfire. They hadn't been able to pay much, but it gave her parents something to do and at least contributed to the outrageous rent she had to pay for her office and the two apartments overhead. "You'd think that people would at least close up a few of the holes in their systems," her mother said with a sigh. "I guess this one is a little unusual because of the Middle-Eastern connection." "What's that?" All she needed was the licensing bureau breathing down her neck about some international reporting requirement. Her mother waved her hand vaguely. "It turns out that Andreson is owned by one of the countries over there." Then she brightened. "They've got a dedicated satellite link back to the headquarters and it's almost completely wide open. And the company has got to have government connections because you can go everywhere once you get there." If Heather gave her mother a chance, she'd rattle for hours about her computers. For all Heather had told Jack Eastland about being a general purpose agency, her parents' computer skills meant that computer audits formed the bulk of their business. More importantly, the work let her parents do something they loved while contributing to the agency. Heather preferred the part of the job hackers called social engineering. This hands-on side of computer security involved basic PI work--investigating, garbalogy, and tricking people into revealing what they didn't know they knew. Given her druthers, she let her parents handle the computer end and spend her time snooping.

    "I'm glad you've finished that audit," Heather told her mother. "I need your help with a proposal for a company called Wildfire." Her mother's eyes widened and she collapsed into Heather's office chair. She shook her head firmly. "Don't touch it."

    Karen had as much business sense as a pussycat, and she knew it. She had never before given Heather advice on how to run her company. "I thought there might be a mob connection," Heather suggested. "Still, I can't put a finger on anything." She looked her mother in the eyes. "What do you know about it? We could really use the money."

    "I don't know if things are changed, but Wildfire was founded back in the eighties as a front to fund the Contras," Karen said. Heather sagged in her chair. That could mean the Mafia, whom the CIA sometimes used as a cover. It could mean the CIA itself. And the CIA was far worse than a Mafia connection. If the government was on to her now, she might have to give up everything she had worked for and head back to the road.

    Could Jack Eastland's interest have any connection to the audit her mother had just finished? Middle Eastern contacts, Contras, CIA. Odd that it should all turn up in her office at the same time. And that phone call she'd gotten just before Jack showed up--from a man with a faintly threatening voice and an exotic accent. Work as a private investigator had taught Heather to distrust coincidence. Still, Heather left vast conspiracy theories to her parents. "That Contra stuff was years ago," she said. "Our prospective client recently bought Wildfire. Surely they've gone legit."

    Karen shook her head. "Possibly," she said. She didn't look like she believed it. Absently, she got up, stood in front of Heather's computer, and started tapping on the keyboard.

    Heather pushed back her chair and observed. She never failed to learn something when she watched her mother work. While she couldn't even begin to imitate the Zen-like oneness her mother achieved with the computer, she certainly could learn a few of the basic tricks Karen used instinctively.

    Rather than attempt the Wildfire system, her mother found a floating bulletin board where hackers hang out, and scrolled through the archives.

    "Bern Nylands tried a hack on them about two months ago," she finally announced.


    "And he dropped out of sight about a week later. Nobody's heard from him since."

    "I hardly think the government is going to hold someone incommunicado for two months because they try to break into a CIA company," Heather remonstrated. "Besides, hackers are always disappearing. Weren't you telling me yesterday that half the hackers you know have dropped out of sight? Surely they weren't all stupid enough to try to break into the CIA."

    Her mother crossed her arms in front of her chest. "You don't have to tell me I'm paranoid, sweetheart. My paranoia has kept us alive for a couple of decades on the run. Maybe I'm being overly cautious. Still, something about this just doesn't feel right." She paused and patted Heather on the shoulder. "Do we really need the money?" "Not that bad." Whether Wildfire was involved with Mafia money as she'd

    first suspected, or with the CIA, she couldn't afford to expose her parents to the risk.

    "Why don't you join us for dinner?" Karen asked her.

    One drawback to living in the apartment adjacent to her parents, Heather thought for perhaps the thousandth time, was that it gave them far too much insight into exactly how free her free time was.

    "No thanks, Mom. I've got some calls to make."

    Dunning clients wasn't the most glamorous part of her job, but Heather was good at it. After turning down Wildfire, she'd have to be damn good if they were going to pay the rent next month.

    "All right. Let me know when we get our next job." Her mother left the Andreson report on Heather's desk and headed back toward her apartment. Heather waited until her mother had left, then dialed Jack Eastland's number. The ring sounded funny, as if coming from a satellite link rather than from an office down the street. While she waited for an answer, she yielded to her impulse and tapped her PC into the reverse listing phone directory, checking the number to see if it matched up with Wildfire.

    It came back as unlisted. If it was a private line or an answering service, that could make sense. Still, it troubled her. Companies normally sought business, they didn't hide from it.

    Finally a woman answered, repeating back the number Heather had dialed with no elaboration.

    "I'd like to leave a message for Mr. Eastland," Heather explained. "One minute."

    The sharp click told her she'd been put on hold. Not exactly the type of response she'd expect from a CEO's secretary. But this was lunch hour. Maybe she'd gotten the reception desk.

    "Ms. Webb, Mr. Eastland can meet you immediately. He's at the Columbia House coffee shop right now."

    "How did you know who I--" the dial tone told her she'd been cut off. Weird. She was certain she'd dialed the code to block Caller ID--it was an automatic gesture, like looking both ways before crossing the street, or making sure she knew where the back exit was before sitting down to eat. She must have dialed it. So how did Wildfire know who she was?

    Money or no, she was feeling better about her decision to drop this job.

    On impulse she typed out a bill for the time she'd wasted on Eastland's project. Maybe she shouldn't charge him for a proposal. Then again, she certainly wasn't in the business of giving out free samples. * * * *

    "Glad you were quick," Eastland greeted her. He'd already claimed the farthest booth from the door and taken the seat that allowed him to

    see anyone coming in. A couple of open cream packages on the table near his half-filled coffee cup made it clear he hadn't just arrived. The slight bulge under his left arm hadn't been there that morning or she would have tossed him from her office without any discussion. It was there now.

    No way would Heather take the seat across from a man with a gun. Especially a man who insisted on sitting where he could watch the entrances.

    She sat beside him, pressing her shoulder lightly against his right arm. She'd been around guns enough to want to know if he started to move suddenly.

    Unfortunately, she also found herself in contact with a hard mass of muscle. Eastland's scent didn't match the polished finish of his suit. Rather than an expensive cologne, he smelled like soap and man. It made him seem more human, somehow. Sexy, too.

    What was she thinking about? She was about to turn down a job from a guy with a gun and she was suddenly fantasizing about his body next to hers. She plopped his case folder in front of him and called out for a decaf. She didn't need a caffeine high now.

    "I thought we were going to meet tomorrow. What's the emergency?" Eastland asked.

    "And I thought you were seriously interested in doing business with the Webb Agency. Which of us got fooled more, do you think?" Did she only imagine that his muscled arm tightened against her side, twitching with his desire to pull his gun to seize control of a suddenly more dangerous situation?

    "I think a computer security audit for Wildfire is a fairly serious piece of business, Heather," he answered.

    "I've prepared a bill for the work I've done so far, Mr. Eastland," she replied, keeping it professional. "Do you want to read my report or have me summarize it for you?"

    "I wasn't under the impression that I had a bill coming." "You've got a lot of things coming if you think you can just walk into a place with a line like you pulled on me."

    He looked positively mystified.

    For a moment, she wondered if her mother could have been mistaken. "Can you give me a summary of what you found, please?" he asked. The moment dissipated. If he was really who he pretended to be, he'd get up and walk away now.

    "Certainly," she told him. "Since you get the bill, you get the report as well. I've made the bill out to Jack Eastland but feel free to change it to whatever name you think fits."

    She shifted slightly so her thigh touched his. She wanted to pick up on any body language he sent.

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