Monday, June 12, 2017

Return to the "How To Win Over Your Arch-Nemesis" universe

I was at the International Spy Museum in Washington D.C. this past weekend and this just sort of happened. I don't now if this counts as a story, but I consider it canon. Spoilers for "How To Win Over Your Arch-Nemesis (In Three Easy Steps)" and warnings for fluff.

Interlude: It Happened One Thursday Afternoon (Allegedly)

This was ridiculous.

Thea stood inside the first gallery of the International Spy Museum, staring at the information boards inviting visitors to test their spy skills and regretting every single life choice she'd made to get to this point. She'd come to Washington D.C. for a cyber security conference, sent by the company owners to make themselves feel better after the hacking scare earlier this year. Yes, all of the information at the conference was so blazingly obvious she was sure her 13-year-old niece could have taught half the sessions, but it was technically what she was being paid to do at the moment. If she refused to do that, she should at least be doing something she'd be willing to admit to her co-workers.

But... well, there were several things she couldn't exactly admit to her co-workers, wasn't there?

Like the way she had, possibly, been recruited into an independent spy agency she still wasn't entirely sure even existed. There was still a small chance she had hallucinated the entire thing, particularly the meeting almost a month ago with the supposed head of the agency (and the call from Max, who she refused to think about), since she hadn't heard from any of them since.

She could technically call them, since she'd been given a special phone designed to do just that, but she didn't really care about proving whether or not they were real. The only person she really cared about hearing from was Max, and with him there was too much of a risk of calling him at the wrong time. She could give away a hiding place, interrupt a deal he was trying to make, anything.

So she was here, trying to... what? Understand? Research? Embarrass herself?

Deciding it was definitely the latter, Thea turned around so she could fight her way back to the museum's entrance. If they wouldn't let her out there, she'd have them direct her to the nearest emergency exit. It wouldn't get her ticket money back, but that was a small price to pay for

"So soon? You haven't even gotten to the fun parts yet."

Thea froze at the familiar voice. Taking a deep breath, she turned around to see Max grinning at her. He was wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the logo of a sports team she'd never heard of, cargo shorts, sneakers, and one of the baseball caps she'd seen in souvenir stalls around town. He looked indistinguishable from the throngs of tourists surrounding them, completely different from the arrogant attorney she'd assumed him to be when they first met.

Her first thought was how much she'd missed him. Her second thought, thankfully, was considerably more practical. "Have" Realizing what she was about to say, she stopped and leaned in close enough that she could lower her voice. "Have you been tracking me?"

"No more than Homeland Security does," he said under his breath. "We just... borrow their system sometimes to keep an eye on assets, enemies and people we want to make sure stay protected."

She narrowed her eyes at him. "Which category am I in?"

His grin returned, milder but no less genuine-looking than the last one had been. If she never saw his fake smile again, it would be too soon. "I would never make the mistake of calling you an asset."

She could feel her own expression ease. "It's good to know you're smarter than I initially gave you credit for." When he made an amused sound, her lips curved upward. "So, any chance you're going to try and convince me you're in the middle of a mission?"

"I don't know if you noticed, seeing as how it was the entire /room was devoted to it, but the museum assigns everyone missions and cover identities when they get here." He offered her a hand to shake. "Hello, my name is Greta."

An actual chuckle slipped out at that. "You make a very convincing Greta."

He beamed at her like she'd just given him a Christmas present, his body relaxing so subtly she hadn't known he was tense until he wasn't. "I had a really boring visit to the FBI Building this morning, and in a couple of hours I've got to jump on a plane to Istanbul. But until then, I'm all yours."

The visit to the FBI Building was no doubt some kind of meeting or debrief, and she knew she didn't want to imagine the kinds of dangerous things he would be doing in Istanbul. But he'd stolen a few hours, just for her, and it felt like she'd been given a gift.

Something inside her softened dangerously. "I won't call you Greta, even while we're here, but you can pick whatever other name you want." He refused to tell her his real name, or even his handle, and so she'd started calling him Max because she'd refused to use his alias in private conversation. He seemed to like it, but she could admit now that it hadn't exactly been fair of her.

There was something very close to fondness in his eyes as they started walking to the next exhibit. "To you, I'm always Max."

000

Unsurprisingly, he talked the entire time. His knowledge of spy-related movies and TV shows was almost encyclopedic, and his knowledge of famous real-life spy stories was almost as extensive. He gave her more detailed backstories than they could ever hope to fit on the museum's little signs, coming across far more like a spy nerd than he did a spy. They also had several fascinating discussions about various pieces of old-school spy technology, all couched in discussions Max swore were completely theoretical. She didn't know if she entirely believed him, but as lies went it was both minor and necessary.

His obvious love for the entire profession, however, wasn't a lie at all. It lit his voice every time he talked about some spy's moment of heroism or ingenuity, or oohed and aahed over a particularly cool spy toy. He looked like a little kid talking about what he dreamed of being when he grew up.

The more nuanced insights came far more rarely, particularly because he tended to skim over anything that put a serious look on his face. The CIA made him prone to a bitter-edged sarcasm, at least when it was talked about as an entity and not individual agents, and the FBI left him shaking his head. What either meant, she didn't know - sales people left her prone to sarcasm, but her only connection to them was that they annoyed her.

There was one surprising moment, however. Near the beginning of the exhibits about the history of spying, there was a quote from Sun Tzu's "The History of War": "A military operation involves deception. Even though you are competent, appear to be incompetent. Though effective, appear to be ineffective."

The idea threw her. She thought about the empty-headed charm Max had used when they'd first met, the same that had left her questioning his intelligence, and imagined him putting it on the same way he did his suits. It must work, more often than it didn't, or he wouldn't have defaulted to it so easily.
What did it do to you, to have to hide your intelligence all the time? She'd had to fight tooth and nail to see hers acknowledged, and she couldn't imagine being forced to deny she even had it.

She turned to Max, who shot her a wry look. "Don't tell me you hadn't figured it out by now."

"Oh, I had." She watched his face. "I just hadn't thought about how hard it must be."

Max blinked, startled, and there was a moment when he looked almost flustered. "That's... I..." He floundered a bit, then gave up and cleared his throat. "Thank you."

Touched, she squeezed his shoulder before moving on to the next exhibit. "Come on. You can tell me all about Revolutionary War spying."

They hadn't quite made it through WWII, however, when he leaned close. "Sorry," he whispered. "I wish I could stay longer."

She waved the apology aside, ignoring the weight of disappointment in her own chest. At least he hadn't just slipped away again. "All I ask is that you be better at using your phone."

He looked appropriately regretful. "I haven't snagged a case I'd need your help with, yet."

"Then don't call me for work reasons." She gave him a pointed look. " It's considerably safer for you to interrupt me than it is for me to interrupt you. I'm sure even you can find a few safe moments to tell someone hi."

He hesitated, then a small, soft smile crossed his face. "Yes, ma'am."

She didn't watch him slip away, eyes fixed on any exhibit she didn't have the slightest interest in. A few more rooms made it clear that the entire rest of the museum had lost its appeal, and before too long she started weaving through all the exhibits to the exit.

When she made it to the gift shop, however, one of the women behind the counter waved her hand. "Ma'am? Your friend left something for you."

Thea stopped, coming closer. "A note?"

"No." The woman held up a souvenir bag with a smile. "He said you wouldn't buy yourself anything, so he needed to."

Thea opened the bag, finding a t-shirt that said "Top 10 reasons I didn't make it in the CIA." On the other side of the receipt, he'd scrawled a note. "Don't tell the CIA I gave you this. They wouldn't find it as funny as I do."

Feeling a smile sneak across her face, Thea stopped by the bathroom and changed into the t-shirt before she left. It looked ridiculous with her work slacks, she was sure, but she didn't care.

Being ridiculous wasn't such a bad thing, after all.

A Bonus Scene (from before any of the above happened)

At least it's not the CIA.

Max repeated the familiar mantra to himself as he finally escaped the FBI Building, his dark suit indistinguishable making him indistinguishable from the other people flowing in and out of the building. The debrief they'd insisted on had been both endless and repetitive, and he'd seriously considered escaping out the window a few times. But he hadn't even been tempted to punch anyone, so there was that.

Still, all he had planned for the afternoon was an obscenely long plane ride, so it didn't look like his day was going to improve any. The only thing to do was console himself with a late lunch, preferably one that somehow involved cheese fries, and remind himself that things would finally get interesting again once he actually got to Istanbul.

He was a few blocks away, still mulling over his food choices, when he got a call from what appeared to be the hotel his current alias was staying at. Since that hotel didn't actually have this number, however, there was no hesitation in his voice when he answered. "Let me guess - you've somehow managed to reroute me through Des Moines."

"No, but that's a lovely thought for next time I find you suitably vexing." D's voice was warmly amused. "Now, though, you should be thanking me. I got you a present."

He smiled a little. "Does it explode?"

"If you annoy her sufficiently. It's one of her best qualities."

Max went utterly still. There was only one woman, anywhere, who D could possibility be talking about. "Where? How?"

"She's in town for a cybersecurity conference, but it seems she's decided to play hooky for the day. I'll text you the coordinates, but it seems like she's sticking to the tourist areas. You may want to change your clothes."

He was already moving again, hurrying to the nearest Metro station. "How long has she been here?" He'd lost consciousness pretty much the moment his head had hit the pillow last night, barely an hour after he'd landed, but he'd been at that meeting with the FBI for hours. He'd wasted so much time. "Why didn't you tell me?"

"I could say that you had a job to do, and I knew if I told you this you wouldn't do it," D said archly. "Luckily for you, though, the truth is that I found out 10 minutes ago."

There was a strange sort of relief in that. "I never should have doubted you."

"No, you shouldn't have." She sounded mollified. "You owe me."

"I absolutely do." He hung up the phone with a grin, shoving it in his pocket before breaking into a full out run. It made him more obvious than he liked to be, but right now that didn't matter.

He had someone he needed to meet.

Friday, May 19, 2017

"Piper's Song" excerpt

I'd like to introduce you all to the latest obsession/torment of my life - my current novel, "Piper's Song." I've posted an excerpt here before, but that was like four versions ago. This is from the current one, the one that will mostly stick (barring the inevitable new round of edits, of course):

Chapter 3: The Key to a Drama-Free Life

A year later

Either the Kensford City planners had no imagination, or their residents didn’t. This street market was just the same as all the others Jess had ever passed through, with vendors crowding into the square trying to outshout whoever owned the cart or stall next to them. The people had clearly heard it all before, which meant they were more focused on the gossip their neighbors were sharing than they were hearing about a ridiculously overpriced scarf that was “handmade by the elves, as I live and breathe.”

Jess skimmed her fingers along the mound of apples piled high at the produce stall, ear cocked to take in every mutter of the crowd behind her. She’d been sent an official request for her services, this time, brief and polite and nearly vibrating with an urgency that was never actually stated, but there was no way she was going to speak to the mayor armed with so little.

If the rumor mill was any indication, there was a lot the mayor hadn’t said.

“I’ve had to buy bread three times this week! The rats keep eating it!”

“I swear there was no sign of the little beasts even a week ago, but now they’re everywhere. It’s like an invasion.”

“They’ve practically moved into my daughter’s bedroom! We’ve tried putting poison out, but the nasty things won’t go anywhere near it.”

“I’m telling you, there’s nothing natural about this. Nothing at all.”

Next to her, Thomas made an interested sound that Jess was sure had nothing at all to do with the conversations going on around them. He was intent on his mirror, skimming through various news streams like he was hunting something down, and when he got like this not even an explosion was enough to distract him.

 Jess smiled a little at the memory. Only Thomas would list the likely ingredients of a bomb as they were running away from it.

On her other side, the owner of the stall was winding down his debate with a customer over the price of plums – when the other woman left, Jess knew she would be the next target for the sales pitch. Pocketing the apple closest to her fingers, she reached behind her and hooked her fingers on the hem of Thomas’s shirt. Tugging him over to the next stall – cheese, and the fancy kind by the smell of it – she deposited him safely out of the path of foot traffic and continued to feign an interest in shopping while she listened.

By the time three more people had commented on how “sudden” the infestation was, Jess wondered if there really was magic involved. It didn’t sound like something a sorcerer or sorceress would try – it wasn’t flashy enough, and they likely would have delivered a threat of some kind by now – but it could be just the right sort of revenge for a witch. Particularly one who was mad at the city council for some reason, and might be perfectly happy to pass that grudge onto the piper who just happened to wander into town. Even if she and Thomas didn’t end up a target, the witch could just send a new batch of rats right back into town after they’d left. And Jess, more than likely, would be blamed for it.

Jess sighed. She hated it when things got complicated.

Feeling the stall owner’s attention shift their way, she snagged Thomas’s shirt again and led them both over to a quiet corner. He let himself be guided, waiting until they were out of the way of any other potentially open ears before looking up from his mirror. “Ask for double your fee,” he said quietly, reporting on the research he’d just been doing. He pushed his glasses back up his nose. “Elections are coming up, and if the current mayor doesn’t take care of the rat problem there’s no chance of him getting to stay in office.”

She leaned against the alley wall next to him, watching the crowd move past the entry into the small alleyway. The rhythm of this was already a familiar thing between them, as easy as she remembered it being between the performers in her foster mother’s theater troupe. Only they’d all worked together for years, the history between them all older than Jess herself, and she and Thomas had barely been doing this for a year. It was worrying, when she let herself think about it.

Mostly, she didn’t let herself.

“So that’s a point on the plus side,” she said instead, letting herself get lost in the rhythm. “On the minus side, there’s a chance someone ticked off a witch or a sorceress. We don’t want to get in the middle of that.”

Thomas’s brow furrowed, and he immediately bent back down to his mirror. His fingers flew over the mirror’s surface, various lists and maps flashing by in the smooth glass, and after a moment he shook his head. “There’s been no sign of any kind of trouble like that, and you know how the magic community likes to keep tabs on each other. Besides, the nearest sorcerer or sorceress is 200 miles away, and the nearest witch....” He let the words trail off as he double-checked something. “...left a year ago to take care of her sister after a house fell on her. She’s changed her address on the mailing list and everything.”

“Did you finally let them sign you up?” He’d let himself slip the week before and not-quite-complained about the pressure he was getting from some of the witches on the message boards he posted on regularly. He’d protested, saying he wasn’t even a witch, but apparently the actual witches hadn’t been bothered by that little detail.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

NO MORE E-book problem on Amazon

Update: The problem has been resolved, and the titles should be popping back up throughout the day. Yay!

It seems as though the Amazon Kindle versions of my three full-length novels have currently vanished into thin air, but worry not - it's an issue between the publisher and the site that's caused the problem, and therefore most definitely not a permanent state of affairs. If you can't wait to buy the books, they're still available as print copies on all sites and as e-books on both the iBooks store and Kobo, which has an Android app.

My iBooks links

My Kobo links

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Guest Post: Why zombies are the perfect modern monster

I featured F.J.R. Titchenell on the post when her "Confessions of the Very First Zombie Slayer (That I Know Of)" came out, and since it's being re-released on April 4 with a new publisher and a snazzy new cover I thought I'd have her drop by again to share her thoughts on why zombies are still so gosh darn popular.

000

Why Zombies Are the Perfect Modern Monster
by F.J.R. Titchenell

I’m a huge fan of zombie fiction – as you can probably tell by the fact that I wrote a book called Confessions of the Very First Zombie Slayer (That I Know of) – but when asked questions like this one, about why exactly zombies are so popular, I find that my answers tend to get a bit misanthropic.

Why are we so enthralled by the concept of an apocalyptic plague of hungry, infectious walking corpses?

Since the idea has passed through the hands of so many different writers, it’s been spun a million different ways and used to express lots of different things, from anti-materialism to self-exploration to downright futility. In general though, zombie stories that come anywhere close to the standard format of brainless, unsaveable zombies, plucky survivors, and nonexistent infrastructure, all speak to one particular human fear.

The fear of being lost in the crowd.

I don’t just mean literally being lost in a packed space full of hostile strangers, but the fear of our own insignificance on a planet full of people crying out to be acknowledged.

Imagining ourselves against the backdrop of the zombie apocalypse allows us to feel instantly special and separate from an endless crowd of extras by virtue of simply being alive. We and our tiny cast of fellow survivor characters are thinking, feeling, real people who matter; the bodies packing the streets outside aren’t.

Pretty sick, right?

But we all do it. We all fantasize about not having to share, not having to wait our turn, about taking whatever strikes our fancy because there’s no one to tell us it’s not ours, about carving our way through the people in line ahead of us with a chainsaw, because they weren’t real anyway, not the way we are.

Is this a specifically modern desire? I’m sure it’s always existed, but it also makes sense that it could have been intensified by a rising world population, and by improved communication technology making it more obvious to each of us how far from alone we are – and by the same token, how dubious our sense of uniqueness. And while we’re still a very long way off from achieving true universal equality, it is thankfully far less socially acceptable to elevate oneself by openly dehumanizing a particular group of fellow humans than it was, say, a hundred years ago. Maybe fictional zombies have risen as a convenient psychological surrogate for that particular destructive human habit.

I don’t know if all this would make me call zombies the perfect modern monster, but it certainly makes them a great modern guilty pleasure.

So is that all typical zombies fiction is? A safe, controlled outlet for the worst of our remaining lizard-brain instincts?

That’s certainly a large part of it, but I like to think not.

Zombies can also set the stage to explore the best parts of how people respond to a crisis. A lot of zombie fiction tends to focus disproportionately on humanity at its worst, assuming that the majority of people who survive the apocalypse would immediately take the excuse to unveil themselves as the biggest psychos they could possibly be, but my favorite moments are when we get to see how desperate and exceptional circumstances can instead bring out people’s compassion, initiative, and ingenuity.

I like to believe that where there are still humans, there’s still humanity. There’s still love and laughter, even when it has to come in the form of a morbid crutch, and that’s what you’ll find in Confessions of the Very First Zombie Slayer (That I Know of). There might be a psycho or two for flavor, but mostly it’s about a group of teens who could have gone their separate ways in the everyday world, finding time to riff on each other and keep being teens as that world ends around them, even while they adapt to protect and support each other through it.

Oh, and also plenty of looting, skull smashing, traffic law breaking, and fireworks, because you can’t release the zombies and not feed the lizard brain a little.

Come on, now.

000

More about Confessions of the Very First Zombie Slayer (That I Know of)

The world is Cassie Fremont’s playground. Her face is on the cover of every newspaper. She has no homework, no curfew, and no credit limit, and she spends her days traveling the country with her friends, including a boy who would do the chicken dance with death to make her smile. Life is just about perfect—except that those newspaper headlines are about her bludgeoning her crush to death with a paintball gun, she has to fight ravenous walking corpses every time she steps outside, and one of her friends is still missing, trapped somewhere in the distant, practically impassable wreckage of Manhattan.


Still, Cassie’s an optimist, more prone to hysterical laughter than hysterical tears, and she’d rather fight a corpse than be one. She’ll never leave a friend stranded when she can simply take her road trip to impossible new places, even if getting there means admitting to that boy that she might love him as more than her personal jester. Skillfully blending effective horror with unexpected humor, this diary-style novel is a fast-paced and heartwarming read.

Pre-order it here:

Amazon
Smashwords
iTunes
Barnes and Noble

More about F.J.R. Titchenell

F.J.R. Titchenell is an author of young adult, sci-fi, and horror fiction. She graduated with a B.A in English from California State University, Los Angeles, in 2009 at the age of twenty, is represented by Fran Black of Literary Counsel, and currently lives in San Gabriel, California with her husband and fellow author, Matt Carter, and their pet king snake, Mica.

The "F" is for Fiona, and on the rare occasions when she can be pried away from her keyboard, her kindle, and the pages of her latest favorite book, Fi can usually be found over-analyzing the inner workings of various TV Sci-Fi universes or testing out some intriguing new recipe, usually chocolate-related. You can find more about her at her official homepage, fjrtitchenell.weebly.com.



Sunday, March 5, 2017

Sales! Sales! Sales!


IPG is doing a sale for print copies of both "Beast Charming" and "Dreamless," with "Beast Charming" available for $9.99 and "Dreamless" available for $11.99 throughout the month of March. If you've been thinking about picking up either, this is probably your best chance. Here's the link (it may look like the books are still the original prices, but the sale prices are listed next to the "Buy this" button. I couldn't find it at first, either).













If you've been looking to pick up a copy of "Two Left Feet" but are a frugally minded soul (like myself), now might be your chance. The book will be on sale for 99 cents now through March 11 at Smashwords, a non-platform or app specific site that has several e-book formats. Just use the code RAE50 at checkout (and/or click on the "Buy With Coupon" link available on the page).


Happy reading!

Monday, February 13, 2017

How to Win Over Your Arch-Nemesis (in Three Easy Steps) question/future plans (a.k.a. my little spy fic)

I wasn't really prepared to trip and fall into spy fiction. I'd never written it, never really even thought about writing it, and then one little plot bunny happened and suddenly I have a whole new universe. Weirder still, it's one I really, really like. Like many people who have commented on the two chapters I have posted (thank you all, they're all so lovely), I've realized over the last few weeks that I really, really want to know what happens next.

So my current plan is to double the current amount of text (I say double, but never in all my life has a piece of fiction kept to the word count I thought it would, so it'll probably go over) get a cover together, and publish it on several different platforms (including Smashwords) as a 99 cent e-book. I will, of course, keep everyone updated here and on my various social media profiles.

And if you guys end up liking that, who knows? Spies (and computer programmers, I suspect) always seem to have more than one adventure under their belt.

Update: It's up now. I've collected all the links it's currently available at here, and will be adding links to new platforms as they go online. 

Thursday, January 19, 2017

How to Win Over Your Arch-Nemesis (in Three Easy Steps), ch. 2

So I'm playing in the spy genre now. For those who missed the first chapter, check it out here.

000

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.” 

000

Sooo... this is a complete book now, titled "How to Win Over Your Arch-Nemesis (In Three Easy Steps)." All of the platforms its available on at the moment are here, and I'll keep adding links as it goes online on new platforms.