The pounding in Richard’s head was incessant. With a groan, he felt something hit his forehead. It only took a moment for him to realize that it was his own hand. Working his fingers to massage the delicate skin of his brow, he mentally berated himself for having that last shot of Jaeger last night. Or was it technically this morning? That was a big mistake.
Coffee, he needed coffee and he needed it now. He wasn’t quite sure how he managed to untangle himself from his sheets and the limbs of the girl sleeping next to him. Stacy, Sheila, Shannon? His groggy mind tossed around names as he stumbled into his kitchen. Ugh, it was too early to try and remember her name. He knew it started with an “s,” or at least he was pretty sure it did. Scratching his bare chest, he blinked the sleep out of his eyes. The grains felt like large pebbles instead of the tiny pieces they were, and he popped a k-cup into his Keurig. Just as the rich aroma of his favorite blonde roast filled his post party cluttered kitchen, the banging in his head seemed to somehow transfer to his front door.
“Alright, alright! Owwww!” Richard somehow made it to the door, swinging it open, “Do ya mind? It’s---“ he blinked into the fluorescent light of his building’s hallway before focusing on the two people standing in front of him. He actually had no idea what hour it was, or even the day. “Well, there’s never any good time to bang on anyone’s door.”
“Christ Almighty,” gasped a female voice that echoed in the hall.
“Nope, you just missed him, ‘bout 2,015 years ago, but thanks for calling, ‘bye.” Richard moved to slam the door in the wide eyed face of the petite woman in front of him, but the man beside her slapped his palm against the particle board wood, preventing it from closing.
“Mr. Mason, we’re with the FBI—“ both the man and woman quickly flipped open badges in Richard’s face, “---I’m Special Agent Wilson and this is my partner, Special Agent Carney. May we come in and have a few words?”
Richard sighed, letting the door swing open before he turned to head for the kitchen as he scratched his bare bottom, “I guess.”
Agent Carney cleared her throat as her heeled steps clattered on the floor behind him. “Um, do you think you could, ahem, cover yourself?”
Richard pulled his full mug from the machine and threw a few spoonfuls of sugar in it. Swirling the spoon around in the mug, he turned to look at the woman who was standing awkwardly in the furthest corner of his tiny kitchen, staring pointedly at a brown water stain on the ceiling.
“Well, Agent Carney---“ Richard leaned back against his counter, crossing his feet at the ankles as he blew on his coffee, “you’re in my house invading my personal time. I think I should be able to dress however I see fit. Or not.” He issued a tight smile in her direction that she barely caught when she lowered her eyes a fraction before lifting them once more to the spot on the ceiling. From the looks of her ill-fitting suit, dirty blonde hair pulled back into a severe pony-tail and sensible black shoes, she probably didn’t get to see many naked 22 year olds. He thought about making his pecs dance for her but considered that might be going too far. He didn’t need a woman swooning in his kitchen, he already had one in his bed.
“Hey, hot stuff, just cover up a bit so my partner can do her job, ok?” Agent Wilson was staring at Richard disapprovingly, his hands hiked up on his hips. Richard was instantly reminded of his father and a corner of his upper lip curled slightly in a snarl. His dad used to stand in the same manner, with the same look of condescension clouding his brown eyes and wrinkling his brow.
Richard grabbed a dish towel and draped it across his hips. Despite his lean 6 foot 3 frame, the towel didn’t quite wrap around, but some careful tucking would keep it in place if he didn’t move.
Agent Carney’s grey eyes flickered in his direction once again, while shifting uncomfortably from foot to foot. “You only have one?”
“That’s clean, yeah, there’s a whole roll of paper towels on that shelf behind you if you’d care to wrap me up. But really doll, I’m not into the whole mummy fantasy.” He quickly hid his smirk in his mug as he took another sip.
A large sigh from Agent Wilson as he shook his bald head gave the blushing Carney a good distraction. “Look can we just get on with it?”
Agent Carney nodded to her exasperated partner as she bit her bottom lip, steeling herself to the task at hand. Richard wondered at her age. She didn’t look fresh from the academy, but she didn’t look more than 27, either. He was unsettling her. At one point, the thought would have thrilled him, but unsettling people, especially women, was getting a little dull.
“Right.” Agent Carney cleared her throat once more before looking at Richard. “We need your help.”
“That much is certain.” Richard took another sip from his coffee, wiggling his eyebrows at her as he lowered the mug, but this time she powered through her speech.
“When you were at MIT, you and your three best friends formed a hacker ring called ‘The New Kingdom.’ After your group crashed the DOW, stole files from the new database set up to manage the nation’s healthcare and rigged the last presidential election, you disbanded. While we are grateful not to be looking over our backs anymore, it seems as if your friends have become active again.”
“Agent Carney, you’ve been misinf---“
“I’m not done.” Agent Carney shook her head, lips tightening into a thin line as though the worst was yet to come. “Your friends seem to be looking for something, something they can’t find and they are destroying the security of cyber intelligence worldwide in their quest to find it. Their correspondence suggests they think it’s hidden in Egypt somewhere, but what we can’t figure out is why they have been slowly destroying the financial and security systems of small countries in their quest to find it.”
“Egypt?” Richard scoffed, “I’m sorry, but you lost me right after ‘you disbanded.’ I left that group for a reason, I don’t do any of that stuff anymore. I’m sorry, but I can’t help.”
“Son, you mean to tell me that after graduating high school at the age of 12 and MIT at 16 that that brain of yours just stopped working?” Agent Wilson was looking up at him from beneath his bushy grey eyebrows. Once again, an image of Richard’s military father flashed before his eyes. He never could figure out how a man shorter than he was could still look up at him like that.
“I’m sorry guys, but I---“
A shuffling noise and a stifled yawn drew all eyes to the doorway of Richard’s room. His mystery girl from last night appeared wearing one of his white t-shirts, her black hair tumbled past her shoulders in messy waves. Richard’s heart felt tight at the sight of her. He couldn’t believe her name was slipping his mind. Her olive skin seemed to glimmer in the shaft of sunlight pouring in through the tiny window in his kitchen, as her lithe frame padded across the small space toward him.
“Hi Peggy, hi Mike.” She fluttered a few fingers and a bright smile in their direction. Richard’s skin felt hot and prickled with adrenaline. She knew them?
“Setne,” Agent Carney nodded in her direction, a look of relief washing over her face.
“Good morning, ahem, Agent Daher.” Now it was Agent Wilson’s turn to sound uncomfortable.
His red face was soon blocked from Richard’s view by a pair of almond shaped brown eyes looking up into his. She pressed her hips into his groin, kissing him, reminding his body just how much fun last night was. A sputtered cough on the other side of the room broke through the haze in his brain as Setne pulled away. She remained inches from his face, looking imploringly into his eyes.
“You’ll help, right?”
Richard swallowed hard, trying to regain control of his faculties. The more his mind flashed through images of the night before, the more he wondered why he had said “no” to the agents standing awkwardly in his kitchen. Then a gruesome memory followed the images of last night’s fun.
“No” Richard shook his head before planting his hands on Setne’s hips and shoving her to the side. “I left that group for a reason, you’re going to have to figure it out on your own.”
Setne turned from him, nonplussed by his refusal and swept a small group of empty beer bottles off the counter and into the sink. Richard cringed at the crashing, shooting her a glare, as she pulled a loaf of bread forward and proceeded to pop two pieces into the toaster. She seemed completely at home, as if, other than last night, this wasn’t the first time she had been in his home. He realized that it probably wasn’t.
As the tiny space filled with the scent of cooking bread, Setne bustled about getting everything she wanted for her breakfast and asking the other agents if they wanted anything. Richard’s mouth hung open in bemused shock. Just who did this woman think she was?
Once the agents had politely refused her attempts to feed them, she returned to the topic at hand.
“Look, we’re sorry about what happened to your mother, it was unfortunate.” She didn’t even give Richard a chance to respond, not that the topic of his mother’s kidnapping and murder was really breakfast conversation. “Did you guys tell him about Egypt?”
“Well, we started to, but…” Agent Carney’s defense trailed off.
Setne offered a dazzling smile that seemed to calm Carney’s nerves before pressing on.
“Yes,” she turned narrowed eyes at Richard, “we managed to capture one of your old friends and he keeps going on and on about Egypt, sand, pyramids, and sarcophagi….”
She threw an exasperated hand in the air, before grabbing a knife and buttering her toast with a little more energy than necessary. Richard felt a small stab of satisfaction when she ripped a hole in the middle.
Through gritted teeth, Setne continued, “We just can’t figure out what Egypt has to do with this book they seem to be looking for. We’ve been watching them for months now, and neither they nor any of their associates have made any plans to visit the country or make contacts within it. We also don’t see why a bunch of hackers would have a need for a book.”
Richard shrugged a shoulder with an air of carelessness, “Maybe they need a bed time story. Hackers get scared of the dark too, you know.”
Setne leveled the knife in his direction, eying him down the length of the dull blade. He had no doubt she could probably kill him in twenty different ways with that thing. He had a feeling she was more than FBI. Her movements were too sure and controlled as well as graceful. The fun and easy going image she had presented last night had been quickly shed while talking business. “You know what they’re after, don’t you?”
Richard spread his hands wide with another shrug.
“Well, it’s a shame you don’t. I guess we will just have to work on young Morrison a little longer.”
“You’ve got Skitter?” Richard bolted out of his languid slouch, not caring when the towel plummeted to the floor.
Setne licked at the jelly that had dribbled down the side of her palm, her eyes focused on Richard’s now tense frame. Agent Carney and Wilson, who had been leaning forward, swept up in the tete-a-tete before them, now inched closer.
Setne smiled knowingly. All it took was mentioning the group’s youngest member, and Richard would be caught.
“Picked him up last week,” she said with nonchalance, “He doesn’t care much for isolation, does he?
“Oh no,” Richard breathed. He felt the heat of anger spread across his chest. “No, no he doesn’t.”
Jeremy Morrison, or Skitter, as the group had fondly called him was an autistic genius. He didn’t have the best social skills, but his way around computers, especially encryptions was unparalleled.
Richard pushed away from the counter, stalking towards his bedroom, his angry steps reverberating through the thin floors. The downstairs neighbors would be pissed. He’d probably get kicked out if they complained again. Suddenly he didn’t care.
“Where are you going?” Agent Carney asked all eyes were now on him. Setne looked triumphant, Wilson and Carney concerned.
“To change!” Richard called out over his shoulder before slamming the door on them. He yanked open drawers and began angrily struggling into his clothes.
“You’re going to take me to Skitter!” he shouted at the door.
Agent Wilson looked at the girls incredulously, shaking his head at the outburst. “How’s he supposed to change when he wasn’t wearing anything?”
Setne rolled her eyes as she popped the last bite of toast into her mouth while Carney snorted, a smile playing on the edges of her lips.
By the time Richard entered the white-walled holding cell, where Skitter was kept, his blood was positively boiling. The sixteen year old boy was curled into a fetal position on an empty cot, reciting King Richard III.
“…O coward conscience, how dost thou afflict me! The lights burn blue. It is now dead midnight. Cold fearful drops stand on my trembling flesh…”
Shakespeare was the one thing that could soothe Skitter, and he was always partial to the history plays. Richard smirked at the irony before him, shaking his head. Softly, he began reciting the rest of the monologue with Skitter, and together, they finished the rest of the play.
Skitter hadn’t looked at Richard the entire time they spoke, but as the last word fell between them, he finally lifted his pale blue eyes.
“Hiya kiddo. How’re you holding up?” Richard asked from his cross legged position on the floor. In a flash, Skitter launched himself at Richard, flinging his arms around his neck in a bear hug.
A flow of babbling words erupted from the scrawny kid and despite the chaotic message it didn’t take Richard long to figure out what Skitter was saying. When he, Josh, and Celia had first started the group, they had given all of their jobs themes based on lessons in their other classes. If someone overheard them talking about a hack, most would assume they were discussing a school project instead. History was often one of the easiest subjects to use for covering their tracks, but the legends and myths of various cultures made it even easier. After five minutes, Richard knew everything, even the information he had left the group over.
“Skitter,” Richard placed his hands on the boy’s shoulders, pushing him back to look into his child like face, “Ready to get outta here?”
With a loud sniff and a rub of his sleeve across his nose, Skitter nodded.
“Ok then.” Richard popped his head out into the sterile hallway, and with a glance to the guard on duty asked for Agent Daher. He had found out on his drive to the FBI’s New York headquarters that Setne was with the CIA. This was her three ringed circus and she was the master.
By the time she entered the room, now dressed in an expertly cut pantsuit instead of his t-shirt, Skitter had begun repeating random words again.
“The waters of Coptus…kill the mummies, defend the sand, the pyramids hold the keys to the waters. The waters hide the book…the Book of Tho—“
Richard broke in, “Skitter, calm down, shhhhhh…how does Henry IV start?”
As Skitter began a fresh recital, Richard turned to a bemused Setne, his hands on his hips.
“If you want my help, I want three things.”
“Oh, only three?” Setne laughed short and low.
Richard gave her a quelling look. “Yeah. Skitter gets to go and you don’t press charges, I want the murder of my mother re-opened and it needs to stay open until it’s solved, and lastly…” Richard’s lips curled in disdain as he delivered his final ultimatum. “I want immunity from any further technology related activity I conduct.”
Setne frowned as she considered the options. She paced back and forth in the tiny cell, casting glares at both of the men.
“Look,” she took in a deep breath, “I don’t have the power to grant all of those requests. I can meet the first, but your father has already been charged with your mother’s murder, and I can’t promise you the third without getting higher approval.”
Skitter’s recital was getting louder and he was now jumping on the wafer thin mat of his cot. His energy and the repetitive thumping raised the tension in the room.
Richard crossed his arms, “Did I mention we have a 24 hour time limit? Look, my friends stole something from me, and in the process of selling it on the black market got my mother killed. Yeah, my dad was a controlling asshole, but he worshipped my mother. He would never would’ve hurt her. However, if you want the Book of Thoth, then you’ll have to meet my demands. In 24 hours, its contents will be accessible by multiple buyers, and you’ll have utter chaos on your hands.”
Setne stopped in front of Richard, looking him over carefully. “And how, do you propose to get this program back?”
“Skitter told me everything I already need to know. You give me a computer and access to the government’s network, and I do mean the entire network, 12 hours, and I’ll recover the program.”
“Well now,” Setne tilted her face up, her lips hovered before Richard’s. All he had to do was tilt his head forward a fraction of a centimeter and that mouth would once again belong to him. He swallowed thickly, steeling himself against her charms. “That brings your demands up to six.” Her breath smelled like cinnamon, and it was warm across his bottom lip. Richard remained frozen.
“Fine.” Setne stepped back, breaking the spell, and walked toward the door. “Let’s get to work. Gregory…” She motioned to the guard and gave him orders for Skitter’s release. The moment the boy heard the news of his imminent exit he jumped off the cot and, sailing past Richard, followed the guard down the hall.
“And he didn’t even say goodbye.” Setne tsked, “Some friend.”
Richard scowled at her. “Tick-tock Agent Daher.”
Setne motioned him to follow her and they turned to walk down the hall in the opposite direction from Skitter and the guard. They soon came upon a set of heavy oak doors and after swiping a badge and pressing in codes, they were omitted into another long corridor with grey commercial carpeting and closed office doors lining each side of the hall. Another turn spit them out into a large room, partitioned off with cubicles. Setne smiled and greeted various people they passed, but after a few more heavy doors with tighter and tighter security, the number of people they came across waned. Finally, after stopping in a break room for some surprisingly good coffee and a handful of donuts for Richard, they entered into a large room full of computers.
The room was empty and the monitors black, but Setne logged into the nearest one as Richard pulled out the ergonomic chair.
“So,” she leaned over his shoulder as his fingers flew over the keyboard, instantly working his way through every data base the government had. “Are you going to explain to me what we are looking for and what the connection is with Egypt?”
Without his fingers breaking their stride and his eyes continuously scanning the screen, Richard explained how each of their hacks were given themes often rooted in history or mythology.
“Okay,” Setne’s voice held a layer of skepticism, “What are we looking for.”
“I am looking for a program, broken up into pieces and hidden within the United States government’s infrastructure of databases. The program is called The Book of Thoth and is named after an Egyptian god who was believed to have created the first language and wrote the secrets of the cosmos and life in a book.”
Setne leaned forward further, scrutinizing the screen that was now filling with more windows, covered in various codes. “I’m guessing this program doesn’t contain the secrets to the universe.”
Richard felt prickles of irritation erupt across the back of his neck. There was no way he was going to spend the next twelve hours with her hovering over him like that. If what Skitter had said was true, the book had been very well hidden and he was going to need every minute and every ounce of focus he had. He might have achieve god-like status in the world of cyber intelligence, but a hack like this required usually required more than one person.
“You know what I could really kill for right now?”
Setne straightened up, eyeing him carefully, wondering what his next request would be. Richard kept his eyes on his work.
“I could go for some Twizzlers, Red Bull, and beef jerky. Get me the good stuff, though, none of that Slim Jim shit.”
“Sure,” Setne sounded peeved, “Whatever his royal highness requires.” The minute the door closed behind her, he smirked as he pulled out a thin USB from the inside of his shoe. He quickly plugged it into the back of the computer’s hard drive and created a hidden file from it. He needed to make sure his work was copied and saved automatically.
As the rest of the hours progressed, he routinely sent Setne out on errands for her to get him random things. Each time she’d huff away, but when she came back, she peppered him with questions. He was beginning to wish he had feigned not being able to talk while working. But, she eventually got the story out of him.
The Book was a special program that powered a chip which could be surgically inserted into the brain of an individual that would then send signals that could enhance or suppress certain functions of the brain. Richard had created it based on his neurosurgeon mother’s discoveries. After stealing it from him, his friends had apparently hired another hacker to hide it, but he too had been murdered.
“But why would---“
Her question was cut short by a commotion outside the door of their room. She had been leaning back in a chair with her bare feet kicked up on the desk next to Richard as she massaged him for information. She had already uncovered the Egyptian connection and found out that the names of certain pyramids and temples were code for specific databases. The mummies were security in the form of viruses set to protect each database from being mined for the program, and the sand was coding that Richard had to shift through and work in order to bypass the mummies and access the parts of the program held in sarcophagi.
With gun drawn, Setne tip-toed toward the door. Through the haze of his concentration, Richard heard the safety release on her gun. As she slowly turned the knob of the door, shots rang out on the other side, and the double doors were shoved open. Setne was knocked onto her back and tear gas flooded the room. Richard’s eyes began to burn and water as the smoke traveled to his lungs. The irritating chemicals made each breath scraped his insides with the sharp intensity of razors. Gasping, his body doubled over with wracking coughs and he slid out of his chair, falling onto all fours. Shouts could be heard and the swooshing of fabric as agents entered the room, fully armed and wearing gas masks. Richard could hear Setne’s angry threats as another agent explained that Richard was wanted for arrest and her boss had a few words for her. With watery eyes Richard held his breath and crawled under the desk, promptly removing the USB, stashing it back in his shoe. Seeing a small gap of light from the open door, he struggled to hold his coughs in, army crawling toward the opening. Just as his hand extended over the threshold, he was grabbed beneath his arms, a black cloth thrown over his face, his wrists and ankles zip tied. He was immediately lifted and carried off. He choked and sputtered, the cloth getting stuck in his mouth as he struggled for fresh air. Before he knew it, he felt weightless before he landed chest down on a hard surface. His captors had been silent the entire time and after he heard the sound of a van door sliding shut and the felt the ground beneath him jerk and rumble forward, the cloth was lifted from his head.
The faces that entered his view were that of Josh and Celia. Josh was dressed in black combat gear and was clearly one of his captors, Celia was dressed in a blouse and trousers. Since he had never seen her out of her favorite Gap jeans, he knew she must have posed as someone who worked in the building.
“Hiya, Richie! I brought help!” Skitter’s enthusiastic voice rang out from the driver’s seat as the van took a corner sharply. Richard rolled across the floor as Josh and Celia gripped parts of the interior for support.
“Damn it Skitter!” Josh groaned, “Try to be more careful, would ya? We don’t want them following us!”
“They probably already are,” said Richard, hopefully, as Celia cut his bindings.
“Nahhhh, trust me, we’re good. It’s all taken care of,” responded Josh. “And, look.” He handed Richard a laptop with a wifi card protruding from its side. “Now you can finish what you started.”
“Now, why would I do that?” Richard placed his palm down on the laptop, caressing its smooth surface. Despite the day’s events, he was always seduced by the latest in technology and this laptop in particular called to him.
“Well, I’m sure you’d like your program back, wouldn’t ya? And, if you help, I can give you the case file on your mother. It’s under some pretty tight security clearances.” Josh smiled at Richard. This was the second time today he felt had.
“Yeah, and Agent Daher is not as innocent as she looks.” Intoned Celia.
Make that the third.
“Fine.” Richard groaned, opening the lid and getting back to work. “Just one question.”
“Sure.” Offered Josh.
“Who did you sell it to?”
“The Iranians, the Russians, and Syria.”
“All at once?”
Josh nodded his head sheepishly.
“And a few other smaller countries…” Celia’s voice came out in a bit of a squeak.
“Shit, I can’t think of any better countries who need the power of creating custom sociopaths.” Richard disarmed the last mummy virus, “You know that wasn’t the intent of this program.” He pounded the keys, retrieving the sand from the sarcophagus the mummy had been guarding.
The van finally slammed to a halt, causing everyone to pitch forward. Seeing his opportunity, Richard bolted toward the door, flinging it open. The old metal screeched in protest and the sound echoed across the twilight air. Realizing that they had stopped across from the Hudson Pier, Richard sprinted toward the railing, not slowing for the cries of his friends behind him or the pounding of their feet as they chased him. Richard wasn’t as much of an athlete as Josh and it wasn’t long before his footsteps got closer. Still a few feet from the water, Richard chucked the laptop in the river with a satisfying splash. The momentum of his sprint caused him to slam into the railing, the force shoving the air out of his lungs in a loud whoosh.
“Damn it Richard!” Josh’s volley of curses rented the air.
Celia finally caught up with Skitter in tow. “Oh Richard, why?”
“That’s not what it’s for,” replied Skitter, cutting off Richard’s attempted defense.
“You’re right, Skitter,” sighed Richard, staring out into the darkening waters. “That’s not what the water is for.”
Skitter shook his head, “Your Mom would be proud.”
“See,” Richard turned to his old friends before clapping Skitter on the shoulder. “He’s the only one of us who makes sense.”
As the President walked into the room followed by his joint chiefs of staff, Setne was glad the table hid the crossing and uncrossing of her ankles. This was it, her big moment. The disaster of two days ago were a distant memory and paled to her bright future that flashed across her mind. Sure they had lost the hackers, but when a USB had arrived by air express yesterday, containing all of the key strokes from Richard’s work she knew she had been saved. Once the President had settled in his chair, she was called upon to give her presentation. With clamoring heart and sweaty palms, she inserted the USB into the computer connected to the projector. After typing in a password that came with the package, she clicked on the little icon in the corner of the screen.
A window popped up, filling the projected space. Setne frowned, this didn’t look right. As her hand reached for the mouse, noises of an intimate nature spilled through the speakers and a split second later a home film began to play. Images of her and Richard moved across the screen.
Setne froze. Public humiliation in front of the President? She would have preferred death.