They gym we shared on the third floor in Covington Heights was haunted by the spirit of our former crew member Leo. I was sure of it. As I circled around the blue sparring mat trying to find my next move, I could almost hear him whisper in my ear.
Where’s the weakness?
The problem was that the man opposite me didn’t have very many soft spots and his steel-blue eyes were like the tip of his sword. They pierced before anything else. As he narrowed his gaze ever so slightly, he would land his next punch. His brick fist slammed into the cheekbone just below my left eye. Pain slapped the side of my face, but I wouldn’t let it spread to my ego. It wasn’t personal, that I knew. Anton was pissed and working out his frustrations. Hell, we all were.
“Ooo…” He jogged backward. “You okay there, Goldie Locks?” His fake sympathy was followed by a proud smile but he wouldn’t get any complaints or signs of weakness from me.
“You know I like it rough.” I winked and walked over to the small fridge at the back of the gym where my boy Jackson and I had started keeping ice packs. Shit happened. Anton wasn’t as good a teacher as Leo, but practicing was the only way to get better, stronger.
Since Leo’s abrupt departure, Anton had been a miserable prick. He’d turned into the crankiest bitch I’d ever seen. And he had a serious alpha complex. His physical dominance wasn’t only a reminder that he was a better fighter. It was the exclamation point that our asses belonged to him…or else.
Leo had gotten away with too much, and those who were still around were paying the price. I shot a knowing glance to Jackson, who looked away and continued to do his bicep curls on a bench near the door.
Anton wrapped a towel around his bare shoulders and said, “Jackson, meet me in fifteen at my place. Scooter’s bringing the numbers from Bradford South.”
I dug out the frozen bag of blue gel then sat on the side of the treadmill as I pressed it into my cheek—bitter cold relief for a festering wound of the bossman’s frustration. No one could spar like Leo. Message received. No one was going to be allowed to get away with the same disrespect. Got it. But penance for other people’s sins was getting old quick. Unfortunately, all was fair in crime and crews. Did I like taking a blow from time to time? Honestly? Yeah, I did. I wanted to be better, wanted to learn. I craved more respect and was plotting ways to get it.
Anton tipped up his chin and winked at me. It was his way of checking in. That was also part of his management technique or whatever-the-fuck way he kept us down but happy. Show the power first, then a hint of giving a shit. I’d seen it before. I actually didn’t mind it. The familiarity was somehow comforting.
“Let’s make some fucking money today.” Anton looked us over one last time before leaving, his glare emphasizing that it was a command, not a request.
I walked over to Jackson, my former roommate and literal partner in crime. We’d bonded over not having fucked-up families, just fucked-up circumstances, Xbox and both refusing to become adult enough to drink coffee. Plus, we liked the idea of belonging somewhere. And the money… We liked the money.
Jackson set the weights down on the gray concrete floor. “He needs to get laid.”
More like I needed to get laid. I’d given up on banging girls from our neighborhood. There was nothing interesting about being worshiped. Besides, they only did it in hopes of making their lives better. None of them really ever bothered to get to know me, not to mention that half of them were customers. That was more trouble than it was worth.
I shook my head. Anton had no problem there. “He needs to make more money.” It was true that since we’d knocked off Mac, who had been a regular patron at our backdoor gambling racket, attendance had gone down to zero. No one liked the idea of tempting Anton’s quick fuse and ending up in the river—not that we’d thrown Mac in the river, of course.
Lucky for us, the police had written off the Bradford murders as a drug deal gone wrong and hadn’t cared to search much further. Our sources at the precinct said there had been mild rumblings of it seeming like a professional hit because of the precision, but, in the end, it was a criminal-on-criminal crime and they tended not to waste too many resources on shit like that.
Jackson stood and put his hands on his hips. “What are you up to later? I’m moving my stuff to Lisa’s and could use a hand.”
“Aww. You all lonely and shit since I moved out?”
Jackson rolled his dark brown eyes. “Nah. I’m all horny and shit since she finally let me tap that ass. Besides, I like showing Junior what a stable woman looks like.” He held my gaze for a brief second.
There was no need to explain. I’d seen Jackson’s baby-mama Bridget at our bench in the courtyard too many times in the last month. Selling drugs was a lot less fun when it was to the mother of one of your favorite kids, which brought me full circle to the money problem. We were a small operation. Sure, we had gained territory since the Bradford Towers crew had taken the hit. But with the game numbers down, I was pretty sure that the money decline was tainting Anton’s mood more than the loss of his previous sidekick. The bossman wasn’t exactly sentimental.
I pressed the cool into my cheek. It had thawed a little and was losing its original stiffness. “I’m working on something…a new business venture. Just waiting on a contact.”
Jackson rubbed his jaw. Maybe he’d taken a couple of hits I hadn’t seen. “Well, get fuckin’ crackin’.” He gave me a little salute and was gone.
I reached for a hand towel and wiped the residual sweat off my arms and chest. I hadn’t always wanted to be a law-breaking shit who sold people poison. It was just that I’d been bored—bored in school, bored in life, bored everywhere except in my own head. There, everything spun. It was like other people’s brains were funnels catching raindrops and all the information came to one eventual stream of thought. Mine? A constant downpour where I wanted to see every single bead of water and analyze it. That was what my high school computer teacher had said, anyway. He’d also said that was why I would be great in IT. Yeah, that ‘career path’ had taken an odd but predictable turn.
Breaking into people’s computers calmed me—and had earned me my first trip to juvey. When I’d gotten out and met Anton… Well, it all just seemed like destiny. But Anton was hard, from his jawline to his inability to show compassion. I didn’t have that darkness inside. Not that it mattered… I’d made my choices. A life in a suit and a picket fence with a puppy wasn’t going to happen for me.
I left the gym and went across the hall to the apartment I’d shared with Anton since Leo had moved out. The spray of his shower echoed down the hall that led to his room. I headed in the opposite direction, crashed on my bed with a thud and reached for my laptop.
I logged in to my favorite online chat for hackers and it only took a second for my idol to send me a direct message. Bingo.
Majel213: Going live in five. Glad you finally decided to show up, Goldie.
As if I would miss it. Majel213 was my Internet spirit animal. I typed my response.
GoldieLocks: Highlight of my day. You know I’ve been itching to see what you’ve been scheming.
I always tried to up my nerd and downplay my street vibe whenever she and I chatted. The tech geek in me wanted her to respect my brains, as fucking stupid as that was. Online, I could be anybody. The idea of someone liking me for my intelligence was an out-of-body experience. In the six months since I’d found Majel213 and her wicked tutorials, we’d somehow become friends. Well, maybe not friends—but more than online strangers. It was just that we’d never actually seen each other. I’d never offered a profile pic in our chats and she did all her videos without showing her face.
I was sure that if she knew I was just some street criminal who’d never really carried out an impressive hack, I would lose the connection we’d built. And I needed her. Getting my hands on her malware was a way to keep my Midas touch.
The nickname ‘Goldie Locks’ had evolved over the years from ‘Golden Boy’, neither of which had anything to do with my hair. That was pitch black. It was because I was a good earner and I’d gotten the light-eye gene from my Brazilian heritage. The fact that the name had turned into a fairy-tale character didn’t bother me. In fact, when I’d first starting using it online, I’d catfished quite a few idiots.
Five minutes later, I clicked over to the 677CrackChat and logged in. Holy hell. Majel213’s raspy voice played over my thin speaker and she was transmitting dual screens.
“Meet Nathanial E. Tomjak. He lives in North Dakota, loves to fish and hunt. He’s new to all this because, quote, ‘my daughter finally convinced me to join the social media thingy.’ No one suspects he’s not a real person because his picture, which I photoshopped to change eye color, hair color, skin tone and age, is right here for all to see.”
She clicked on the picture and enlarged it to fit the screen. If she hadn’t said it was altered, I would have never guessed. Nathanial E. Tomjak was the epitome of a Midwestern retired grandpa, complete with triple chin, racing T-shirt and warm smile.
“So, Nate—I call him Nate—Nate was a creation of a profile after I had already found”—she clicked a couple of times and brought up a picture of Caroline Claussen—”this sweet, cat-loving mama.”
The kind face of an older woman replaced the screen. “Caroline works for the sheriff of Zapata Falls and is my number one target for malware.”
There was a slight East Coast accent in Majel213’s voice. Her pronunciation of ‘number’ sounded a little like a ‘numba’ and I let myself believe that one day I might meet my nerd crush face-to-face and she would be hot, which was stupid. Finding the sexy librarian type in real life who could live up to my fantasies was proving to be difficult. Also, the whole selling drugs to pay the rent never went over well with the smart girls I liked.
But Majel213? She was my perfect blend of intelligence and criminal. By her screen name, she was in camp Star Trek over Star Wars. Her clever and deviant behavior inspired my own. We were soulmates, I was sure—me and the other four hundred sixty-three dorks watching her show us the latest and sneakiest ways to crack, hack and hide.
I propped up the pillows behind me, workout stank be damned, laid a towel on my chest under my laptop and settled in. I was ready to learn everything she had to teach me.
And listen to her. Fuck, I loved the sound of her voice. It was low and seductive, but she was also funny. At the end of all her tutorials, she would say, “And change your fucking passwords, Geeks!” That usually led me to go around the apartment and do just that. My phone, Anton’s phone, Jackson’s phone when I’d lived with him, then all sites, all applications… I could spend half my day just doing what Majel213 told me.
And more than once, my own passwords had been changed to her fucking screen name. How I’d become a lovesick dork slash criminal was beyond my comprehension.
That sultry tone went on to describe how she’d found her target and worked backward. How creating a fake person was easy. Once she had the profile pic, the rest of what ‘he’ posted was either shares from propaganda that aligned with Caroline’s beliefs or pictures that he wasn’t in. ‘Nate’ had become friends with one of Caroline’s relatives through people who were more interested in having followers and like than caring if they actually knew the person.
Then it had just been as simple as engaging on the same post by the mutual friend and boom! There was a direct line to her target. It required maintenance, but according to Majel213, that was part of the fun. The hard part, she said in the voice that had me wondering how ‘Rafael’ would sound if she whispered it all quiet and sultry next to my ear, was waiting for the day that Caroline would open her social media on her work computer. But, Majel213 wasn’t worried. Caroline had said that she hated texting on her phone and was much faster on a keyboard, so it was just a matter of finding a topic that would inspire Caroline to need to converse faster—like making Nate’s tabby cat ill.
Majel213 had a beautifully perverse brain.
She explained that once the application was opened in the office of the sheriff of Zapata Falls, because Majel213 had programmed a sneaky virus that shadowed the direct messenger, the malware would be on Caroline’s hard drive in thirty seconds. And that would translate to the entire town being held hostage by Majel213 until they paid their ransom in untraceable cryptocurrency.
And pay they would, she assured, because the counties, cities or whatever were insured…and the FBI would tell them to. Otherwise, all their systems stayed frozen and spun around in the never-ending computer circle of death.
And the real beauty? While they tried to figure out how to pay, she just kept stealing all their information. It was pretty customary malware shiftiness. She could get tax returns, social security numbers, backgrounds, criminal records and birth certificates then sell that to criminals like me. Majel213 just made it sound so much sexier than it probably was.
Internal man-dork sigh.
She also sold her out-of-date malware to us nerds who didn’t know how to code it as well as she did. The clever thief was always three steps ahead, and the improved versions of her viruses and programs were for her use only.
So it was that version—the latest and most dangerous—that I was sure I needed to make bank for the crew, not a malware program an average bad actor could use. Somehow, I was going to convince the normally selfish Majel213 to share her updated goods, and we would go from street criminals to an organized threat to society. I tingled all over just thinking about it.
Her scratchy voice rang out and woke me from my dream of living the calm, boring life of a closet criminal. “Change your fucking passwords, Geeks! Oh, and I’m taking questions for the next five minutes on message chat. Dick picks will result in a virus that sends it to your grandma, assholes.”
I shot up and clicked on our message window. Time to make a deal.
GoldieLocks: Brilliant as usual. How do I get my hands on your latest version?
Majel213: Thanks for watching. It’s always nice to have you there. The links are up.
I didn’t want those old, used-up links. I wanted the version she was hoarding for herself.
GoldieLocks: No, I mean the *real* latest version.
Majel213: Not for sale, sweetie. Sorry. You know that.
My internal ego liked the term of endearment so much that he convinced my brain it was for him. But I wasn’t giving up that easy.
GoldieLocks: Everything has a price.
It was a bold promise, considering we didn’t have a savings account with money piled up.
The ellipsis next to her name stayed for a minute like she was writing some long explanation. My heart raced and I drummed my fingers lightly over the keys without hitting hard enough to type.
Name your price, baby girl.
Oh, the money I could make for Anton. And I wouldn’t have to sit out on that fucking bench and watched addicts wither away with each sale I made. I could perch myself on the couch, post to social media then just wait to pounce. And getting the latest version of the malware would ensure it wasn’t tracible. It would be new and never have been used.
Majel213: Indeed it does. My apologies.
She added a winky face emoji and left the chat. Shit. I should have brought up cash. She was always talking about cryptocurrency, but cash was still king for criminals. I should have started with that. Next time. Next time I would lead with, “How much cash would it take?”
Fuck. Didn’t she know I needed that shit like…yesterday?
I closed my laptop and tossed it to the end of the bed. After a quick shower, I found Anton in a hovered meeting with Scooter at the island in the kitchen. The sour frown on his pale face was enough to know he didn’t like what he and Jackson had heard earlier. We needed money. I was the Golden Boy and he was relying on me to make good on my previous abilities to earn.
Working on it, boss.
“I’m headed down to the bench then I have to help with a thing. Later.”
I jogged down the stairs and out to the courtyard that connected the three buildings of Covington Heights. A small gathering of black jeans parted and Jackson stood, towering over us all. We man-hugged, the official sign that he was off duty and I was on.
His spot on the bench was still warm, and I draped my arms out, taking as much space as I could.
A new member of the crew caught my eye on the edge of the circle. He was a bit scrawny and had probably come from Bradford. More and more defectors were crossing into our territory. That particular one looked hungry as hell. Sometimes I wondered if the new recruits weren’t double agents. I reminded myself to keep my guard up at all times.
Maybe I would do a password sweep after dinner. Although, the skinny kids from the projects weren’t much of a threat to the technology that I used. Hell, they wouldn’t even know how to put a virus onto a computer.
Like Majel213… Using direct messaging to shadow…
Fucking fuck, fuck.
Mother of all fucks.
My pulse raced and I closed my eyes in horrid understanding. She’d broken into my fucking computer.