She leaned forward, squinting. Raya’s eyes were like sandpaper and her throat parched like she hadn’t had a glass of water in days. She couldn’t remember if she had. She’d barely eaten or slept for the past seventy-two hours since she’d discovered this deleted email chain.
Raya had been searching KinTech’s system for months, and her hard work had finally paid off. She would not rest until she’d completed her search of the deleted email chain that would expose one of the worst medical fraud cases in history. They couldn’t produce synthetic blood, accept over a billion dollars of funding, falsify the testing results, and expect to get away with it. At least not when Raya was watching their every move—and reading every email they’d tried to delete over the past twelve months.
Voices outside the apartment caused her eyes to lift, glancing toward the front door. Her heart skipped a beat but then slowed as she recognized the voices. Her neighbors, the couple who either fought or laughed hysterically.
Raya returned her attention to her laptop.
The emails hinted at problems with the efficacy of the synthetic blood, but what she needed was to get inside KinTech’s laboratory system, HaloTech, but the same hack she’d used to access KinTech didn’t work.
Raya dragged a hand down her face. She was exhausted, but she knew this might be her only opportunity. As soon as they realized there was a breach, they’d create a patch for the hack she’d used and she’d have to start all over. She refused to do that—too close to answers to stop now, she continued rummaging through files, copying what she could to an external cloud storage to use as evidence when she was ready to extort KinTech.
Every minute she spent in the system, the greater her chances were of being discovered. She knew from previous experience that companies like KinTech had alerts and traps in place to detect hackers in their system, and she’d opened enough files and performed enough searches that she’d almost certainly alerted someone that she was in the system. A shudder ran through her body as she thought of the only reason they would let her continue if they knew she was inside . . . it would give them more time to trace her.
She typed fast, never looking away from the computer. Her neck ached, her shoulders ached, and she needed to move, but she stayed at her computer. She opened another deleted email:
As per our discussion, please let me know if you need me to move forward with our plan. It is better to eliminate this problem before it becomes one. Time is of the essence.
Raya frowned, looking at the email address. It was sent from a generic email, not a business account. Who was ER? This was the first time she’d seen an email signed-off by ER, and she’d looked at thousands of emails over the past few days.
Move forward? What plan? What problem?
Raya noted the date. The email was sent almost thirteen years ago, so whatever plan was going to be put in motion had already happened. And it fit with the timeline of KinTech’s fraud—from what Raya could see, the synthetic blood had never been as effective as they’d claimed yet they’d continued to receive more funding to develop the product.
She shook her head, not sure which way was up anymore or what was important and what wasn’t. This was what she got for sticking her nose into business it didn’t belong in, but now she was in too deep, and if they could trace her, she had no option but to find the information she needed—to find the secrets she knew were buried on the server she was hacking, or HaloTech’s server—because those secrets would be her insurance policy if they came for her. They might be the only thing that would keep her alive.
A bang in the hallway caused her to jump and her heart lurched into her throat.
She stilled, not breathing. Her eyes focused on her front door handle.
Her heart raced, but the handle didn’t turn and no one busted in her front door.
She didn’t think they’d use the front door, though—that was the entire problem. They’d be much more discreet than that.
Raya looked over her shoulder, her eyes landing on the window behind her. The curtains were drawn, but they weren’t going to protect her.
She grabbed her laptop and power cord and hurried to the wall. She drew the curtains slowly, carefully, peering down at the dark alleyway. She scanned the shadows, but she didn’t see any movement.
Raya exhaled a shaky breath then shook her head, her eyes returning to the street she could just see from her window. The streetlights beamed a soft yellow light over the empty parking spots below.
The lack of movement didn’t calm the unease rolling within her though. If KinTech was prepared to continue to develop ineffective synthetic blood but claim it was to receive more and more funding, she knew they would stop at nothing to protect their secrets, and Raya was in their way—she was a problem they would need to eliminate. A company with as much at risk as KinTech wouldn’t send novices who would broadcast their arrival. No, they would send ghosts who disappeared as fast as they came.
Silent, deadly, efficient.
So, the sooner she found what she was looking for the better.
She sat on the floor, her back pressed against the brick wall. If a sniper shot through the window, she’d be protected. And if someone came through the front door, she’d at least see their face—the face of the person who would kill her.
Raya shook her head, clearing the thoughts from her mind, and returned her attention to the files she’d been searching through. She looked at the number of files in the folder and the pit of her stomach churned—she would need days to search all of them. She could copy them to the online storage cloud, but transferring that amount of data would certainly get noticed.
Raya blinked as she stared at the screen and her blood turned cold.
You have ten minutes . . . They’re coming for you.
Either another hacker was in the system too, or someone inside the company was warning her.
Maybe it was a trap? Maybe, but she wasn’t going to find out the hard way.
Raya shoved her laptop and burner phone in her backpack, sprung to her feet, and swung her backpack over her shoulders. She ran to the bathroom door and locked it from the inside, pulling it shut. She’d seen that move in a movie once and hoped it would create a distraction that would buy her more time. She double-checked she couldn’t open it from the hallway and then ran to the front door.
She pressed her ear against the window but didn’t hear footsteps racing up the stairs, so she took a deep breath and pushed on the door handle with a shaking hand, slowly opening it. Raya peered into the stairwell, her heart pounding in her ears, but the only thing she heard was her neighbor playing music.
She pulled the door closed behind her and raced for the stairs, running up them rather than down. She knew she was taking a risk, but she doubted the people coming for her knew the building’s secrets. Secrets she’d only found by accident when she’d re-wired part of the building with Cat 6 cables—without permission—to improve her bandwidth.
The stairs were covered in old tile so every step she took seemed to echo like a siren, but it wasn’t her footsteps that sent a chill up her spine—it was footsteps on the staircase below her that made her pause.
Leaning over the banister, she saw two men, dressed in suits, standing at her door.
Her hand went to her mouth and she sucked in a breath as she shrank back, her heart tumbling in her chest.
They knocked on the door twice and when she didn’t answer, they picked the lock. They were inside her home in seconds.
Her feet were grounded in shock. A bang from inside the apartment followed, and she would’ve bet her life it was her bathroom door.
A spike of adrenaline ran through her veins, causing her feet to move. She took the stairs two at a time, her legs feeling that strange mix of heavy yet light. Her chest was tight, her lungs choking with adrenaline.
A door opened on the floor above and she came to a halt. But it was only an old lady in her pink dressing gown. She looked to Raya, her head tilting to the side.
“Is everything okay, dear?” Mrs. Maple asked Raya.
“Yes,” Raya said quickly. “Go inside!” She placed an arm on Mrs. Maple’s shoulder and guided her inside, closing the door before she could argue or ask any more questions.
Raya ran to the top of the stairs and onto the rooftop, gulping in the fresh, cool air as she ran toward a metal grate. She stuck two shaky fingers between the metal slots, pulled up the grate, and slid into the metal chute. She wasn’t sure exactly what it had been used for in the past—as it didn’t smell like a garbage chute and it didn’t connect to every floor level—but it went straight down to the basement. Her gut feeling was that someone had once run a drug ring or something through the building, because Raya couldn’t come up with another feasible explanation for why this chute existed and only had access ports for three floors. She shuffled down, closing the metal grate above her. The moment the grate was lowered back into place, she heard the rooftop door open.
Her breath caught in her throat as she slid down the chute, moving as quickly as she could without making a sound. She had to get low enough that if they opened the grate, they wouldn’t see her if they were to shine a light. However, she knew from the last time she’d crawled into this space that the metal would buckle beneath her weight and groan as she moved down the chute.
She slid a little, grimacing as it groaned in response to her weight. She rapidly debated whether or not she should stay still, but if they opened the grate she’d be in full view.
She slid a little farther down, her heart galloping in her chest. She tilted her head back, looking up at the grate as she saw a figure emerge. She knew she’d run out of options. As the grate lifted up, Raya slid part-way down the chute.
The metal above her head sounded like it was exploding and she lifted her arms above her head, although that was unlikely to save her from the bullets being fired at her.
When everything became quiet again and no more bullets came, she finally drew a breath. Her chest was heaving and her body was shaking as she huddled in the dark chute with air so stale it was hard to breathe. If they weren’t shooting at her, she assumed they’d retreated—perhaps continuing to look through the building for her. Or they assumed they’d killed her.
Either way, Raya had to keep moving and get somewhere safe.