Lucas Johnson strode purposefully through the entrance of an apartment building in downtown Chicago. While he looked casual and relaxed in dark blue jeans and a lightweight charcoal blazer over a black shirt, his eyes were sharp and alert. A pretty, full-figured woman passed him in the lobby, giving him an open look of interest and appreciation. At six feet two inches tall with a lean, athletic build, he was hard to miss. Lucas flashed a wide, flirty grin and she winked back. His pretty face and disarming smile suggested a naughty playboy, not a brilliant and lethal former government agent.
“How far are you from the target?”
The question came from Raymond Blunt through the tiny earpiece in Lucas’s ear. Raymond was an agent at Fortis, the full solution security and asset protection firm owned and managed by Lucas and his two best friends, Evan DaCosta and Sam Mackenzie. They had a team of twenty-two highly trained and uniquely skilled field specialists, technicians, and operations analysts with experience from all branches of elite government service.
Lucas had three men with him on the ground for this operation. Their objective was to shut down a small-time black hat hacker named Timothy Pratt who had tried to infiltrate their client’s secure computer system with a sophisticated Trojan horse program.
“We’re inside, heading into the stair wells,” advised Lucas.
The other two Fortis agents were entering the building from different access points and linked into the connected earpieces.
“Okay, the signal is coming from the fifth floor,” confirmed Raymond from his position providing surveillance support from their rented truck parked down the street. “According to the building schematics, you’re looking for the third unit on your right from the west staircase.”
Lucas was now at the base of the staircase closest to him.
“Ned, you take the east stairs,” he instructed. “Lance, take the elevators and I will approach the target from my end. We’ll converge on the apartment door. I’ll make contact, with both of you as backup in the wings.”
“Got it,” confirmed Ned Bushby. Like Lucas, he was a former Secret Service agent.
“Confirmed,” added Lance Campbell, an ex–Army Ranger.
Lucas ran up the staircase, two steps at a time. The hall on the fifth floor of the building was empty, except for Lance as he exited the elevator. Ned came through the other exit door only seconds later. The three men crept swiftly and quietly to apartment 514. Ned and Lance took positions next to the door, hands hovering near the grips of their concealed pistols. Lucas gave them both a signal with his hand and knocked.
There was no answer.
The men looked at each other. Lucas knocked again.
“There’s no answer, Raymond,” Lucas stated in the earpiece.
“Well, the system’s on and running, so it may be an automated program,” Raymond replied. He came to Fortis after twelve years with the NSA, and next to Lucas, was their top systems and security specialist.
“Do we have any activity from the target?” asked Lucas in a whisper.
“Negative. No cellular phone usage since nine forty-three a.m.,” Raymond confirmed. “And the phone’s GPS signal is still in the apartment.”
It was now almost eleven-fifteen on Friday morning. Lucas looked at his two men, putting up two fingers to indicate their plan B. He then took out a small, pointed tool from his back pocket, inserted it into the door lock, and picked the standard residential lock in under twelve seconds. The deadbolt took another ten seconds. The three men slipped into the apartment silently, guns drawn and ready for any situation. They quickly fanned out from the front entrance into the small, messy studio apartment, checking in the closets and bathroom. The abandoned food containers and discarded clothing everywhere suggested the place was well occupied, but there was nobody home. A laptop was set up on the kitchen counter.
“Raymond, we’re in,” Lucas confirmed. “The computer is here.”
“Boss,” stated Lance from the living area. “He couldn’t have gone far. His cell phone and wallet are on the coffee table.”
Lucas nodded. He was already turning on the laptop to assess the tech.
“Let’s be out of here in ten minutes,” he told Ned and Lance. “You guys see if you can find any info that can identify his motives. I’ll need at least seven minutes to clone the system and shut down the Trojan.”
He did a quick inspection of the equipment, a standard, off-the-shelf laptop connected to a wireless modem. The operating system was another story. Lucas quickly bypassed the secure login and accessed the system administrative functions before connecting a small jump drive to one of the USB ports. It contained a highly complex program that he had designed, meant to wirelessly transmit a cloned version of the desktop, operating system, and hard drive of the target system. It also left behind a passive rootkit software that would allow Lucas and the Fortis team undetected access to the computer and connected networks.
“Raymond, I’ve started the clone,” he advised.
“Yup, the data is coming through here,” Raymond confirmed through the earpiece.
“Good, we’re at forty percent transmission. It should be done in three minutes.”
Lucas did a few more configurations to the programming code in the admin program, then backed out of the system, erasing all traces of his presence until not even the most elite intrusion detection specialist could sniff his activities. He put the computer back in sleep mode just as the data transfer was complete.
“Got it, Lucas,” noted Raymond. “The info looks complete.”
“Good. We’ll be out of here in one minute.” He turned to the other agents as they completed their careful search of the apartment. “Anything?”
“Nothing,” Lance replied.
“I got this,” added Ned, holding up a couple of empty, used bank envelopes. “Whatever Pratt’s up to, he’s being paid in cash.”
The team did one final sweep to ensure everything was as they found it. Then they exited, locking the door behind them, and split up to meet with Raymond at their rented truck a block down the street. Ten minutes later, they were headed out of the city, back to the Fortis chopper grounded at a private heliport fifteen miles outside of the Chicago city limits.
“So, what are we dealing with here, Lucas?” asked Lance. “From what we saw, Pratt looks more like a messy college kid than a corporate hacker.”
“He is a kid,” added Raymond. “He just graduated from Johns Hopkins a year ago, with mediocre grades and an unremarkable college life. Up until January, he was doing tech support at Best Buy in Maryland.”
“So what happened three months ago and why’s he in Chicago trying to break into the computer network at Magnus Motorsports in Toronto?” continued Lance.
“Hactivism maybe?” asked Ned.
“I don’t think so,” Lucas replied. “Magnus is a relatively small player in custom race car components. Their latest project is a high-performance, fuel-efficient hybrid engine. Not really something to upset any political or social groups.”
“When Marco Passante hired us last year to set up a secure computer network and data backup system, was it just the timing of their new technology, or was he worried about a particular threat?” Raymond questioned, referring to the president and owner of Magnus.
“At the time, he suggested their technology had the potential to be revolutionary, and highly coveted in the auto industry,” Lucas told them. “He talked about general concerns that his competitors would try to steal or destroy the work. Something that happens pretty often in the racing industry, apparently.”
“Well, Pratt’s not good enough to have built that Trojan we just shut down. He has no online portfolio or footprint to suggest he’s an active hacker,” Raymond added. “Looks to me like someone has set him up as a script kiddie for several months to go after information that has to be worth a big return on the investment. So either Passante had great foresight, or there is more to this client engagement than we thought.”
“Raymond, my man, you’ve read my mind,” Lucas concurred as they arrived back at the small airport in north suburban Chicago. “Once they’ve detected that we’ve shut down this attack, whoever’s funding Pratt will have to find another way to get what they’re looking for. Since the full Magnus network is self-contained in a local, private system within their building in Toronto, any additional attacks will be directed on-site. So, I need to have a more transparent conversation with our client and rescope this project.”
They all piled out of the rented truck and began loading up their chopper.
“Question,” interrupted Lance while they worked. “What the hell is a script kiddie?”
Lucas and Raymond exchanged looks of disgust.
“How do you not know this stuff?” demanded Raymond with a shake of his head.
“Because I’m not a geek,” the ex-Ranger shot back.
Lucas grinned, and Raymond shrugged since neither was the least bit offended.
“A script kiddie, or a skiddie, is not skilled enough to design their own programs,” explained Lucas. “So, they use tools and scripts built by other hackers.”
“Got it,” Lance replied, looking even less interested in tech-talk than before. “So maybe Pratt’s just a lackey here. Maybe we should be looking for the person that developed the program he used.”
“Not necessary. I already know who designed the Trojan program,” Lucas stated with a dry smile. “It’s called AC12 and it’s been around for a while.”
The others looked at him with various degrees of surprise.
“AC12?” repeated Raymond. “Are you sure? I worked on a few instances at the NSA. It’s an ugly fucker, nearly impossible to disarm without wiping your whole system clean.”
There was a pregnant pause.
“I’m sure,” Lucas finally confirmed. “I build it in my freshman year at MIT.”
Two days later, Lucas landed at the Billy Bishop Airport on the Toronto Islands in Lake Ontario. He headed straight into the city to check into his hotel, a short block away from the Magnus Motorsports shop and offices. A couple of hours later, he was unpacked in his room and seated at a table in the hotel’s lobby restaurant for dinner. He was scheduled to meet with Marco Passante first thing Monday morning.
Lucas was not a big fan of hotels. During his career as a cybersecurity consultant with the Secret Service, he’d spent many nights in cold, cramped rooms around the world. Even ones as nice and fancy as the five-star Metropolitan didn’t come close to the comforts of home. The only advantage they offered, hopefully, was a decent restaurant and a selection of imported beer. Maybe a beautiful stranger to share the bed with for a night or two.
Like the woman who just walked into the room, he thought. Now there was someone who could make this trip more enjoyable. Around five feet eight inches tall, this woman was slender in a tight dress, long, bare legs, and stiletto heels. Since it was April and raining hard outside, Lucas concluded she was a guest at the hotel, possibly alone. Perfect circumstances and exactly his type.
He took another drink from his beer bottle, watching unobtrusively as the hostess directed the attractive woman to a dinner table across the room from his. Her hips swayed gently with each step, and she tossed her long brown hair with confidence. He relaxed back again, patiently anticipating how the evening would unfold. If she remained alone, Lucas would invite her to join him for dinner.
“Sorry! I’m just going to steal this seat for a second,” announced a feminine voice. “These boots were definitely the wrong choice for tonight.”
In the chair across from him, all he could see was the flat of the woman’s back. She was bent over, doing something under the table, muttering swear words like a trucker. Lucas’s lips quirked and he took another sip of his beer.
“Who designs these torture devices?” she added while straightening up.
He followed her hands as she gestured to her legs encased in a pair of very high and very sexy black leather boots. They went past her knees, but the table cut off the rest of his view. Lucas had to resist leaning forward to see where they ended, but his imagination was now fully engaged.
“Definitely a man,” he replied smoothly.
She finally turned in the chair to look at him. Lucas paused, caught by the intensity in her large golden brown eyes. He also noticed her creamy caramel skin, pink shiny lips, and a mass of jet-black, curly dreadlocks falling well below her shoulders.
“What?” she asked, clearly confused.
“Those boots were definitely designed by a man,” he stated with a wide smile.
She finally blinked, then looked back at her feet.
“You’re right. Explains why I can’t stand in them for more than an hour at a time,” she muttered.
“I don’t think they were meant for that kind of action,” Lucas added, giving her a wicked grin.
The woman looked at him again, assessing him intensely. Her frank stare was strangely unnerving, but he fought the urge to look away.
“You’re pretty,” she finally said. It didn’t sound like a compliment. “Thanks for letting me get off my feet for a minute.”
“Stay as long as you’d like,” he offered casually, sipping his bottle again.
Her eyes narrowed, and her gaze lowered to his lips. Lucas felt the start of a low, familiar pulse in the base of his stomach. She licked those plump, pink lips, and the pulse deepened.
“I’m Lucas, by the way,” he added when the silence between them stretched uncomfortably.
She blinked again, then smiled broadly. Lucas stopped breathing, while the pulse deepened to a full throb. Wow, she was gorgeous.
“Thanks, Lucas, but I’m good now.”
She stood, allowing him to see her full length. Lucas rose to his feet also, noted her height and soft curves. The boots ended a few inches above her knees where shiny, latex-covered thighs continued, topped with a white crisp men’s-style button-down shirt. But only her eyes kept his attention. They widened with surprise as he stepped closer, topping her by at least six inches. Her brows knitted, then she brushed past him without another word. Lucas turned to watch her walk away as the scent of sweet vanilla and brown sugar lingered softly in her wake.