Cyber League Crimes Book 3: The Criminal Contest: A Fast-Paced Mystery Novella Featuring a Female FBI Agent and an Assassin
Criminals can make a lot of money ...
If they can catch her. FBI Special Agent Megan Luchek has twice escaped the Club's clutches, but her luck may be running out.
There's a price on her head.
They want her alive, but nobody's specifying how alive.
Megan has powerful friends, but her biggest supporters have their own deadly issues to deal with. Can she survive being the primary target for the criminal contest?
Release date: June 30, 2020
Publisher: Julie C. Gilbert
Print pages: 107
Content advisory: none
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Behind the book
The last Megan Luchek story thus far. But I really like her, so she'll probably be back.
Cyber League Crimes Book 3: The Criminal Contest: A Fast-Paced Mystery Novella Featuring a Female FBI Agent and an Assassin
Julie C. Gilbert
Offense or Defense
“Rise and shine, Maggie Bear.”
Though normally a heavy sleeper and a reluctant riser, Megan Luchek snapped to full consciousness, fueled by equal parts adrenaline and irritation. She hadn’t heard that nickname since middle school. Her eyes fixed on her sister, Tara, who stood out of arm’s reach holding a steaming cup.
“You look … chipper,” Megan commented, pushing herself to a sitting position. Her tone held mild reproof. “Where’d you get the clothes?”
“The magic closest,” Tara answered with a shrug. She wore a silky, flower-print blouse and black dress pants. Stepping forward, she set the teacup on the end table. “Drink this. Then, get a shower.”
“What is it?” Megan asked, eyeing the orange-yellow liquid suspiciously.
“A citrus tea with extra lemon and honey,” said Tara. “I know you’d rather have coffee, so I ordered that too. It’ll be here with breakfast, but you don’t get either until the tea’s gone and you’re fully dressed. Your suit’s ready with a brand-new jacket. I put it in the bathroom for your convenience. I think they even shined your boots.”
“Where’s Cassandra?” Megan asked, picking up the hot tea.
“Don’t know,” said Tara. “She said she had some ‘errands’ and stepped out. I’m under strict orders to rouse you and not leave the suite. Welcome to the fancy prison.”
Despite the cheerful front, Megan sensed her sister’s worry and unease with the situation.
Setting down the tea, which needed to cool anyway, Megan held out a hand to her sister.
“We’re going to end this today,” Megan promised. “Then, we’ll get you home to Jason and the folks.”
Tara took Megan’s hand and squeezed hard.
“I’ll hold you to that,” said Tara hoarsely. Unshed tears glittered in her eyes. Squeezing Megan’s hand again, Tara shook her head. “I take it back. I want you to stay safe and tangling with these people sounds like the opposite of safe.”
“They’re not the worst I’ve dealt with,” Megan said, reclaiming her hand and disentangling from the sheets.
“That’s not as comforting as you think,” Tara noted, stepping back to let her get out of bed.
“Sorry. I’ll be more coherent post-shower,” said Megan. “Don’t let anyone in until I’m back out here ready to greet them with a gun.”
“Tea,” Tara reminded Megan.
Sighing, Megan returned to the tea, drew a bracing breath, tested the temperature with a finger, and gulped down the hot liquid. Next, she showed her sister the empty cup for inspection.
“I see your manners are still sadly lacking,” said Tara, “but at least you didn’t fight me too hard on the tea. You may proceed to the shower.”
Slipping around her, Megan headed for the bathroom.
“Don’t forget to brush your teeth,” Tara called. “There are three kinds of toothbrushes to choose from under the counter.”
Twenty minutes later, Megan emerged from the bathroom feeling like a new woman. She hadn’t taken that long in the shower, but even the rush job on her hair took some time. Finding a generous supply of bobby pins and hair ties next to the numerous toothbrush options, Megan had elected to go with a full twist updo. It was a style suited to warring with evil corporations and offshoots of the mob.
She found Tara chatting with Cassandra Mirren. Both had serious expressions.
“Agent,” Cassandra said with a friendly nod.
“Do I want to know how you got in, assassin?” asked Megan, fairly certain Tara wouldn’t have opened the door for her.
“Eat first,” Tara advised. She gestured to the rolling cart holding a wide variety of breakfast foods.
“Why?” Megan wasn’t trying to be stubborn, but she also didn’t like delaying bad news. She’d much rather face it head-on.
“Because we have two problems,” Gatton announced, “and as soon as you hear them, you’re going to want to rush off with guns blazing.” His voice came from the end of the king-sized bed where someone had tossed a cell phone.
“Am I going to need one cup of coffee or two?” asked Megan, only half-joking.
“Try a whole pot,” said Gatton.
“Then, start talking,” said Megan, perching on the bed. “I can eat and listen at the same time.” She picked up a piece of buttered toast and took a large bite to demonstrate her point.
Tara kept her hands busy by prepping a cup of coffee for Megan.
Cassandra went to the far side of the bed and started pulling items from a black duffle bag. She tossed a Glock 23, three ammunition magazines, a roll of money, and two cell phones in one pile. Another pile consisted of three cell phones and more money. A third pile formed with a phone, money, and another two Glock 23’s.
“Keep eating,” Cassandra said, not bothering to look up from the loot arrangements.
Rolling her eyes, Megan took another noisy bite of toast, causing a shower of crumbs to cascade down the nice new suit jacket.
“I’ll eat faster if somebody starts explaining,” said Megan, absently brushing at the crumbs. Setting down the toast, she picked up the plate of scrambled eggs and sausage. It smelled wonderful. She paused to inhale the tangy sausage-scented steam.
“I even had them put cream cheese in the eggs,” said Tara, setting the coffee mug in front of Megan. “Eat them before they’re cold.”
Megan needed no more encouragement. Finding a fork on the tray, she scooped up a bunch of eggs and shoveled them into her mouth.
Tara made a face at her lack of manners but held in a comment.
Having successfully annoyed her sister, Megan continued eating with a slightly higher level of decorum.
“Thanks for ordering breakfast,” Megan said to Tara. “Now, does somebody want to explain these problems to me?”
“We can’t stay here much longer,” said Cassandra. Picking up one of the handguns, she inspected it from several sides. “And we need to split up.”
The lack of surprise on Tara’s part told Megan she already knew that part. Before she could inquire, her sister explained.
“I’m going to one of Cassandra’s safehouses.”
“Why do you look like you’re gearing up for a fight?” Megan asked cautiously. “I think a safehouse is a good idea.”
“She volunteered to help.”
Gatton’s announcement startled Megan. She had forgotten he was still listening through the phone connection. Flicking her gaze from the phone to Tara to Cassandra, Megan decided the assassin would probably give her the most information, so she directed her next question across the bed.
“Help with what?” Megan prompted.
Tossing a handgun back onto its pile, Cassandra straightened and met Megan’s gaze.
“Ending the Club and its part in the Cyber League,” said Cassandra.
“I thought that was my job,” Megan commented.
“It is,” said Gatton, “but you’re still a target. Staying alive is going to require keeping a low profile.”
“Why do I get the feeling I’m not headed to the safehouse with Tara?” asked Megan.
“Because I need your help taking out one of the Club’s safehouses,” said Cassandra.
“One of their major hubs was that office building, but they’re pulling out,” said Gatton. “They have two other, smaller places in Philadelphia.”
“Why aren’t they leaving the city altogether?” Megan wondered. “If their major push is cybercrimes, they could be based anywhere with a solid internet connection.”
“True, but you’re here,” said Cassandra.
“When I said, you’re a target, I really meant to say, you’re their main target,” Gatton explained. “The Hero Contest didn’t exactly go to plan, but the audience of gamblers loved you. Recovering you will not only save the organizers some serious payouts, but they also stand to make a lot of money by running several auctions centered around you.”
“I’m guessing the auctions aren’t about spa vacations for me,” Megan commented. She finished the last of the eggs, stabbed a sausage link, and twirled the fork.
“My preliminary research says one would be for ways to kill you and another would be for selling you to the highest bidder,” said Gatton.
“Wouldn’t it be a little hard to sell me after killing me?” Megan took a small bite of the sausage and washed it down with some coffee.
“Please don’t joke about this,” said Tara.
“You’re assuming the criminals intend to be honest about killing you,” said Cassandra.
“They can easily fake your death,” Gatton assured Megan.
“Wonderful,” Megan said. “Okay, ‘lay low’ check, but how does storming into one of the Club’s safehouses qualify as laying low?”
“I never said it did,” said Cassandra. “This is the part where you choose a plan, offense or defense. My plan is more direct—and aggressive—than Gatton’s plan. It’s also more dangerous. If something goes wrong, we’ll basically be doing the Club’s job for them by delivering you to their doorstep.”
“What’s your plan, Gatton?” asked Megan. She stared at the phone like that would give the question more weight.
“Buy you a car so you can get the heck out of that city,” replied the billionaire. “If you’re up for a long drive, you can come here or head to one of my other places in Texas or Kansas. I have a few options in both states that might qualify as good lay-low holes.”
“Why can’t she come to the safehouse with me?” asked Tara.
Megan fielded that question. “Because if Gatton’s right about the Club’s interest in me—”
“Which he is,” Gatton interjected.
“It means staying away from you is the best thing I can do to keep you safe,” Megan finished. “What did you agree to do for the cause anyway? And why can’t you take out the Club place yourself? I’ve seen your work.” Megan directed the first question to her sister and the second one to Cassandra.
“Legality and practicality,” answered Gatton. “You’re right, Cassandra could bust one of the Club’s safehouses, do some damage, set them back a few months, but that’s it. If we want them to stay down, at least part of this must be through legal channels. That’s where you and Tara come in.”
“My focus is family law, but I have a lot of friends in criminal law, both lawyers and judges,” said Tara, “and I have a vested interest in making sure the Club and the Cyber League stay legally dead and buried.”
“I’ll get Tara plugged in officially as a consultant for the task force,” said Gatton. “She’ll work on the legal side. You get the evidence and credible witnesses.”
“That’s all you,” said Cassandra to Megan. “My job is to keep you alive through the first raid. Then, I have a separate issue to deal with.”
“Aren’t you going to ask for her help?” asked Gatton.
“No,” said Cassandra. “She has enough problems.”
“Which is why one more doesn’t matter,” said Megan. “If you don’t tell me, I’m going to nag Gatton. He’ll spill the beans eventually.”
“The less you know, the less you can be compelled to testify about later,” said Cassandra.
“Our CIA problem got worse,” said Gatton.
“Gatton.” Cassandra filled his name with a warning.
“It’s my problem too, and I think she can help,” he said quietly.
Cassandra didn’t look happy, but she only shook her head and frowned as Gatton explained.
“My rogue CIA handler was recently dealt with, but multiple sources indicate that he answered to somebody else, somebody much higher up the food chain and much shorter on morals.”
“Who?” asked Megan.
“Somebody called Hawk,” answered Cassandra. “This person—or at least the codename—has been around for thirty years. He or she has a lot of contacts.”
“They also have something personal against Cassandra,” Gatton added.
“What’d you do to deserve that kind of attention?” Megan asked.
“Once upon a time, I refused to be recruited, but I can’t think of anything within the last decade that should have landed me on Hawk’s radar,” said Cassandra.
“How do you know it’s personal?” asked Tara.
“Several of my encrypted email accounts received the same message,” said Cassandra.
“More like ultimatum,” Gatton muttered.
“The message included a time, a date, an order to surrender, and a threat to reveal the Work History File for me and several others,” said Cassandra. Her expression turned stony.
“That might not sound scary, but it’s as good as a thousand kill orders,” said Gatton. Before Megan could ask for a more detailed explanation, he continued, “It’s a list of every identity a spy’s ever taken on, what jobs they did, where and when those jobs took place, and a projected list of identities they could currently be operating under.”
“But you’re not a spy,” Megan protested.
“Fixers work by almost the same rules as spies,” said Cassandra. “It could be an empty threat, but even the Shadow Council had some bureaucratic strings. If somebody behind the scenes took enough notes, a lot of people could die if I miss that meeting.”
“And you could die if you make that meeting.” The frustration in Gatton’s voice said they’d likely had this argument before. “How many ways do they have to spell out the word ‘trap’ before you believe it?”
“We can only handle one problem at a time,” said Cassandra. “We still have two days to the deadline. Let’s deal with the Club first.”
Megan had so many questions, but Cassandra looked set on not discussing her problem further right now.
I’ll accept your help, assassin, but if you think you’re getting rid of me after that, you are 130% wrong.
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