The more she thought about it, the more Thea was certain there was something off about that lawyer.
She returned her attention to the list of local law firms the search engine had spit out, realizing she couldn’t begin to guess which firm he was with. Specifically, because he hadn’t even told her his name, though every other lawyer she’d ever met had always been immediately ready with their name, firm and a business card at the slightest hint of interest. Not to mention the fact that a lawyer would be intelligent enough to know that she wouldn’t discuss privately-made software at work - if he’d been genuinely interested in getting her to sell the clone-blocking software, he would have offered to discuss it with her over lunch.
But if he wasn’t a lawyer, she still didn’t know what he’d thought he was doing. She’d double-checked her phone and tablet, but there was no signs of anyone even attempting an intrusion. If he’d had a device or program capable of slipping past her firewalls without leaving /any kind of trace, he wouldn’t have bothered being so obvious about his approach. Simply taking a seat at a nearby table would have likely been enough to create the opportunity he needed.
Sighing, she returned her attention to shaving another .05 seconds of response time off of the company’s current app. Whatever he’d been doing, it was a safe bet he’d decided she was more trouble than she was worth and move on to another target. There were plenty of problems already at her fingertips that would have more satisfying solutions than—
Thea was pulled from the sound of the receptionist’s voice coming in over her phone’s speaker. “Ms. Spencer?”
Her fingers stilled. “Yes?”“There’s a Mr. Dominic Walker who says he’s here to see you. He admits he doesn’t have an appointment, but also says you’re expecting him anyway.”
It was a good thing her earlier assessment hadn’t been an actual bet. Either he was more stubborn than he was smart - not terribly surprising, given what little she knew of him - or she was really the only source he could think of for whatever it was he thought he needed. Either way, she needed more information than she had.
“Send him—“ The familiar words were half out of her mouth before she realized what a terrible idea that would be. Whatever he was up to, the last thing she wanted to do was let him wander around the office on his own. “No, I’ll come down and get him.”
In the background, she could hear the faint but unfortunately familiar voice of the newly named Mr. Walker. “It’s no trouble, I’m sure I can find....”
“She asked you to wait here, Mr. Walker,” the receptionist countered, the edge of steel in his voice. Pete looked like a high school science teacher, but he’d once put the abusive ex-husband of one of their design team members on the floor. “He’ll be here, Ms. Spencer.”
“Thank you.” Thea ended the call, tapping her fingers against her desk as she thought. A part of her thought about lingering, giving him the chance for one last burst of sense and slip out the front door, but her curiosity was a strong enough itch that it was muting the sound of alarm bells ringing in her head. She’d always loved solving puzzles, and this was shaping up to be a big one.
Still, she wasn’t an idiot. Picking up her purse, she pulled out her tazer and slipped it into her pocket before heading downstairs.
The supposed Mr. Walker was waiting in the reception area as if he’d be content to do it all day, leaning against the reception counter chatting with Pete about the latest episode of some cooking show. She got close enough to hear him make a comment about the hubris of trying to cook risotto in such a narrow time limit when he caught sight of her coming closer. He shot her that same annoyingly plastic smile, and she felt her brow lower in another glare before he was intelligent enough to wipe it off and turn back to Pete. “Sorry, but it looks like I’ll have to give you that recipe for vanilla poached pears some other time. My ride’s here.”
She gestured toward the elevators without a word, waiting until they were both safely inside with the doors closed before speaking again. “It looks like you and Pete are better friends than you were five minutes ago,” she said.
There was a flicker of what she could swear was a smirk on his face, vanishing again an instant later. “I saw a cooking magazine tucked up under the edge of his desk.”
She turned enough to see his raised eyebrow. “If only you’d been that observant before you approached me.”
His expression turned rueful for a moment, and she was surprised to see what looked like genuine amusement in his eyes. “Touché.”
That was the last either of them said until the elevator reached the proper floor. She watched him scan the sea of cubicles with a clearly analytical eye, gaze lingering on the server room visible through a set of doors tucked into the corner. Her gaze followed his, trying to figure out what he was seeing, but unless he was a headhunter who was really terrible at his job she couldn’t imagine what he was looking at. No one bothered looking back at them, too used to the sight of people in suits venturing into their domain with various requests.
When they stepped into her office, she closed the door but resisted the urge to draw the blinds before she sat down. “So,” she said, leaning forward slightly. “What firm did you say you were with?”
There wasn’t even a twitch in his expression this time. “Smith, Smith & Jones,” he said easily. Her eyes narrowed, sure he’d made that up on the spot, but a quick Internet search revealed that the firm had apparently been in existence for the last decade and was located several blocks away. And... yes, there was his name in the list of lawyers. Conveniently.
Thea looked back up again, sure she saw the faintest trace of a smirk. “Can I have your card?” she asked.
He straightened, making a show of patting his pockets, then shook his head and settled back against the chair again. “Must have run out.” He made a tsking noise. “Sorry.”
She had a sneaking suspicion he was playing with her now. which was deeply annoying. “So.” She shifted her attention back to him, leaning back a little in her seat the same way video game warlords always did when they wanted to intimidate someone. “You never mentioned why it was you were stopping by.”
He didn’t say anything for a moment, just watching her with a more thoroughly analytical expression than she’d ever seen from him. Then, seemingly deciding something, he pulled a file out of his briefcase and handed it to her. “My firm is representing a client who has been accused of funding terrorists. He’s a small business owner, handles the accounts himself, but he swears he had nothing to do with it. We’re inclined to agree with him.”
Thea accepted the file, scanning through it. She was far more familiar with intellectual property law, but she’d read enough legalese to know that it supported the story. “Why hasn’t this made the news?” she asked, looking back up at him.
“Because it turns out he’s only one of 15 people who have been identified as sending money through the exact same channels to the exact same groups. They’re all in different states, all completely unrelated people, except for one thing.” This time, he took his phone out of his pocket, pulling up something on the screen before tossing it to her. “This.”
When she saw the lines of code filling the small screen, it hit like a punch to the stomach. There was no question of what it was – she recognized every program she’d ever written, especially one she’d poured as much sweat and tears into as this one.
She glared at him again, suddenly furious. “Funny,” she snapped. “I thought being accused of hacking meant a team of government agents showing up at your front door.”
He waved a hand in a vague gesture. “We did consider the possibility.”
Unfortunately, Thea wasn’t sure whether he was talking about accusing her of hacking or having the team of agents handle it. “You do realize there are probably 10 different other apps these people all have in common, right? And I’m sure three or four of them have something to do with helping them shop faster.” She scanned the code, trying to figure out what made them think her app was the one to blame. “Am I the only programmer on the list with a Russian grandmother? Because if—”
She stopped, suddenly, staring at a line of code she didn’t recognize. That was impossible – though other programmers had worked on the app with her, she’d overseen the integration of every subroutine and line of code into one elegantly unified whole. There was no piece of the program she wasn’t completely familiar with.
Except this one. Setting the phone down, she moved to her computer screen to pull up the original files. Before she could, he reached across the table to take his phone back. “No need,” he said quietly, pulling something else up on the screen before handing it back to her. “We have the original code right here.”
Thea took the phone, something inside her easing for a moment at the sight of the commands that should be there. Then that moment is gone, her anger back and immediately redirected at whatever asshole had messed with her code. “It wasn’t anyone on my team,” she said immediately. “I’m the last pair of eyes that sees this before the—” She stopped as realization hit. “The design team.”
He leaned forward, suddenly intent. “The design team?”
“Sometimes they make tweaks to the graphics without passing the code back through me first.” Normally, she didn’t mind – color or font changes were simple enough that even the newest intern could make the adjustments, and the visual elements had never mattered to Thea nearly as much as the efficiency of the programming. It was what a program could do that really mattered, not how pretty the packaging was.
But if someone had used that inattention to hijack her program….
Mr. Walker shifted forward a little more, as if ready to leap into action the moment he had all the information he needed. “Who?” The word was more command than question, the sound of someone deep in the middle of a project who was stuck until they got the answer they needed. She’d used that tone before.
Hearing it now, she realized she was missing something. “How did you get this?” she asked him, holding up the phone with the screen showing the clean code. “Because this company takes its source code copyrights very seriously, which means that anyone outside of the company interested in looking at it has to jump through several different hoops before they can.” He opened his mouth, clearly ready with a comeback, but she held up a finger. “And before you try it, I know full well that you didn’t jump through those hoops, because at least two of them have to pass directly through me. The rest would have led to at least one meeting of all the department heads, no matter how covert the government was trying to keep this. Needless to say, that also hasn’t happened.”
His eyes narrowed, clearly frustrated at getting distracted from his goal. “You’re good, but you’re not unhackable.”
While entirely true, that was definitely not the answer that was going to save him. “I never said I was,” she said easily, leaning forward again. “But if you really were a lawyer, you would need to get whatever information you planned to use for court at least semi-legally. To do that, you would need to have gone through the aforementioned hoops, which you would have happily done to keep the opposing counsel from getting your evidence thrown out. But not only did you not do that, you don’t even care that you didn’t.”
Now he looked like he was realizing his mistake, enough that she could almost see the “Oh, shit” flicker across his face. “Ms. Spencer….”
She held up a hand to stop him. “I’m not throwing you out. Not yet. Because while a lawyer can’t just pry their way into people’s code like it’s no big deal, the government can and does on a regular basis. The government would also be far more interested in arresting and detaining a hacker than in actually building a case against them.” She gave him a sharp look. “No more lies, Mr. Walker. Before I give you any more information, I need to know who you’re really working for. FBI? NSA? I’ve watched enough television to know the CIA isn’t allowed to work within the U.S., but I’m sure there are several other acronyms to choose from that I can’t think of off the top of my head.”
He watched her for another moment, far more penetratingly than he had at any previous point in their interaction, then settled back in his seat. He still looked poised, ready to move at any moment, but to her surprise his lips curved up in what might have been the first genuine smile she’d ever seen out of him. “You’re far more interesting than your file suggested you would be,” he said finally, sounding pleased by that fact. “Now, if you’ll just let yourself relax and have a little fun, this might actually turn out to be an entertaining mission for both of us.”
She raised an eyebrow at him. “‘Mission?’” she asked, not bothering to hide her disbelief. “Listen, I know they probably recruit you guys with speeches about how it’s going to be just like it is in the movies, but this is hardly a spy adventure.”
His smile widened, almost becoming a grin, and he pulled something out of his ear and tossed it to her. She caught it, more out of instinct than any real intent, and realized it was a communications ear bud. He tapped his ear, mouthing “Put it in,” and Thea hesitated for only a second before doing it.
“—serious. And don’t try to tell me this is just improvising, because you know full well I support that. I was the first to applaud when you jumped off that skyscraper in order to escape with those security files.” The woman had a faint accent, distinct but indefinable, and clearly thought she was still yelling at Mr. Walker. “But this, this is pulling in a civilian simply because she’s not letting you talk her around the same way everyone else seems—” She stopped suddenly, as if realizing something. “He’s already given you the ear bud, hasn’t he?”
There didn’t seem to be a safe way to answer this question. “Yes?”
“Well, hell.” The woman sighed. “I suppose the cat’s out of the bag then.”
Sooo... this is a complete book now, titled "How to Win Over Your Arch-Nemesis (In Three Easy Steps)." It's available in several different platforms here, as well as its sequel "Dirty Deeds Done for Reasonable Prices.