Authors: Glen Robins
This is a work of fiction. All characters, organizations, and events portrayed in this novel have either been created by the author or fictionalized. Any resemblance to real persons, either live or dead, or real events is purely coincidental.
Copyright © 2016 by Glen Robins
All rights reserved.
Cover art by Brady Anderson
ISBN: 978-0-9863517-2-3 (e-book)
ISBN: 978-0-9863517-3-0 (paperback)
First Edition: March 2016
For my mom because she loves to read and taught me to love it, too
Table of Contents
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
June 14, 5:54 a.m. Malaysia Time; June 13, 4:54 p.m. Caribbean Time
The room was dark. A thick cloud of cigarette smoke hung over the makeshift conference table. Eerie, bluish light from seven laptop screens bounced off the haze. Small holes in the heavy brown curtains allowed shards of muted sunlight to pierce the gloom. No one spoke. No one dared to. Instead, each man stared intently at his computer screen, afraid to make eye contact with him. These men knew him as their fearsome leader and he wanted to keep it that way. Fear was, after all, a powerful motivator. Fear and respect.
Pho Nam Penh stalked back and forth near the head of the table, trying to tamp down the rising anger. Maintaining control of one’s emotions was absolutely paramount, especially in front of subordinates. The seven in the room squirmed under his scrutiny, unsure how to respond to his questions about their quarry. Some gazed intently at their screens, as if riveted by the data displayed there. The rest kept their eyes down to avoid drawing his ire.
He inhaled, with great satisfaction, the scent of fear. Power was an intoxicating drug and Penh relished the control he had over these men. He loved to watch them quiver in his presence. His next goal was to make the entire Western world tremble and quake. With the money he would soon recover from Collin Cook, Penh would increase the size of his team and expand his global reach. He and his Komodos would be feared by their enemies and hailed by their allies.
Penh gazed around the room, reading the body language of each man and surveying the conditions.
The table at which the men worked was really a door held up by two-by-fours. It was surrounded by his hand-picked cadre of computer hackers and technical whiz kids from around the region. They were sought because of their skills, yes, but also because of their allegiance to the cause: the fall of Western capitalism and the filthy, greedy, gluttonous pigs who gorged themselves at the expense of the rest of the world. Every man in the room wanted a front row seat to watch the chaos and clamor as the proud and mighty, the wealthy and shameless Americans and their smug British and European counterparts, sank into economic ruin.
This team seemed also to enjoy the prospect of spreading some of that ill-gotten Western wealth among themselves. Their promised reward had seemed imminent before Collin Cook escaped into the eye of Hurricane Abigail. Frustrated and harried, the team had worked tirelessly to track any sign of the man they sought and his hidden fortune.
An elaborate array of monitors, modems, servers, switches, wires, and power strips crowded nearly every inch of the painted wood surface. The only other items on the table were a handful of overflowing ashtrays, a smattering of white cube-shaped boxes of takeout food with chopsticks stuck in them, and dozens of water bottles, most of them empty.
Penh, clad in a tailored gray silk suit, patent leather Italian loafers, and a dark purple silk shirt, sucked in a lungful of smoke from the cigarette held between his thumb and forefinger. He wanted elegance and sophistication to ooze from his every movement, from his every fiber. Image was all about garnering respect and keeping an edge. He removed the sleek, narrow sunglasses that veiled his eyes, dropped the butt of the cigarette. As he ground the cigarette butt into the pocked concrete floor under his foot, he finally exhaled with an air of satisfaction. A thin vaporous trail of smoke wafted toward the low ceiling, being blown slowly and evenly from the tight crease of his mouth.
His men watched his every move, each of which was calculated to bolster his finely honed image as a man of means and power.
For an Asian man his features were sharper, more distinct than most of his countrymen. Although only five foot seven inches in height and weighing one hundred forty pounds, Pho Nam Penh’s presence was, he knew, enough to turn blood to ice. Study and practice, along with his natural gifts, had helped him craft the persona he projected. Maybe it was his eyes, dark and penetrating. Maybe it was the knowledge that he was a master martial artist or that he held two PhDs that made him so intimidating. In any case, the seven men huddled over their computers remained silent and fearful.
The stench was thick and ripe. A mixture of stale cigarette smoke; the aroma of the morning’s grease-laden, assortment of fried fish, noodles, and spiced vegetables; and the body odor of seven sweaty and stressed men filled the cramped space. These men had been confined to the sixteen foot long, twelve foot wide room for days, trying to track down the missing Collin Cook and his money, looking for any hint or clue that would help them pinpoint his location. They already knew they couldn’t drain his accounts. That had been tried repeatedly and had failed each time.
Collin Cook, the enigma, had grown to become an obsession with Penh. Never had any target been so mind-numbingly tricky. It was no longer just about the $30 million that Cook was hiding. It was more about regaining face.
Cook had been on the run with Penh’s money for months, outmaneuvering Penh and this skilled team. Even the FBI, Interpol, and law enforcement agencies the world over, called into the hunt surreptitiously by Penh when he posted pictures of him sitting with Collin in a London pub and shaking his hand in the Bahamas, were baffled by Cook. Thanks to Penh’s clever ruse, Collin was now a prime suspect in the string of cybercrimes perpetrated by this select team and others. The chase had spanned the globe from Europe to the Caribbean, to Central America, to South America, to Canada, the United States, and back to the Caribbean.
Meanwhile, the money had become invisible. There was only one way to get it back. They had to find Cook and his computer. Certainly, the information they needed was contained on its hard drive. If he was smart—and every indicator suggested he was, more so than Penh would have ever guessed at the onset—the data on that computer was ultra secure. Killing Cook, therefore, was not an option—yet.
Despite their dedication, Penh’s highly skilled cyber mercenaries cramped in this sweltering room were essentially being held captive until his, their master’s, bidding was complete. Two old army cots in the corner were provided for short rest periods. Food was brought in twice a day. There was a squalid bathroom down the hall, which was really just a closet with a stained porcelain-lined hole in the floor and little more than a trickle of water to flush it. No one had showered since being brought here except for their illustrious leader, who appeared at random times of day with a bodyguard or two, hissed at them and threatened harm against their families if they failed, then would disappear again.
This time, however, he lingered on purpose, sensing a subtle shift in the atmosphere. It was his longest stay thus far and he hoped it would be productive. His most recent tirade had dissipated, but not his resolve. Without a word, he stopped in front of a grimy glass pane, maybe three feet square that adorned the outermost wall, pulled back the dark curtain, and folded his arms across his chest. Silent and foreboding, Penh stared at the street vendors squatting and squabbling with customers over their plastic buckets full of produce, sea food, and various animal parts. The chaos of the open air market below provided a stark contrast to the orderly, systematic way his brain sorted through the myriad options proposed, considered, then discarded. His moment of hot displeasure had given way to a smoldering caldron of wicked contingencies. There would be hell to pay for the misdeeds perpetrated against the cause and Pho Nam Penh vowed to deliver Collin Cook on Satan’s doorstep personally to arrange the transaction.
But not yet. Cook still held valuable information.
At length he spoke. His words projected an introspective calm born of supreme intelligence and imposed self-mastery. “Have you confirmed that it was Cook who withdrew that $500,000 cash from the Bank of George Town? Do we have photographic evidence yet?”
One of the men at the far end of the table stood, bowed in deference to him, the leader, and spoke clearly and assuredly. “We do, sir. It just arrived. I can show it to you if you wish.”
“Yes, show me,” demanded Penh.
The man turned his laptop to make it visible to Penh, who now hovered over his shoulder, and clicked the mouse. A twenty three-second video stream rolled. An American dressed in a dark sport coat and a wide-brimmed mesh hat, lugging a knapsack on one shoulder and a computer bag on the other, walked across the marble floor of the Bank of George Town. His gait was brisk and business-like, but it had a familiarity to it. Pho Nam Penh ordered his face to be enhanced and magnified. A few clicks later, he was looking into the eyes of the man that had taken his $30 million and embarrassed him for nearly seven months now.
Penh clinched his jaw, the muscles tensing as he took in the image. “That’s him. That’s our target. Do we still have men on the island?”
“Four of them, sir.”
“Are they properly prepared?”
“They are ready, sir.”
“Yes, sir. They are positioned as instructed and are waiting for the target to appear.”
“Good. Send them this video. The target is undoubtedly coming to their location. They are to report directly to me when they make contact. Cook must be kept alive. Is that understood?”
Another man spoke up from across the table. “Sir, I am receiving a text message now from our men in Grand Cayman. It states they have a visual on a man wearing clothing that matches the target in the video. He just exited a taxi near the marina.”
“Ah, he has returned, just as I suspected he would,” said Penh.
“Wait,” said the man, holding up one finger as he read something on his screen. “The target has disappeared again.”
“Where did he go?”
“Our men have a limited view from their position, sir. It is very difficult for them to get a full view of the street.”
Penh drew his mouth tight. “Nonetheless,” he muttered. “Stay with the plan. We know he is heading for that boat.”
“Yes, sir.” There was a pause while the man at the computer typed a message. Everyone sat still and waited for the ding of an incoming text. “The team leader has acknowledged his understanding.”
“Remind him to keep Cook alive until we are finished with him.”
Another round of furious keyboard tapping before the man responded. “He acknowledges your request, sir.”
“Good. I will check with him later.”
Pho Nam Penh and his followers knew much about Collin’s life, both before the tragedy and after, but they didn’t know everything. They were continually perplexed by how an average guy like Collin Cook with average skills had hidden $30 Million in numbered accounts in some of the world’s most secretive financial institutions within seconds of receiving the settlement money from Penh’s front company, Tranquil Pacific Casualty Insurance, and without leaving a trace. That took skills that most equipment sales people never needed, so never acquired. Beyond that, Cook had eluded Penh’s men every time they got close, slipping into oblivion at just the right time. Even after Penh had lured law enforcement into the hunt, using their vast resources to track and chase his quarry, Cook remained at large and his money safely tucked away, inaccessible to Penh and his skilled team.
No one knew Penh’s MIT classmate Lukas Mueller was involved. Lukas was supposed to be dead, killed by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan. Therefore, he was never given a second thought. No one knew Lukas was working as part of a deep cover NSA cyber terrorism task force. Penh and his men only knew Cook had become an aggravating enigma. A cursed and resilient pest. A squirming, looming, irritating threat to his entire operation. No one knew why.
Penh’s top priority was to bring Cook’s run of good fortune to an end.
“What is the time stamp on this video?” Penh snapped his fingers as if a thought had just struck him.
“It’s less than an hour old,” the young man stated.
“He is moving very cautiously, as he should,” said Penh.
“Yes, sir, but it seems our men have reestablished visual contact with the target, sir.”
“What is he doing?”
“He stopped and is leaning on a rail, sir. It seems he is surveying the area, looking for something.”
Penh inhaled sharply. “He is nervous. I can’t blame him. Interpol has been combing the entire island searching for him. He must suspect them around every corner, especially near that boat.”
“Some of our informants reported all but two undercover agents left the island this afternoon, returning to Europe and America,” said another man on the other side of the table.
“The government has given up their search, have they? They must not want him as badly as I do,” Penh paused, tapping his chin. “Where is Cook now?” he asked the man in front of him.
“Walking, sir, from his vantage point toward the boat.”
After waiting for what seemed like an appropriate amount of time, Penh asked again.
“Still walking,” answered the man. “It is a very long distance.”
“Remember. They must be patient and they mustn’t kill him.”