Ivan strode next to his man, his smooth expression in no way communicating the irritation he felt. “This is the third time you’ve failed to secure the hacker’s services for me,” he said, his voice glacial. He climbed the stairs to the helicopter pad, Keane pounding the steps behind him. “I’m starting to wonder if I should employ someone else for this task.”
The other man knew better than to defend his actions. He simply stated facts, spitting out the words in his Irish accent. “This fuckin’ hacker you want… this XSource…” Keane said the nickname with such disdain that Ivan nearly smiled despite his annoyance, “… has made it disgustingly clear in downright insultin’ terms that he wishes to remain a free agent with no contractual obligations. Despite your more than generous offer.”
Ivan lifted a brow and turned to his head of security, looking at him through the lenses of his darkly shaded sunglasses as they stood on the deck of his yacht waiting for the pilot to complete preparations for his flight into Athens. “I’ve been insulted?”
The giant, red-headed tattooed Viking throwback looked more uncomfortable than Ivan had seen in a while. Not since Keane had been caught quite literally with his pants down in the middle of a night raid during one of their Saudi arms deals. They’d planned everything meticulously down to the last detail, yet somehow the meeting date had gotten switched and their team hadn’t been notified. A trigger-happy pup on Keane’s team jumped the gun and opened fire on the men coming into their camp, nearly starting a war with their allies. The big man, viciously and with extreme prejudice, showed everyone involved why he didn’t enjoy a) newbies with attitude on his team, and b) date and/or time switches with minimal effort at notification. Ivan would bet the few Saudi’s his man had left intact to take the message back to their employer had never made that mistake again.
Keane’s lack of tolerance for bullshit was the only reason Ivan was allowing his failure at retaining the hacker to pass. If Ivan’s security expert couldn’t find the son-of-a-bitch with quick efficiency, then no one could. It was why Ivan was, sadly, going to sacrifice his favourite cat burglar to get his hands on the little fucker. Unfortunately, Katie’s usefulness had waned and the hacker’s progressively crude insults couldn’t be allowed to pass. An example would have to be made.
Keane pulled a tablet from his back pocket, tapped the screen and handed it to Ivan. Ivan took it and glanced down impatiently. He didn’t have time for this. He wanted to board his helicopter, get the Athens function over with and travel home where he could relax in solitude. He despised these trips necessary though they were for both business and personal interests. He was about to hand the tablet back when an image on the screen caught and held his attention.
Hundreds of tiny… what were they called... bit cube maybe?... robots danced across the screen. They were meant to look like they were from the 70s or 80s. They marched in ever tighter circles until they formed a hand that waved at him. He knew exactly what was coming next well before it occurred. Yet, still he watched, fascinated, as these tiny robots moved and oscillated on the screen, appearing to leap between decades as they transcended technologies. The carefully controlled icy façade that Ivan spent so much time cultivating cracked and he actually grinned as the hand moved, appearing to leap off the screen using 3-D technology as it gave him the finger before the tiny robots fell apart on the screen and scattered in every direction.
He had the final answer to his request for the hacker’s services. It was too bad Ivan didn’t take no for an answer.
As the last robot danced off the screen he handed the tablet back to Keane, his smile fading. He strode toward the helicopter. “It really is a shame that we’ll have to exterminate such talent.” He climbed on board and shouted, “Bring me the hacker. I want to cut his head off myself.”
* * *
Every particle of her being urged her to run. To escape to her safe comfortable basement in the lovely, anonymous seaside resort town where she’d taken up residence. A place not readily traced unless one were extremely technologically savvy and able to command satellites at will. People like her. She’d purposely chosen her home for its remote location and spotty internet access. It concealed her global movements.
She snatched a champagne glass from a passing tray and pressed the crystal against her shaking lips. She knew it was a mistake to drink. She hadn’t eaten anything all day due to nerves and rarely imbibed alcoholic beverages. She hated crowds. She more than hated crowds. She was absolutely fucking terrified of them, jumping at every sound, every touch. Expecting a bomb to explode and kill them all. She knew she was paranoid, but when a person lived through that kind of hell, she could be forgiven a little paranoia.
That and she was waiting in tense misery for the moment Ivan Vogel or one of his henchmen recognized her and pounced. As she gulped the sparkling wine, she reminded herself that they didn’t have a clue who she was and couldn’t possibly recognize her in the sea of faces.
She’d made the, perhaps very bad, decision to attend the Athens fundraiser in hopes of facing her enemy in person despite preferring the anonymity of the web, her home. At least it had become her home, her independence, her hidey hole, her secret lover and the place where she soared in silence. But she’d made the decision, this one time, to step from her comfort zone and confront her enemy. The man stalking her across the globe, determined to steal her independence and force her into his service.
Oh, she wasn’t stupid enough to confront him face to face. Not by a long shot. She wasn’t even close to that brave. She was the mouse that hid in a corner, nibbled on her bread crumbs and kept her head down like a good little genius. She just wanted to see him, see what he looked like in person, how he handled himself in public. Understand how her enemy worked, how he operated. Then maybe she stood half a chance of escaping his clutches intact.
She took a hasty sip of her champagne and then coughed as the bubbles hit her throat. What was she thinking? She shouldn’t be there at all, let alone drinking in a crowd near a predator like Ivan Vogel. If he knew she was only steps away, he would snatch her up and whisk her away. No, she needed to be clear headed if she were going to win this war. She placed the glass on a nearby table, lifted a hand and pressed the edge of her sari against her cheek, covering her face and taking a few steps closer to her prey.
The crowd kept drifting in between them, blocking her view of the notorious international arms dealer. She wrinkled her nose. It was such a crime that he was allowed in public, rubbing elbows with the rich and famous when he was the shadiest of them all. And there were some pretty awful people in the room. She’d seen the president of at least one brutal military-run regime who would hopefully soon be facing war crimes. To her left there was a prince with a penchant for teenage boys. On his arm was his extremely made-up wife, dripping with jewelry and furs.
She stood on tiptoe trying to catch a glimpse of Vogel. It didn’t help that she was shorter than most of the people around her and hadn’t bothered with heels. Having never worn them in her life, she didn’t think this function was a good place to start accessorizing just in case she had to make a quick getaway. She shifted around the beautifully dressed people, slipping in and through the crowd, trying not to touch anyone. It wasn’t that she was agoraphobic. She just really preferred to be by herself. In her own space. She rarely socialized unless it was online. With one exception, and she hadn’t seen him in a few years.
The press of people was starting to get to her, her breathing was becoming elevated and her pulse erratic. She knew she was seconds away from totally disgracing herself in front of a huge crowd of the world’s elite including princes, sheiks, businessmen and women, the extreme wealthy, the list went on. She needed to get out of there. But first, she needed to face her enemy. Squaring her shoulders, she pushed through the final few people separating them and directly into his path.
She hadn’t meant to actually draw his attention. Unfortunately, when a person virtually falls on a man of Vogel’s stature in a place with all the world’s beautiful people where tickets are invitation only and cost $2000 each, she was bound to draw his notice. XSource assumed she would either be shot by his security or immediately escorted from the premises since her invitation was fake, albeit a clever fake. Instead, she found her hand taken in a firm grip.
Ivan had been deep in conversation with the crown prince of Algeria when she made a less than smooth beeline directly into his path. Her scarf chose that moment to disengage from her shoulder and drift between her legs, tripping her up with embarrassing efficiency while baring a healthy swath of her stomach at the same time. Without breaking conversation, he reached out and took her hand, saving her from an embarrassing fall and helping her straighten, his eyes flickering rapidly over her. His gaze was coolly assessing, dismissive at first glance, and then more careful as he looked her over again. She couldn’t help but stare up at him, drawn by the intense strength of his handsome profile while at the same time completely repelled by the aura of destructive power surrounding him. It very much reminded her of someone else she knew.
Her heart skipped a beat and then started thundering like crazy. She tugged on her hand. Now that she’d seen him up close she was totally fine with getting the heck out of there, putting her comfy clothes on and never, ever doing anything this stupid again. In fact, she was probably going to write a manual on how to not do things this stupid in future. Rule #1: don’t search out the international criminal mastermind that you digitally gave the finger to who is also hunting you across the planet in hopes of either employing you against your will or murdering you for giving the aforementioned finger to.
She was about to completely lose her shit, punch him some place vulnerable and start running when he turned to face her, giving her his complete attention. His chilling gaze searched every inch of her before piercing her eyes with obvious intent. She was to be his next meal. The breath caught in her throat and she blinked several times. How had she never noticed how utterly, sinisterly handsome Ivan Vogel was in the few pictures she’d managed to dig up of him? Was it because he never completely faced the camera? He was nearly as reclusive as she so there were few pictures for her to study.
He stood nearly a foot taller than her, at around 6’3” if she had to guess. His tuxedo did nothing to hide broad shoulders and long, muscular arms. His face was the most intriguing thing about him though. It was all broad angles and harsh lines put together in a terrible, handsome package. She knew he was in his late thirties, but his steel grey eyes and his icy expression, surrounded by thick, dark hair made him look ancient.
He took a step toward her, closing the gap. Then he did something he shouldn’t have done in a public place with so many different cultures mingling, with a woman he didn’t know. He took the edge of her scarf, still clutched tight in her fist, and tugged. She didn’t realize she still had a death grip on it. She held tight. Instead of yanking it from her grip and taking the risk of tearing the delicate fabric, he took her small fist in his large hand and pulled it down, revealing her face completely.
She tilted her chin down, as if too shy to show her face in public, which was ridiculous considering the gorgeous pink and gold sari she wore bared her entire midriff. He took her jaw between his fingers and tilted, searching her face for a moment. She struggled to keep the emotions from her eyes; the fear, hatred, anger… and recognition. She must have failed on some level because she saw a flash of surprise reflected in his own cool grey gaze.
She quickly jerked her face away and took a step back, then another. She knew if she didn’t act quickly he would recover from his momentary surprise and grab her before she could leave. He had no idea who she was, but if he was intrigued, he wouldn’t stop until he found out. She knew that Ivan was a man that always got what he wanted. It was how he’d became so rich.
Rich, ruthless… and deadly. She’d done as much research on him as he’d done on her. There was a damn good reason she’d refused to work for him. He didn’t allow people to leave his employment. Not alive anyway. And she had no plans to get involved with a man like that. It was bad enough that she’d gotten mixed up with the likes of Soloman Hart and Roman Valdez. At least those two mobsters were on a completely different continent from her and currently not attempting to hunt her down.
The last thing she heard as she turned to rush through the crowd was Ivan’s deep voice, “Find out who she is and bring her to me.”
Not fucking likely.