CHAPTER ONE Present Day
Theft came in all shapes and sizes, from grand to small, from violent to peaceful. For Sean Rogan, the most satisfying robbery was stealing from someone who was a criminal, because the victim would never report the break-in. It was also the most dangerous.
The safest theft, and almost as satisfying, was stealing information so the victim never knew they’d been targeted. This was the type of crime where Sean excelled and why his former mentor and friend Colton Thayer had for years wanted him to rejoin the group. It was why Sean had quit the family business. Now there was no turning back.
The target was the CEO of a pharmaceutical company, Pham-Bonner Medical Solutions. PBM was primarily a cancer research company, but they also had their fingers in many other medical pies. They created low-cost vaccines for common diseases, for example. And they had a small division that experimented with vaccines and cures for biological weapons, like anthrax and ricin.
A week before he quit RCK, Sean hacked into PBM to pull vaccine documentation because Colton believed they’d accidentally contaminated a shipment of vaccines with a bio-toxin and were working double time to cover it up. He had some circumstantial evidence pulled from news feeds and press releases, but Colton wanted to destroy the company because he blamed them for the death of his brother, Travis.
The problem was Colton couldn’t break through their network, and he had been reaching out to Sean to take the job. It was blatantly illegal, something Duke would never have approved even if it wasn’t at the behest of Colton, but the assignment gave Sean an in with Colton. A way to regain his trust.
What Sean found was far more worrisome than a cover-up that hadn’t actually resulted in any deaths. It appeared that PBM was not only researching cures for bio-toxins but also creating a bio-weapon themselves. They had a government contract to provide vaccines to low-income communities, but Sean could find no contract that gave them permission to experiment in biological weapons.
Unfortunately, there were only hints and no solid evidence or documentation accessible through their network. That meant Sean needed to go on-site.
The safest way to get on-site was to clone a badge. That’s what this exercise tonight was for. The only problem was that Sean didn’t think Colton’s philanthropic concern about a private company creating biological weapons was the only reason Colton wanted to get inside the building. Ten years ago, it would have been enough. Today, Sean knew that Colton was working for someone else. Someone whose identity Colton wouldn’t confide to Sean.
Sean took a long, slow breath as he straightened his bow tie. After tonight, there was no going back.
Skye Jansen walked up next to him and looked at their reflection in the hotel mirror, her dark lipstick glistening against her perfect, straight teeth. “You’re still gorgeous in a tux, Sean.”
He caught her eyes in the reflection. “Stop.”
She gave him a fake quizzical look, her chin tilting defiantly. There was no doubt in his mind that Skye knew exactly what she was doing, but she’d never admit it.
He stepped away from Skye, not overly concerned about his appearance. The tux was a fail-safe—in case he was caught, it would be better if he appeared to be a guest at the museum charity event and not a thief. But he wouldn’t be caught. This was something he was particularly good at.
Correction: He wouldn’t be caught if everyone on his team did their job right.
This was the third crime Sean had committed in as many weeks, all in preparation for the big job at Pham-Bonner Medical. Sean hoped he’d learn exactly what Colton had planned before Thursday night’s job; otherwise he’d be going in blind. He was already getting nervous. He’d known Skye, Colton, and Hunter Nash since college, but two were new to Colton’s group and Sean didn’t trust either one of them. He’d been quietly checking into their backgrounds, but so far nothing stood out.
What really bothered Sean was that Colton had far too much money to spend on this project. The overall plan sounded like Colton, but the execution required access to a gold card. Colton had never been one for having big bucks. U.S. Senator Jonathan Paxton was the gold card—yet Sean’s friend hadn’t said anything about his benefactor. This greatly worried Sean.
For now, he needed to focus on the job, because one mistake would cost him his life—or his freedom. Sean valued both.
Skye took a step toward him and stroked her long fingers down his back. “Sean, honey—”
He turned around and was face-to-face with his ex-girlfriend. She was still beautiful, blond hair tight with wild curls that tumbled down her back. She’d maintained the lithe dancer’s body she’d cherished, and ten years had turned her even more confident and sexy. She didn’t flinch when he crowded her. Her green eyes darkened as she smiled seductively and put her hands on his chest, her red fingernails shining in the light. She leaned up to kiss him.
He sidestepped her, avoiding her lips, and walked across the hotel room.
Skye was his past. His long-ago past. Proximity didn’t change the fact that they had been over for ten years and he had no urge for round two.
“Oh, Sean,” Skye sighed dramatically. She smiled at her reflection and smoothed out her already-perfect makeup.
They were in the hotel next door to the museum where their target was attending a private charity event, and this was their best shot at getting to CEO Joyce Bonner. They’d considered her house, while she slept, but she had state-of-the-art security and dogs. They also didn’t know where she kept her badge at home—could be in her bedroom while she slept. Plus, her two children lived with her—one an adult, one a minor. The presence of other people made things sticky. Colton wasn’t violent; in none of their jobs in college, and none since from what Sean could deduce, had anyone been physically hurt.
Going after Bonner’s badge at the charity event had been Skye’s idea, and it was just like her—big and bold. And smart.
“Sean, I hope you have your head in the game.”
“It’s always in the game,” he said. “I’m just not going to take your crap anymore.”
She rolled her eyes. “Oh, baby, you are so wrong about me.”Hardly.
Skye’s phone vibrated on the dresser. She picked it up and responded to the text. “I’m on, babe. Don’t be late.”
He didn’t say anything but watched her swish out in her red beaded dress. He checked the time. He had twenty minutes before he had to be in place. The hotel had a museum access hall open during regular hours but closed during evening events. He’d determined that route was the easiest to breach.
He took out his cell phone and called Lucy.
“Hello,” he said when she answered.
“Sean, hold on.” He heard her excuse herself, the clink of dishes and utensils, the hum of voices in the background. Dinner at the FBI Academy’s cafeteria.
A moment later, Lucy said, “It’s good to hear your voice.”
“You stole my line. Sorry to interrupt dinner.”
“I’m done. Just chatting.”
“Good. We’re past the mid-point. Nine more weeks. It feels surreal.”
“You’re going to graduate top of your class.”
She laughed, a deep and genuine tone that Sean loved to hear, especially when he was with her. He hadn’t seen her in three weeks, since the weekend before he moved to New York. He missed her more than he could say.
“I’m sorry I had to cancel our plans this weekend.” He’d hoped to get away to see her—he needed the connection to his real life, to the life he hoped to regain when this was over. But now that Colton had set the schedule for the week, Sean wouldn’t be able to leave.
“You’re busy, and it gives me more time to study. We have a PT test on Tuesday and the big legal test on Wednesday. That’s the one I’m worried about.”
“You’ll ace it.”
“I wish I had your confidence. What about you? Are you enjoying New York or just working?”
“Have you seen Suzanne?”
He’d avoided FBI Special Agent Suzanne Madeaux for the three weeks he’d been in Manhattan. He and Lucy had met Suzanne last February when he was looking for his runaway niece and tracked her to New York. Since, he, Lucy, and Suzanne had become friends, and Lucy had told Suzanne that Sean had taken a job in New York. Twice Suzanne called him to meet for a beer. Sean had ignored the first call, then told her the second time he was swamped with work. She’d asked questions; he evaded and could tell she was irritated. As long as she was only irritated and not suspicious, Sean thought.
“We haven’t connected. My hours are erratic.”
“Are you okay? You sound down.”
Lucy was perceptive—Sean should have known better than to call her. He forced a smile into his voice. “I’m only depressed because I had to cancel on you, princess. I miss you.”
“Miss you, too. Since you’re busy, why don’t I fly up to New York next weekend and we’ll have dinner?”
“I planned on spending the night.”
He laughed, even though he realized he could never allow Lucy to visit him in the city while he was still working for Colton. It would jeopardize everything, and he couldn’t risk her finding out what he was doing.
“I’ll see if I can swing it,” he said. “But I should only be here for a couple more weeks.” He hoped it was shorter than that. It might be over after Thursday. Or that operation might be just another move in the game.
“Talk to you tomorrow?”
“Same bat time, same bat channel.”
She laughed. “I love you, Batman.”
“Love you, Batgirl.”
He hung up. His chest was tight and his eyes burned.You didn’t lie to her.
Not lying didn’t mean he was telling the truth. He didn’t want to deceive Lucy, but he couldn’t avoid it. Not now, with so much at stake. He had to give Lucy a clean slate. He had to make amends for his past. All of it, the good and the bad.
He leaned over the dresser, his palms on the cool, glass top, and breathed deeply. Ten years ago deception had come easily for him. Even now, when he shouldn’t be committing a crime, the thrill was electric. The danger drew him in; bigger and harder challenges enticed him. He’d grown bored with RCK long before he quit. Even opening his own office in D.C. with his best friend, Lucy’s brother Patrick, had become predictable. Sean feared there was something wrong with him that he only felt he was valued when he did the impossible—when he hacked unbreakable systems, when he manipulated situations to obtain information that was unobtainable.
He had always lived larger than life because that’s what gave him his edge. But now? It might be his downfall. He had thought he’d put this life behind him, that when he came back he’d be no good at any of it.
He was better than when he was twenty. Smarter. Sharper. More focused.
And there lay the biggest problem. He craved the adrenaline rush that came after a successful job. He didn’t hate living on the edge. And that terrified him. Because he loved Lucy more and didn’t want to jeopardize the amazing relationship they had.
But today he had no choice.
He pushed back from the dresser and avoided the mirrors in the room. He double-checked his equipment and secured the small cloning device in his pocket. Anyone would think it was a cell phone.
He left his doubts and fears in the hotel room and went to do the job. Calm and focused.
And no small bit excited.
He took the elevator down to the ballroom level and mingled with a wedding party through the foyer until he reached the tunnel-like hall. He glanced at his watch. Right on time. He dropped a jammer behind a potted plant, which would disrupt the nearby cameras so he could slip in and out without being detected.
Once in the tunnel, Sean used an employee badge Evan had swiped to access the private hall that led to the museum. Sean moved smoothly through the museum foyer toward the restrooms, where Evan palmed him the PBM badge as they passed and left without a word.
In a bathroom stall, it took Sean only four minutes to clone the badge and verify there was no hidden security code.
He pocketed the badge and walked back through the foyer. When two patrons smiled at him, he returned the smile and pretended to admire a horrendous metal sculpture. People paid good money for that
When the couple moved on, so did Sean, heading toward the coatroom. The coatroom was between the main entrance and the tunnel access, but the employees could access it through the rear corridor. There were no cameras there, only security on individual doors.
When they’d had the final planning meeting for this operation, Evan had told Sean that the museum used a standard digital card-key system for their employees that worked on all private doors. So when Sean lifted the badge to the panel—the badge that had already opened the door from the tunnel to the museum—he expected the lock to pop open.
It didn’t. He scrutinized the panel and realized it was different from the panel he’d accessed earlier. It appeared to have been upgraded. He glanced at the other doors on this wing, and they all had the same security panel, which was different from the panels in the public parts of the museum. Why didn’t Evan know about the two layers of security?
Sean examined the panel and realized that the equipment was built by a small, elite company called Hawk Electronics, who worked almost exclusively for RCK. No doubt the security on this door was an RCK system and there was nothing “standard” about it except its appearance.
One of the key components of RCK security systems was that every access was logged—there was never a hidden back door. Even admins would be logged. Sean had an admin clearance; even if Duke had locked him out, he had his own backdoor admin account. His brother would get an email that indicated that an admin had bypassed security—when, where, and how.
There was only one way around it, and Sean hated to do it. But he had no choice—there was no other way into the secure coatroom without being caught on-camera. And they couldn’t risk Skye being caught putting the badge back in Joyce Bonner’s purse, since Skye had already pickpocketed her once.
Sean entered the nearby employee elevator, which had no cameras. He stopped the elevator as soon as the doors shut and took out his small palm computer. He logged in through the RCK back door that he’d created, maneuvered directly to the RCK server, and wrote a program that would manipulate the admin e-mail system. Instead of messages going to Duke and the RCK webmaster, all admin e-mails would go directly to Sean for the next ten minutes. The breach would only be found if someone sharp was specifically looking for it, and then they’d only see that the admin system had been compromised—they wouldn’t see Sean’s blind e-mail, because it would self-delete.
He unlocked the elevator, checked the halls, and went back to the coatroom door. He used his admin code to get into the room and slipped to the side as the coat girl came in with two more jackets. She hung them up and left, not noticing Sean standing in the corner.
He didn’t dare breathe heavily. Skye had sent him Bonner’s coat-check number—81—and Sean found her long brown mink in the proper slot. Since Bonner was left-handed, he slipped the badge into the left pocket.
Sean was out in less than two minutes, but he’d exposed himself to the one person who might catch him—his brother.
Evan was going to pay for his screwup.
Copyright © 2013 by Allison Brennan
Allison Brennan is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of nineteen novels and many short stories. A former consultant in the California State Legislature, she lives in Northern California with her husband Dan and their five children.