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FROM USA TODAY BESTSELLING AUTHOR J. ROBERT KENNEDY
A CRIPPLING CYBERATTACK.
A HEART-WRENCHING LOSS.
WILL ONE MAN’S THIRST FOR REVENGE LEAD TO WAR?
Two years ago, cyber security specialist Clayton Hummel unknowingly betrayed his country for love, and today, billionaire Franklin Temple pays the price. Blinded by grief and rage, and dissatisfied with his government’s response, Temple uses his considerable wealth to take matters into his own hands, and bring justice to those responsible for the greatest cyberattack in history.
And his thirst for revenge may just lead us to war.
Join CIA Special Agent Dylan Kane and his team, as they race a grieving father to find those responsible for a ransomware attack that crippled millions of computers around the world, including those in one town, in one hospital, where one young, innocent patient died as a result.
From USA Today bestselling author J. Robert Kennedy comes another torn from the headlines thriller, Retribution, where he once again takes current events and twists them to his own end, delivering a taut action-packed page-turner certain to leave you wondering who to cheer for. Packed with heartache and pain, hope and romance, and enough thrilling action and laughter to satisfy any fan of the genre, Retribution delivers like only Kennedy can.
With over 800,000 books sold and over 3000 five-star reviews, USA Today bestselling author J. Robert Kennedy has been ranked by Amazon as the #1 Bestselling Action Adventure novelist based upon combined sales. He is the author of over thirty international bestsellers including the smash hit James Acton Thrillers. He lives with his wife and daughter and writes full-time.
"A master storyteller." — Betty Richard
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"Kennedy kicks ass in this genre." — David Mavity
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"If you want fast and furious, if you can cope with a high body count, most of all if you like to be hugely entertained, then you can't do much better than J Robert Kennedy." — Amazon Vine Voice Reviewer
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For Dave Camp, a good friend of the family, and a true fan.
“The National Security Agency/Central Security Service (NSA/CSS) leads the U.S. Government in cryptology that encompasses both Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) and Information Assurance (IA) products and services, and enables Computer Network Operations (CNO) in order to gain a decision advantage for the Nation and our allies under all circumstances.”
Mission Statement of the National Security Agency
“We face cyber threats from state-sponsored hackers, hackers for hire, global cyber syndicates, and terrorists. They seek our state secrets, our trade secrets, our technology, and our ideas - things of incredible value to all of us. They seek to strike our critical infrastructure and to harm our economy.”
James Comey, Director of the FBI
On May 12, 2017, the largest ransomware attack in history began. Dubbed “WannaCry,” it rapidly spread through computers around the world, exploiting a vulnerability in the Windows operating system only recently patched by Microsoft, a patch too many hadn’t installed. Hundreds of thousands of computers were infected worldwide, and if it weren’t for an analyst who discovered a kill-switch built into the code, things could have been much worse.
Individuals, utilities, businesses, and governments around the globe were affected, with Britain’s National Health Service (NHS) particularly hard hit. This resulted in postponed surgeries and tests, and clogged emergency rooms. To date, it is not known if anyone died as a direct result of WannaCry, however it is only a matter of time before someone does from an attack of this nature.
What was particularly shocking about this event was that it used a vulnerability discovered by the NSA, a vulnerability allegedly stolen, along with thousands of others, by one of their own.
What follows is fiction, but too soon could become a reality when someone, somewhere, finally has enough.
Albany, New York One week from now
NSA Special Agent Janine Graf’s heart hammered as the events unfolded before her eyes. Events that were now beyond her control. Their two escort vehicles had been disabled, the fate of their occupants unknown, and now she sat, boxed in, with overwhelming firepower directed at her and her team.
But they were alive.
An SUV rolled up on their position, braking hard, the lone occupant stepping out, weapon in hand as he aimed it at their attackers.
Her heart leaped.
It was Kane, a man she had met only today, who had identified himself as working for Homeland Security.
Something she knew was BS.
“Would it be presumptuous of me to ask all of you to lower your weapons?”
She almost had to stifle a giggle. Was the man ever serious? He was strangely appealing to her. Yes, he was a gorgeous specimen of a man, but it was the confidence he exuded that made him attractive. Too bad she didn’t date liars.
Four of the weapons trained on her SUV were redirected toward Kane.
He frowned. “I guess so.” He leaned through the window, rather obviously aiming at the prisoner she had been transporting, now out of the SUV. “Shoot me, and I guarantee you he dies.”
One of their attackers stepped forward, covered head to toe in black, including his face, a submachine gun aimed casually in Kane’s direction. “I think you should mind your own business. You might get yourself hurt.”
She drew a quick breath as someone rounded Kane’s vehicle from behind. She opened her mouth to warn him, but it was too late.
Kane was down, and their only hope of rescue gone with him.
Ashland, Oregon Present Day
Franklin Temple careened around a corner, his navigation system giving him turn-by-turn instructions as he split his attention between the road and the back seat.
“Hang on, Angel, we’re almost there!”
The tremor in his voice couldn’t be hidden, and he reached up to wipe away a tear. His heart hammered as he realized this time he didn’t even hear a moan in reply.
His car beeped at him and slowed rapidly. He spun his head and gasped as his car prevented him from rear-ending the vehicle ahead of him. He cranked the wheel and veered around, a flurry of horns protesting as he forced his way through the quiet intersection and the red light that blared at him in the dimness of a small town at night.
But traffic tickets meant nothing to him.
He hammered on the gas and the 621 horsepower shoved him into the back of his seat as the navigation system warned him of an impending turn. He spotted it and turned hard, the lights of the hospital just ahead. He reached back blindly and felt his daughter’s tiny arm.
It was cold.
“Oh, God, please don’t take her too!”
He closed his eyes for a brief moment, picturing his wife, lost to him a year ago to ALS, then opened his eyes and cranked the wheel as the system announced he had reached his destination. He slammed on his brakes, bringing the Mercedes-AMG S 65 to a shuddering halt. Jumping out the driver’s side, he yanked open the rear door and reached in, grabbing the still form of his daughter.
“Somebody help me!” he cried as he pulled her from the rear seat and rushed toward the doors. “Help me! It’s my daughter!”
But no one did. They just turned and watched him as he raced inside, one having the audacity to hold up a phone and record his horror.
“Help me! My daughter, I think she’s dying!”
The lobby turned toward him, and this time, finally, somebody reacted. Nurses and staff rushed toward him, his precious Angela gently pulled from his desperate grip and taken away, a flurry of questions bombarding him as he followed in stunned shock, his responses automatic, his conscious brain not even realizing he was answering.
He stood in the emergency room, the bustle of activity coming into focus.
“Have you reached Dr. Karl yet?”
“No. Nobody has his number. Jennifer took my car to go to his house.”
“Call her and get an ETA.”
Temple stared at the two nurses having the conversation, the words finally registering.
Nobody has a doctor’s phone number?
That didn’t make any sense. He examined the room around him. There were a larger number of patients than he would have expected for a small hospital, and the nurses appeared overwhelmed. He turned to ask a question when he noticed the computers. Every screen was red, with the image of a large white lock in the upper corner and a box of text to the right.
And nobody was at any of the terminals, except one lone man, pulling at his hair, who didn’t appear to be medical staff.
Temple quickly strode around the counter in the center of the room and leaned over. “What’s going on?”
The man looked up. “Huh?”
“What’s going on with the computers?”
“We’ve been hacked.”
Temple tensed, then glanced toward the doors where his daughter had been taken, and he had been refused entry. “What do you mean?”
“I don’t know. I’m in over my head on this one. We’ve been locked out of every computer on the network. Whoever did it is demanding Bitcoins as some sort of ransom to unlock the machines.”
Temple frowned. “What have you tried?”
“Everything I can think of. I’ve booted from a USB key, and it looks like the files are encrypted. We don’t have access to anything. Patient records, prescriptions. Hell, we don’t even have the emergency contact info for our on-call doctors!”
“What happened to the doctors on staff?”
“Doctor. He was attacked by a patient about half an hour ago. His hand has been sliced open. He can’t treat anybody.”
Temple cursed, his hands balling into fists. “Pay the ransom.”
The young man’s eyes widened. “Are you kidding me?”
Temple leaned further over the counter. “Pay it now. My daughter’s in there, and she needs a doctor. Now!”
“I can’t pay it! I’m not authorized.”
“Terry, is there a problem here?”
Temple glanced over his shoulder at a man in a suit. “Apparently so. I need you to pay the ransom now to unlock these computers.”
“Sir, I’m going to have to ask you to have a seat and let our staff work the problem.”
Work the problem. This guy I can deal with.
“I’m Franklin Temple.” He extended a hand, struggling to remain as calm as he could, his daughter’s very life perhaps depending on it. “Do you know who I am?”
The man’s eyes widened. “CEO of Temple Technologies?”
“Exactly. I’ll pay the ransom. Just tell your man to proceed.”
“I-I wish it were that simple, Mr. Temple, but the Board has already given me strict instructions not to pay any ransom. We have offsite backups, and a team is already on its way to wipe the computers and reinstall. We should be up and running by end of day tomorrow.”
“And what of my daughter? She’s dying now!” Temple clamped his jaw shut, stifling the tirade he feared would erupt at any moment.
“We’re transferring all critical patients—”
“We don’t have time for that!” He leaned toward the man. “What’s your annual budget?”
“I’ll double it. You know I can.”
The man’s jaw slowly dropped. “I-I’ll have to convene the board.”
Temple threw up his hands in frustration. “It’s time to grow some balls! Make a damned decision for once in your life, or I’ll sue this hospital for every penny it’s got!”
The man took a long breath through his nose, then turned to the young man, Terry, working the computers. “Do it.”
“Yes. I’ll deal with the board.”
Terry’s eyes widened. “Cool!”
Temple leaped over the counter and grabbed one of the empty chairs, parking behind a terminal. “Do you know what to do?”
“Yeah, I think so.”
“Then let’s prioritize. What do we need first?”
“It shouldn’t matter. We just need one terminal to access the network. I don’t think the network data has been encrypted, just the local. Once we unlock one machine, we should have access to everything.”
A rage built inside Temple. “How much are they asking for?”
“It’s in Bitcoins, but I think it works out to be about three hundred bucks per computer.”
Temple slammed both fists onto the counter. “Are you kidding me! You guys have put all these patients’ lives at risk over three hundred bucks!”
Terry recoiled, the blood draining from his face. “Hey, don’t blame me. I’m just following orders.”
Temple bit his tongue. “Pay it, now.”
Terry nodded, his fingers flying over the keyboard, and a few minutes later he smiled, the red screen disappearing. “I’m in!”
Temple rolled his chair over and watched as Terry rebooted the machine, a standard login appearing. Moments later, they were staring at the hospital’s interface. “Get whoever needs that machine the most on it, then let’s start unlocking the rest.”
A nurse rushed over. “Did you get in?”
She shoved Terry out of the way and quickly began typing away. “I’ve got the numbers!”
The flurry of activity stopped for a moment, sighs of relief briefly replacing the panic. Then it returned almost immediately. Temple and Terry quickly went to work, unlocking the rest of the computers, each requiring payment in Bitcoins, the hackers having provided specific instructions on how to purchase them through conventional means, then how to deposit those digital coins into their untraceable wallet.
It disgusted him with every transaction, but as each was completed, another staff member returned to their computer.
“Dr. Karl will be here in five minutes.”
Temple glanced over his shoulder at the nurse. “My daughter?”
She stared at him for a moment. “I’ll go check.”
He smiled at her gratefully, and took a moment for a silent prayer before returning to solving the problem at hand. It was all he could do. He was a technical expert, not a medical expert. He needed the doctors and nurses to be able to focus on their jobs with the tools they were used to having at their disposal. That was something he could help with, and by doing so, he just might save his daughter’s life by allowing the experts to do their job.
The doors to the ER swung open and he glanced up to see the nurse who had left moments ago to check on his daughter.
And her face told him everything.
“Is she…?” He couldn’t finish the question as he began to shut down.
“I’m so sorry, sir. There was nothing we could do.”
“If there had been a doctor here?”
“I-I really can’t say. Perhaps.”
Temple’s shoulders shook as sobs racked his body. “Oh, God, why? Why both of them?” He felt a hand on his shoulder, but it provided none of the comfort intended. He ignored it, his self-pity almost overwhelming him, until through the tears he saw the blur of the screen in front of him, the red burning through the sorrow, a rage building within.
They’re going to pay.
Clayton Hummel Residence Annapolis, Maryland Two Years Ago
Clayton Hummel stared at the mirror, the reflection still a shock to him even after decades of disappointment looking back at him. He was what the medical community labeled morbidly obese, what the comedians and public might call a fat bastard, and what he called a disgusting example of a human being.
He hated himself.
It was why he despised having photos taken of himself. If he were in a situation where a camera was out, he was always the one offering to take the photo.
Better to be behind the lens, than in front of it.
There were no photos of himself in his home except from his youth, before the food addiction had taken over, or from the brief period of time when he had lost the weight after bariatric surgery.
But it had all come back.
He had never wanted the surgery, but the doctors had insisted it was his best and only option. His family had urged him to go through with it, and what few friends he had, agreed as well.
So he had.
And it had worked.
Until he had slowly stretched out his newly shrunken stomach, and eventually put the weight back on.
Much to the dismay—and disgust—of those around him.
But they didn’t understand. They couldn’t understand.
It was an addiction. An emotional crutch. When he was depressed or stressed, he ate. The very act of chewing, of tasting, of swallowing, was a comfort that no person had ever provided him. During those few minutes he was eating, he wasn’t alone. It was him and his fork, in front of the television, lost in a world of euphoric satisfaction, where his troubles would be forgotten, where the fact he was chronically alone would fade to the periphery, and for those few brief moments, he was happy.
Until he was done.
Then he’d feel sick.
Stuffed to the point of almost vomiting, disgusted with what he had just eaten, the depression would return as he beat himself up over his failure as a man, as a human being. He hated himself, and he hated what he had become. Yet no surgery, no diet, could possibly work until he addressed the root cause.
And what that was, he had no idea.
He needed counseling, yet was too proud, too much of “a man” to ever submit to such a thing. He never spoke of it to his family, and they never broached the subject anymore. Not since his dramatic failure after the surgery. It was a constant source of anguish for his parents and his sister, and he desperately wanted to stop, but he couldn’t.
And he didn’t know why.
Every single time he overate, he knew it was wrong, even while he was doing it. Even before he placed the online order for a large pizza when all he needed was the small. He wasn’t a fool. He wasn’t an idiot. He was killing himself, yet he couldn’t stop.
And he didn’t know why.
God, help me! Please!
He didn’t know why he bothered praying for some sort of salvation. And what form would that be? Instantaneous weight loss? The miraculous ability to just say no to the cravings? The sudden ability to love himself for the first time in his life?
He stared in the mirror, then shrugged his 2XLT black pocket-tee over his shoulders and pulled it down over his large frame, yanking at the fibers of the freshly laundered shirt in an attempt to stretch it out so it wasn’t so tight.
He glared at himself.
Do you really think the black makes you look any thinner, you fat piece of shit?
His eyes burned and he turned away, sitting on the edge of the bed, slipping on a pair of shorts with an elastic waistband that allowed him to feel thinner than he actually was. Size 44, instead of the probably 50 he needed. He stood and buttoned them closed with a struggle, his held breath bursting as he finally managed to get the button through the hole he had no hope of seeing.
He checked the part in his hair then headed for his home office, and to the only friends he had. The friends he had met online, in a world that had no idea what he looked like, or how he felt about himself.
An electronic world where he could be the man he dreamed of being, and not the pathetic creature he had become.
Ashland, Oregon Present Day
Franklin Temple sat alone in a room reserved for the families of patients who had succumbed to whatever had brought them here. A call had been placed to his company, and a team was on the way, though with the exception of his personal assistant, none were friends, and none were family.
The last of that died only hours ago.
An autopsy was to be performed, but he already had a preliminary diagnosis from the doctor who had arrived too late, his phone with him the entire time as he had a romantic dinner with his wife nearby, the number known only to a ransomed computer, the nurse’s aide sent to his home finding an empty, darkened house.
The doctor’s theory was a ruptured aorta, probably from a congenital defect like Marfan syndrome. If he had been here, if any surgeon had been here, they would probably have saved her. But instead, the surgeon on duty had been incapacitated by an irate patient, frustrated by the long waits due to the ransomware attack on the hospital’s computers, and the backup had been unreachable.
A confluence of events no contingency plan could have mitigated.
And it wasn’t just here. A television in the corner, the volume low, was tuned to a news channel as it delighted in broadcasting the details of what was characterized as the largest ransomware attack in history, with millions of computers crippled across the planet, including government, institutional, corporate, and personal. Talking head experts were advising people not to pay the ransom, as it would only encourage further attacks, and those not impacted were urged to make sure their latest security patches for their operating systems were installed.
He stared at his phone, at the last photo taken of his wife and daughter together. His beloved Clara was having a good day, and if he didn’t know when it was taken, he could be forgiven for not remembering the fact her body had been ravaged by an incurable disease, and she was only weeks away from death. His precious angel, his dear, sweet Angela, was hugging her mother, a huge grin on her face, seemingly oblivious to the fate that awaited the woman who had given birth to her too few years ago.
And now they were both gone.
All because a hospital hadn’t patched their systems with the latest security updates.
All because a hospital wouldn’t pay three hundred dollars to unlock just one machine.
All because some faceless hacker, working on behalf of only God knew who, launched an attack purely motivated by greed.
He put his phone in sleep mode and closed his eyes, his mind racing with what to do next. His team would arrive soon, and they would make things much easier. Being rich had its advantages, and he planned on letting them deal with as much as they could.
His daughter was dead, and there was nothing he could do about it. He would cut a check to the hospital as he had promised, and he would meet with somebody in Washington to find out what they were doing about the attack.
For someone had to pay.
The death of his little girl, the death of the only thing left in this world that he loved, could not go unpunished.
There was a gentle knock on the door and he glanced toward it. “Come.”
The door opened slightly and his assistant entered, Tanya Davis’ concerned look genuine, the woman always doting on Angela whenever she was at the office. “Sir, I’m so sorry. Are you okay?”
Temple grunted. “What do you think?”
She knelt in front of him and took his hand. “Can I get you anything?”
His shoulders shook and a single tear escaped, rolling down his cheek. “The heads of those responsible.”
She reached into her purse and removed a tissue, handing it to him. He took it and gripped it into a ball, leaving the now streaming tears to burn his cheeks. “The team is outside. What do you need us to do?”
“Do whatever is needed to confirm what took my daughter, then arrange the burial.”
“Beside her mother?”
He squeezed his eyes shut, finally losing what little control he had, his shoulders collapsing. Davis’ arms surrounded him, and he reached out, taking her in his as she shook with her own sobs. The shared pain was strangely comforting, and he felt no shame in revealing his sorrow, his vulnerability, to this woman he trusted implicitly, who had been a friend to him and his wife, and a surrogate mother to his daughter after his beloved’s passing.
She was a friend.
And she was hurting. Just like him.
He gently pushed her away and offered her the balled up tissue. She chuckled, pulling two fresh ones from her purse, dabbing her eyes dry as she handed him the other. This time he wiped his eyes and face, leaning back as Davis stood then sat beside him. He took her hand in his and squeezed as they sat in silence, sniffling.
“Take care of my little girl.”
Davis nodded. “I will.” She blew her nose. “Anything else?”
“Just deal with my daughter, and arrange a meeting with Washington.”
“I intend to make whoever is responsible for this, pay.”
Tailored Access Operations Unit, NSA Headquarters a.k.a. The Equation Group Fort George G. Meade, Maryland Two Years Ago
Clayton Hummel sat hunched over his keyboard, an array of monitors sweeping across his desk, his cubicle one of complete disarray to those who didn’t know him, yet he knew where everything was in the piles of papers and junk food. As he reviewed the chunk of code designed to exploit a vulnerability he had found in an older version of the world’s most popular operating system, he reached absentmindedly to his right, grabbing a handful of Cheezies from the Costco-sized bag sitting in his desk drawer. He stuffed the delicious orange, puffy treat into his mouth, and savored the taste and textures as he let the chips dissolve before he swallowed. Then, in an almost ritualistic fashion, he sucked each digit clean, the sticky orange paste that remained behind, the dessert course of a carb-laden meal.
It was pathetic.
Someone cleared her throat behind him and he reached down, slamming the desk drawer shut, two orange fingerprints left behind, his ring and pinky fingers still covered. He spun in his chair and gulped to see his supervisor, Sheila Stone, behind him. “Wh-what can I do for you, ma’am?”
He could tell Stone was disgusted with him. They all were. Coming to work every day was a struggle. If he didn’t make excellent money here, he’d probably have tried to get a job where he could work from home. But he couldn’t do that here. Not with this job. This was the National Security Agency. The NSA. Tasked with protecting the nation’s secrets from hostile elements both foreign and domestic, they were the people of codes. They created them, and more importantly, they cracked them. They were the agency that monitored the phone calls and emails, that hacked foreign governments and individuals. They were the agency you definitely wanted on your side.
And they didn’t allow telecommuting.
“I just wanted to know how that exploit is coming.”
Hummel jerked a thumb over his shoulder at his computer. “Just finishing up. It looks good. All we need is for the target to open an email in their browser, and we’ve got full access.”
“And this is new?”
Hummel nodded vigorously. “Absolutely. Redmond doesn’t know about this one yet.” His eyes narrowed. “Should we tell them? If this gets into the wrong hands, it could be pretty dangerous.”
Stone stared at him then smiled. “I thought you were serious there for a moment.”
Hummel laughed nervously. “Just joking with you. You know me.”
“Yes, I do.” Stone jabbed a finger at the monitor. “Keep this one under your hat. We’ll keep it for the ToolKit until we see the other side using it, then we’ll let the company know. Until then, this is our little secret.” She paused. “So, you just need them to open an email, and it installs?”
“Yup. It’s just a matter of getting someone on the target’s network to be willing to open it. It’s too bad people are still so stupid that they open things from people they don’t even know.”
“Hey, promise cheap Viagra or a larger penis, and you’d be surprised how many people will click on an email. If it didn’t work, you wouldn’t be receiving ten or twenty of them a day.”
Stone agreed. “Yup. Let me know when you’re done. The Director will want to know about it.”
Stone left the cubicle and Hummel turned back toward his keyboard, eying the closed drawer with his Cheezies. He resisted, staring at the code, slowly scrolling through it as his brilliant mind traced the logic line by line, branching off with each possible outcome, tracking it all like a grandmaster chess player plotting seven moves ahead.
He was a failure in life, but not at this. At his job, he was brilliant. You weren’t paid six-figures if you weren’t. Though he’d never really get any further than he already had. He wasn’t supervisor material. Fat bastards like him rarely were unless they were connected, or had become so after they were in the position.
He had always been overweight, and it was his brains that had gotten him this far. He had studied hard, learned his craft, and worked his way up through various subcontractors, eventually put on contract at the NSA itself, a dream job of sorts. His dream was to be a spy. Operational, like James Bond, though more on the cyber side of things. The women, the glamor, the cars, the resorts. It was a lifestyle he wasn’t even certain existed outside of the movies, but fantasies never hurt anybody, and it was one that as far as he was concerned, working in this building put him one step closer to.
You’re an idiot.
He reached down and opened the drawer, stretching a hand into the greasy mess.
Leroux/White Residence, Fairfax Towers Falls Church, Virginia Present Day
CIA Analyst Supervisor Chris Leroux stepped through the door of his apartment and tossed his keys into the bowl beside the entrance, pulling his shoes off with the opposing toes as he dragged his ass toward the bedroom.
He was exhausted.
It had been all hands on deck for the past twenty-four hours as the ransomware attack that had struck the globe spread. Millions of computers had been infected, and it was still spreading as more people turned on their computers, ignorant to the risks.
This one had been different.
It had exploited a security hole nobody had known about, so there wasn’t a system in the world protected against it. It spread through email, which made it easy to disseminate, and all one had to do was open the email in a browser to activate it. At that point, if proper security wasn’t implemented on the machine, which most people didn’t have, it was infected, and the hackers could fire any chunk of code they wanted.
In this case, ransomware designed to encrypt all the data on a hard drive, and demand payment for an unlocking code.
Tens of thousands around the world had paid the ransom, though the vast majority hadn’t. Those with proper backups simply wiped their machines and restored, and those who kept their data in the cloud did the same.
But there were reports of cash-strapped organizations like charities and hospitals that had been hit, and hit hard. And it wasn’t their fault in this case. No one could point to a machine and say, “Hey, you ignored the security updates for two years!”
Nobody had known it existed.
“Is that you?”
He smiled at the sound of his girlfriend, Sherrie White, coming from the bedroom. “No, just an Assembly hit squad that’s really too tired to bother killing you today.”
“Ha ha. If you’re that tired, then I guess I won’t be giving you my customary greeting.”
Leroux paused. He was exhausted, but when Sherrie, a CIA Agent, returned from a mission, she was usually insatiable. Something stirred below.
He stared down at it. “Aren’t you tired?”
He looked up. “Umm, nothing.” He resumed dragging his ass toward the bedroom, slowly unbuttoning his shirt. He turned the corner and smiled. Sherrie was lying in bed, a red negligee hugging all the right places, the lamps on low, a bottle of champagne on ice, and a can of whipped cream nestled between her breasts.
His stomach growled and he eyed the whipped cream. “You’ve been surveilling someone kinky again, haven’t you?”
She grinned. “Oooh, I’ve got lots of dirty ideas.”
“Must have been a congressman.”
“Close. An ambassador.” She smacked her ass. “He was a naughty boy. Are you a naughty boy?”
Leroux gulped, yanking off his shirt as he nodded, a surge of adrenaline fueling him, his lethargy of a moment ago forgotten.
“Then get over here so I can punish you for being such a naughty, naughty boy.”
And then some.
He stepped toward her and she reached forward, grabbing him by the belt and hauling him into the bed. She straddled him, grinding him where it counted, and eyed him like he was a pork roast at a bar mitzvah—forbidden but desperately needing to be eaten.
“I just have one thing to say before you receive your punishment.”
“What’s that?” His voice quivered as he reached for her breasts and she slapped his hands away.
“If Dylan calls, I’m killing him.”
With those words, she mauled him like a tiger, and at times he found himself holding on for dear life, whatever she had seen while on assignment truly awe inspiring and deserving of an NC-17 rating.
And whipped cream had never been so delicious.
It felt like hours, though it probably wasn’t, but if he ever told anyone about this, he’d claim it was. She finally dropped on top of him, as spent as he was, and he felt her smile, her cheek muscles against his bare chest giving her away.
“That was incredible.”
“Yes, yes it was.” She repositioned so she could look at him. “I think we’ll have to do that again sometime.”
Leroux picked up the whipped cream bottle and stuck the end in his mouth, spraying some. He swallowed. “Definitely. Dinner, dessert, and a show, all rolled into one.”
“I do aim to please.”
He leaned forward and gave her a peck. “Oh, you do please. Though that one move did kind of hurt.”
“Which one? You screamed I think three times.”
“I wouldn’t exactly call them screams. More like terrified cries of someone unsure of what the hell was going to happen next.”
She grinned and patted his cheek. “Is my little man going to be okay?”
He rolled over, bringing her with him, then wrapped around her, kissing her deeply. “He’ll be fine.” He yawned. “But now he needs sleep.”
She patted his chest. “You’ve earned it.”
Leroux moaned contentedly and closed his eyes, falling asleep within moments, waking up what felt like only minutes later, though the sun was glowing around the edges of the curtains while his phone vibrated impatiently on the nightstand.
Sherrie was nowhere to be found, and the bed smelled sickly sweet from their dessert antics of the night before.
He reached over and grabbed his phone, swiping his thumb across the display. “Leroux.”
“Sir, it’s Sonya. The Director needs you in for a briefing.”
“Something to do with the attack. An NSA specialist is coming in. Apparently they know something.”
“I’ll be there in twenty minutes.” Leroux’s eyebrows rose at a hissing sound from down the hallway. Sherrie stepped into the room wearing a whipped cream bra and panties.
“Make that an hour.”
Clayton Hummel Residence Annapolis, Maryland Two Years Ago
Clayton Hummel sat in his high-back leather chair, a smile on his face as he leaned forward and pecked at his keyboard. This wasn’t work, this was entertainment. This was joy.
This was love.
Her name was Melanie Driscoll, and they had met online several months ago in a World of Warcraft chatroom. He had a few real-world friends, though he rarely saw them, most of his communication with them now by email or text, his embarrassment over his weight turning him into a shut-in more with each passing day.
But online, he had lots of friends. He was a cybersecurity expert, and though he couldn’t discuss specifics, he was a frequent contributor to discussions—anonymously of course—about all things security related, and was well respected.
And he loved his online games where he could be whatever and whoever he wanted to be. It was there that he had found Melanie, another lonely soul who had mustered up the courage to reach out to him of all people. And instead of ignoring her, this time, this one time, he had responded—though not before reading her profile.
She was his age, from Texas—far enough away that they probably would never actually meet—and loved all things science fiction. Loved Captain Kirk—both versions, Han Solo and Boba Fett, Battlestar Galactica and Stargate—basically his entire hit parade. She read Heinlein and Asimov, and could quote snippets from all his favorite franchises.
She was his soulmate.
And he had responded with a single word.
Months of nightly chats ensued, getting longer and more involved, and eventually, he had realized he was in love for the first time with a woman who actually knew he existed. He had been in love before, but it had always been from the sidelines, always one way. He had never had the courage to ask anyone out in his entire life, not since a humiliating experience in high school had crushed him, destroying any confidence the chubby senior might have managed to build up.
It had scarred him for life.
But this was different. He could be not himself. He could be the man he always envisioned himself to be. Sexy, witty, confident. He told her everything, though at first carefully filtered, and over time, he found himself slowly lifting the veil over his life, letting some of his insecurities through.
Leading to a revelation.
Through a picture.
She had sent him her photo. She was chubby, like him, yet beautiful, unlike him. It had been such a relief. Her avatar online had been of a sexy blonde elf, his a strapping half-human, half-orc—with pecs and abs. She had opened up to him, and who she truly was, was someone he could see himself with.
He had sent her a photo of when he was in college, with a joke about how he wished he still had his college body—despite weighing in at probably 250 in the picture.
She had loved it, saying he was so cute and she wished she had known him back then. Two weeks later, he sent her a real photo of himself, shot from overhead to try and minimize the fat-effect.
And she had called him handsome.
He had cried, this the nicest thing anyone had said to him in years.
And the fact they had continued to talk, to open up completely with each other, with no more filters, no more lies, no more telling each other what they felt the other wanted to hear—just the complete, unvarnished truth—including the ugliness of their lives as overweight people.
Discrimination was frowned upon. You couldn’t make fun of anyone for their race, religion, handicaps or disabilities, but there was one thing you could do with impunity—make fun of a fat person. Society did it constantly in its movies and comedy, in the way fat people were frowned upon or pointed at, laughed at or insulted.