The computer had always been my friend. When I didn’t have anyone to talk to, anyone to turn to in times of trouble, the computer was always there for me. I missed it sometimes. I used to spend all my waking hours staring at a computer screen, my fingers working magic over the keyboard. But those days disappeared the moment I went legit, the moment I decided to make money instead of building a stellar reputation among the hackers I counted as my friends.
I’d never felt as though I belonged. As a small child, the other kids would make fun of me because we were poor and I never had the fancy shoes or the expensive jeans the other kids had. As a teen, I wore long sleeves to hide the scars, even in the heat of summer, and that created rumors and made me something of a laughing stock.
A computer never judged.
Computers got me through some of the darkest hours of my life. I could always count on a computer. It was people that always let me down. So I decided long ago that I would never put myself in a position of dependence on another person again. When Belle needed me…well, I did what I felt I needed to do. The rest was her problem.
And now someone thought he or she could use my only friend, could use a computer, to hurt me. That was pretty ironic, wasn’t it? Someone had broken through the firewalls that I personally placed in my servers to farm information and hide it, hoping I would think my clients’ information was compromised. They thought I’d forgotten how to get around inside the code that ran our servers, our websites, and our very corporation. I hadn’t.
But playing along with their game was probably the best way to go for the moment. And I knew exactly how to do it.
Gray Wolf Security.
I’d done my research. I knew all about the man who owned and ran the company. I knew more than he probably would have appreciated. After all, I had a personal interest in the company, but he didn’t need to know that right now, did he?
I watched them come in, one at a time, from behind my bank of computer monitors. They didn’t always realize how much attention I paid to what was going on around me. I was an afterthought, the guy they only noticed when something went wrong. But I noticed them.
Rose was always the first to arrive in the mornings. She was the office manager and receptionist, but she also fancied herself as something of a mother to this ragtag bunch of operatives. She arrived just after seven to start the coffee and raise the blinds on the floor-to-ceiling windows that adorned the front and far side of the house. Sometimes she put sweet rolls in the oven or a fruit salad in the fridge. Sometimes she diced vegetables for her famous omelets. But she always had something for breakfast for those operatives who weren’t off on a case.
Then Ash came from his rooms upstairs.
He always came down at the same exact time. I could set a watch by him and never be late for an appointment. Seven fifteen. He came down in the same dark slacks and oxford shirt he always wore. Only the color of the shirt ever changed. Today it was black, like the slacks.
Like my soul.
Ash was my brother, the owner of this house, the property it sat on, and the business that was run out of it. The operatives affectionately called the place the Compound. I thought of it more as my prison.
I was an analyst for the FBI. I spent my days figuring out if there was a terrorist threat in the computer files I was given each and every morning. I was doing a good thing, an honorable thing. It might not have been as honorable as fighting terror in Afghanistan like my brother, but it was still an honorable thing. I was good at my job. Terrorists were identified because of what I did.
But then there was the accident.
Ash and I grew up in Austin, Texas where our father was a member of the state senate. A little less than three years ago, Dad decided to run for Congress. He thought it was finally time to take his political ambitions to a higher level. People loved him. He won the election easily. I flew into Austin from Los Angeles to watch the numbers come in and celebrate with him and my mom. Ash was supposed to be there, too, but he was so wrapped up in himself after his fiancée disappeared during a mission in Afghanistan that he hardly ever had time for any of us.
The accident changed that. Suddenly I couldn’t get him to leave. He followed me back to Los Angeles, practically moving in with me, insisting that I let him help me with everything. And by everything, I mean everything. He wouldn’t even let me get myself a glass of water by myself. It was almost a relief when he decided to start Gray Wolf Security, when he bought this property and flew all over the country recruiting former military to work as operatives in the business. But he couldn’t just leave it at that. He had to talk me into coming to work for him, too. I honestly believe I said yes because I was simply tired of him asking.