Sasha and Connelly have faced off against murderers, terrorists, corrupt officials, and international crime rings … you name a bad guy, and they’ve probably taken him (or her) down. In Insidious Threats, they team up against their most powerful adversary yet. But has the wife-and-husband duo finally met their match?
When Landon Lewis plunged to his death from his office window, he left behind a slew of unanswered questions. The one that weighs most heavily on Leo Connelly’s mind is what, exactly, is he supposed to do with the package Landon sent him the day he died?
As a special agent for a secretive government agency, Leo has the connections and resources to crack open the encrypted flash drive, but the letter accompanying the drive gives him pause. The dead man’s words are so cryptic, so ominous, so chilling, that Leo decides this is an operation best conducted off the books, far away from his agency’s watchful eye—and his wife’s.
Under ordinary circumstances, Sasha McCandless-Connelly would notice when her husband is hiding something. Unfortunately, she’s distracted by the behavior of her former law firm. When Prescott & Talbott’s managing partner resigns abruptly, then disappears, the firm leaders come to Sasha—ostensibly for help. But she knows better than to trust them.
As Sasha digs into the truth behind Cinco Prescott’s disappearance, Leo unravels the mystery of Landon’s flash drive. What they uncover separately leads to one inescapable conclusion: they’ll have to work together to dismantle the dangerous, dystopian Mjölnir network without being detected … or die trying.
Release date: May 23, 2023
Publisher: Brown Street Books
Reader says this book is...: action-packed (1) entertaining story (1) likable hero (1) realistic characters (1) satisfying ending (1) terrific writing (1) unputdownable (1)
* BingeBooks earns revenue from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate as well as from other retail partners.
Melissa F. Miller
The early morning sunlight streamed in through the large window in Leo Connelly’s home office. A beam bisected his face and fell across the card he held loosely in his big hands. He had the note memorized by this point, but stared down at the elegant cursive writing on the thick linen paper and read the words aloud in a soft voice as if, this time, their meaning would reveal itself to him:
I must apologize for my behavior earlier. I was reeling, having realized that I have made a grievous mistake.
I have made other mistakes in my life. Lord knows I have. But I have always tried to do the right thing. I may not always have succeeded, but I did try.
Everything I did, I did in Josh’s memory, as an effort to honor him. Please bear that in mind when you judge me. But all my work is about to be used for ends that are dishonorable at best, dangerous for certain, and dystopian if they prevail.
I must find a way to make amends for my recent errors of judgment. If you’re reading this, then I have failed, and I must ask you to pick up the task. I don’t know where else to turn, and I feel seeing you out my window was a sign of some sort.
Enclosed is a program that you can use when the time comes to stop Mjölnir. It will not complete the task, but it will get you in the door.
He twitched his lips and dropped the card onto his desk. Nope. Still gibberish.
He flipped through the small notebook in which he scribbled down his thoughts every time he studied the blasted letter. The notes dated back to last summer. For half a year, he’d been trying to tease out the meaning of the dead man’s words. Some bits made sense, but the overall picture remained murky, muddy, and mysterious.
What had Landon been thinking? Surely job one in giving someone instructions to be carried out posthumously was to be clear. Clear, unmistakable, explicit directions were vital. Was it really so much to ask?
He grabbed a pen and reviewed his scrawled notes from the last time he’d engaged in this exercise in futility.
“All my work” had to be a reference to Cesare, Landon Lewis’ ill-conceived artificial intelligence tool. The AI was designed to predict and prevent crime by identifying law-abiding citizens with a latent propensity for criminal behavior. To the surprise of absolutely nobody but its creator, Cesare had proved to be a disaster—and a racist one, to boot.
But the rest of Landon’s sentence was a head-scratcher. There was no way Cesare could be used for any purpose, let alone a “dishonorable, dangerous, dystopian” one. Sasha had seen to it. His formidable, pocket-sized wife had gotten the Justice Department to shove a consent decree down Landon’s throat. He couldn’t do a blessed thing with Cesare.
Leo straightened in his chair. No, that wasn’t true. At least, he didn’t think it was. He was pretty sure the consent decree prohibited the use of Cesare for any predictive policing purpose. Maybe, if Sasha had been very pushy—which was almost a certainty—it might also prevent using the program’s predictions for other purposes. He’d heard about an AI program used in the Netherlands to weed out welfare fraud. Like Cesare, it had created a mess.
But even Sasha had her limits. Leo bet that the consent decree wouldn’t stop Landon if he’d tried to tweak Cesare to serve a purely financial purpose. Like what? Predict whether someone would file an insurance claim? Or default on a mortgage?
He bobbed his head back and forth. Maybe. But that didn’t seem dramatic enough to warrant Landon’s note.
As someone who believed in the concept of free will, Leo was willing to describe fiscal determinations made by an AI algorithm as dishonorable. But he couldn’t imagine Landon describing those predictions—no matter how poorly made—as dangerous or dystopian. No. It had to be more than that.
And, he suspected, it was related to the one hundred million dollars wired into Landon’s account the day he died. Landon Lewis had sold Cesare to the highest bidder and then gotten seller’s remorse when he learned what the buyer intended to do with it. There was no way Landon would have reacted to someone using his creation to set insurance premiums by sending Leo … what, exactly?
He dropped the pen and picked up the flash drive that had been tucked into the package with the note. The drive had a physical keypad. To unlock the drive, a person would have to enter a PIN on the keypad. For further protection, the drive was coated with an epoxy, and the information on the drive was encrypted. Any effort to break into it without the PIN would destroy both the data and the drive itself.
Landon’s note referred to the data on the drive as a program. One that could help stop “Mjölnir.” Leo knew from his extensive understanding of Norse mythology—okay, fine, his love for Marvel movies—that Mjölnir was Thor’s mighty hammer. But he had no clue what it meant in this context. Was Mjölnir Cesare? Was Mjölnir a copycat technology? Maybe Cesare was on the flash drive. Maybe Landon had, in fact, suffered a psychotic break the day he died and the note was the sheer unhinged raving of a mentally unwell man.
Leo had almost convinced himself that was the case. He’d been this close to deciding that he didn’t need to do anything at all with the drive because Landon had been suicidal and most likely not lucid when he wrote the note. He’d keep it tucked away in his safe, untouched.
He huffed out a heavy sigh. But then, right before the new year, Maisy—Sasha’s long-time friend—had roped Sasha and Leo’s babysitter into starting a true crime podcast with her. And less than a week later, Maisy and Jordana had disproved Leo’s theory by exposing Landon’s alleged suicide as a murder, landing a police detective and a well-heeled commercial real estate broker in jail in the process. And he was back to trying to puzzle out what he was supposed to do with this freaking USB drive.
He glanced at the time. Sasha would be getting the twins up to get ready for their day any moment, which meant this sliver of quiet contemplation was about to end. He returned the card, the drive, and his notebook to the biometric safe in the closet, and headed downstairs for breakfast duty. As he dodged the cat lounging in a sunbeam on the top step and avoided the dog’s apparent efforts to trip him by weaving between his feet, the word “Mjölnir” looped through his mind.
What the devil was Mjölnir?
Two thousand-odd miles away, in a nondescript office park in Sun Valley, Idaho, Garwood March stifled a yawn while waving his ID badge in front of a card reader. He stomped his boots against the snow-packed pavement while the reader blinked. Once, twice, beep.
He hurried inside as the wind blew a smattering of snow into the lobby behind him and yanked the door closed. As he sipped his hot chocolate and waited for the elevator, a persistent thought—the thought that had been dogging him for months and that dragged him out of his comfortable bed in his warm apartment at this indecent, predawn hour—looped through his mind.
What the devil was wrong with Mjölnir?
Gar was a talented software developer with a particular gift for debugging. This statement wasn’t arrogance or pride; it was a fact. He knew it. Everyone knew it. After all, that was why Rosen, that weirdo from Pinpoint Partners with the cringy title—data tracking evangelist and application integration sherpa or guru or whatever—had specifically requested Gar for this project. Pinpoint was some kind of silent investor in the tech company that employed Gar. Gar neither knew nor cared about the details. But his supervisor, the acerbic and anxious Antonia, cared. She cared a lot. And she’d taken to hovering.
Gar couldn’t work his magic with someone standing behind him, peering over his shoulder, second-guessing his decisions, and fretting. He needed solitude, loud French metal music, and assorted snacks. Also, hot chocolate. Unlike the stereotypical computer programmer or coder, Gar didn’t survive on a steady stream of energy drinks or cold brews. His go-to drink was hot chocolate made with full-fat milk and topped with a healthy dollop of whipped cream. In the dead of summer, he swapped out the hot cocoa for a cold glass of chocolate milk. The son and grandson of dairy farmers, he came by his beverage of choice honestly.
The elevator dinged, the doors whooshed, and he stepped inside the car. He stared blearily at his distorted reflection in the highly polished metal doors as the compartment rose to the third floor. He wasn’t a morning person—not by any stretch. He did his best work late at night. But so did Antonia. And if she wasn’t lingering around his desk, asking how it was going, then she was pinging him at home, well after midnight with incessant requests for progress reports. Managing his manager had become a distraction. So Gar had started coming into the office before sunrise to get a few uninterrupted hours of work in before she started peppering him with questions. Not that the new schedule was making any difference. He was still utterly, hopelessly stuck. Flummoxed, even.
The elevator came to a stop and the doors parted. Gar sighed and stepped out into the quiet hallway. The motion-sensing lights clicked on, and he shuffled toward the bullpen where the coders, programmers, software engineers, and developers all worked together in a jumble. He suspected this arrangement had originated because the human resource team in charge of seat assignments didn’t know enough to differentiate one computer geek from another. Unintentional or not, it had been a stroke of brilliance. The layout encouraged the worker bees to bounce ideas off one another and to get fresh perspectives and different spins on their projects.
But even access to the bullpen brain trust hadn’t helped Gar tease out the problem with Pinpoint Partners’ pet program. He flopped into his chair and powered up his computer.
Across the room, Petra Vuković glanced up from her code. She kept her earphones on but raised a hand in greeting. He lifted his hot chocolate in a return salute before turning his attention to the program that had become his nemesis. He wasn’t sure how long he’d been wrestling with the blasted thing when Petra wandered over. Long enough to have drained his drink, leaving only a skin of dried milk clinging to the edge of the mug.
"What are you working on?" Petra raised herself onto the filing cabinet, where she perched like a bird.
At some point, while he’d been immersed in the code, she'd removed her hoodie and tied it around her waist. Her sleeveless tank top showed off her defined upper arm muscles, distracting him from her question. He realized he was staring, and his face heated as he pulled his eyes away from her toned biceps and triceps.
“Uh, sorry. Still trying to figure out what’s wrong with Mjölnir.”
“That thing. Why’s it named Thor’s hammer?”
He shrugged. “No clue.”
She drew her eyebrows together. “What’s it supposed to do?”
“It’s an AI-powered algorithm that’s supposed to predict a person’s shopping habits with unmatched accuracy so companies can serve up the perfect ad.”
“Lovely. Now even the robots work for our capitalist masters.”
He couldn’t tell from her dry tone if she was joking or about to launch into another one of her socialist rants, so he quickly went on, “And it does that—sort of. But in addition, for no apparent reason that I can see in the programming, it also volunteers a prediction of the user’s propensity to commit one of any number of felonies.”
Her pierced left eyebrow shot up. “Felonies, really?”
“Well, crimes. But, yeah, so far, they’ve all been felonies.”
“Wouldn’t most people’s likelihood of committing a felony approach zero?”
“You’d think so. Or, at least, hope so. But according to Thor’s trusty hammer, pretty much everyone has a criminal hidden inside them.”
She blinked at that. “And you can’t find the string that’s making it happen?”
“No. I’m ready to rip my hair out. The only possibility left is that the trigger is so deeply buried in the AI’s ‘brain’ that it only activates when the algorithm is already running. You know?”
“Gar, bro, if that’s the case, you know what it means.”
He didn’t, though. He shook his head, confused. “No. What?”
She held his gaze steadily. “It’s a feature—”
“—not a bug,” he joined in.
She hopped off the filing cabinet and brushed off the seat of her dark jeans. “Yup. I’m going to the kitchen. You want a coffee?” She eyed his mug. “I mean, another hot cocoa?”
Usually, he’d tag along, savoring the minutes with her in light of the not-so-secret crush they both knew he had but neither acknowledged. But her words had shaken something loose. “You go ahead.”
She shrugged and strolled off. He stared down at his hands. It was the logical conclusion—obvious, even. Despite zero evidence that it had been coded to predict crime, Mjölnir predicted crime—consistently, and regardless of what Gar tweaked in an effort to make it stop.
If Petra was right, and Mjölnir was functioning as intended, that raised an even bigger question: Why would a commercial advertising algorithm be designed to predict crime?
He needed to talk to Pinpoint Partners and get some clarity. He checked the time. It wasn’t even seven-thirty on the West Coast. Too early to call Silicon Valley. He doubted anyone was even awake yet.
Another nine hundred or so miles to the west, Amanda Teale-James exited the driverless car, smoothed the nonexistent wrinkles out of her custom-made suit, and strode purposefully into the sleepy private airport nestled on a cliff near the edge of the Pacific Ocean.
Silicon Valley Aviation Center exclusively served a roster of well-known tech titans. A dozen disrupters and innovators had pooled their pocket change to build the facility so they could jet off to Wall Street for finance meetings or to Capitol Hill to be raked over the coals for televised congressional hearings without having to negotiate the inefficiencies and inconveniences of mass air travel—not to mention the indignity of sharing space with the occasional belligerent drunk or racist soccer mom who got on the wrong side of a flight attendant and caused a stink that would inevitably result in the police being called and the interaction going viral.
Flying out of SVAC was a different experience altogether. The bad boys of the industry—a group known for moving fast and breaking things, asking forgiveness and not permission, and throwing money at their problems—had effectively built themselves a time machine. It was a portal back to an era when air travel was civilized, men wore suits and hats, and leggy would-be models prowled the aisles of jets plying booze and fancy meals. At least that’s what Amanda assumed. Her knowledge of the 1960s and its aviation experience was formed entirely by old movies and reruns of “Mad Men.” But it sure felt like a blast from the past.
The waiting area for Leith Delone’s private jet was a far cry from the crowded, noisy terminal of a commercial airport. The area managed to be somehow both small and intimate and airy and spacious. The wall-sized windows overlooked the gray-green ocean and the fog rolling over the water, and a small fire was lit in the free-standing glass fireplace in the middle of the room, taking the early-morning chill out of the air. She made a beeline for one of the white club chairs in front of the fireplace.
As if to prove Amanda’s point, Stasia, the six-foot-tall platinum blonde who was Leith’s favorite attendant, beamed at her from behind the small bar that was tucked away in one corner. A moment later, the hostess was standing in front of her with a Bloody Mary festooned with three olives, just the way Amanda liked it.
“Good morning, Ms. Teale-James,” she practically purred.
Amanda eyed the cocktail with a mixture of temptation and disdain, then gave her head a mournful shake. “Morning, Stasia. I’ll have to pass on the drink. I’m on my way to a mediation meeting.”
“Of course. Double espresso, then?”
“Perhaps you’ll have a glass of champagne to celebrate a positive outcome on your way back from Pittsburgh?” Stasia suggested before heading off to make the coffee.
“From your lips to Lady Justice’s ears,” Amanda murmured more to herself than to the hostess as she slipped her laptop out of its case and began to review the electronic file.
Mediation was not her strong suit as a lawyer. It involved too much negotiation and cooperation. She was a trial shark, not a consensus builder. Her nose for weakness and, more importantly, her willingness to exploit it made her a sharp litigator. But she loathed settlement talks.
She’d tried to dump the meeting off on one of her junior attorneys or one of the innumerable associates employed by the high-priced outside law firms that Leith had on retainer. But he didn’t want to hear it. He’d shown a rare flash of impatience with her.
She could still hear the irritation in his tone as she replayed his words. “Blast it, Amanda. You’re my general counsel. I want the other side to realize how seriously I’m taking this. I want you there. Get them to agree to my terms. End of discussion.” And then he’d chopped his hand through the air to let her know she was dismissed.
It was clear he meant it: Leith Delone, eccentric billionaire and one-time wunderkind, had a major bug up his butt over the employment dispute. Less clear was why. As far as Amanda could tell, the case was trivial. Some local news anchor had criticized Leith on the air after he bought the station where she worked. Word got back to Leith, and he had her fired.
Despite her age and gender, the anchor—a woman with the improbable name of Maisy Farley—hadn’t bothered suing to allege age or sex discrimination. She was content to take the golden parachute offered by her contract—a meager million dollars—and walk away. But for reasons that Leith wouldn’t explain and Amanda couldn’t fathom, he was dragging his feet. The Farley woman had been fired at the end of July, and, here Amanda was, six months later, flying to freaking Pittsburgh in the middle of winter to make a series of bad-faith arguments to justify the delay and to try to extract a completely unenforceable concession out of the woman.
The only question was why?
“Why, Leith?” she said aloud in a low voice as she scrolled through the case notes her assistant had prepared.
Stasia returned with the espresso. Amanda thanked her, closed her laptop, and leaned back in her chair to savor her first sip of the hot, robust drink. She rolled the strong coffee around on her tongue like a wine sommelier, then sighed with contentment.
Her reverie was interrupted by her buzzing phone. She reluctantly set down the cup and dug the device out of her calfskin bag.
“ATJ,” she answered briskly, saving precious seconds by forgoing a greeting and abbreviating her five-syllable name to three letters.
“Um, hi, Ms. Teale-James. It’s Oliver. I hope I’m not calling too early? I have that background on the Pittsburgh lawyers you wanted.”
She rolled her eyes at Oliver’s wholly unnecessary sucking up. Of all her obsequious associates, he was the worst. And that was saying something.
“I told you I have a seven-thirty flight. I’m already at the airport. Did you email me a report?”
“Yes, ma’am. But I wanted to call, too,” he stammered.
“Why? Do you think I don’t know how to read?”
“Y-yes. I mean, no. No, of course not. I know you can read. I just … well … I’ve put these dossiers together before, and this one’s weird.”
“Weird, how?” She wondered whether the roughly seventy grand a year that Stanford Law charged in tuition included any instruction in the fact that weird wasn’t a legal concept. Poor Oliver had certainly not taken the class if one existed.
“Well, um, the one lawyer, she’s gotten a lot of press. Like, a lot.”
Amanda closed her eyes briefly and suppressed a sigh. “That’s not usual. I’m sure Ms. Farley retained the best attorney she could afford. Well-regarded attorneys tend to garner news articles, Oliver.”
“I know, but not like these.”
“Like what?” While she waited for Oliver to spit it out, she drained her espresso, caught Stasia’s eye, and raised the empty demitasse cup. The attendant nodded her understanding.
“So, there are two attorneys on all the paperwork. The firm is McCandless, Volmer & Andrews. Two of the named partners are handling Ms. Farley’s case. Naya Andrews, who’s a top-notch transactional partner, and Sasha McCandless-Connelly, who’s a litigator. She founded the firm after leaving Prescott & Talbot. You know it?”
She did. It was an East Coast white-shoe firm. Big on tradition and full of old-money legacy types.
“Ms. McCandless-Connelly couldn’t cut it, huh?” Those types of firms had a strict up or out policy.
“No, the opposite. They offered her partnership the first year she was eligible. She turned them down and struck out on her own.”
Amanda’s eyebrows crawled toward her hairline. That was surprising. Then she shrugged. “Maybe one of her supervising partners was handsy. It happens. It used to happen a lot. How long ago was this?”
She heard pages flipping. “Twelve years ago.”
“It was a different world back then, Oliver.” She felt positively ancient saying it, but it was true.
“I guess. But she’s supposed to be a civil litigator. Volmer’s the white-collar criminal guy.”
“Well, her resume doesn’t say civil litigator to me. She solved the murders of a couple attorneys and, separately, the murder of a state court judge. She’s represented a serial killer, broke up an international human trafficking ring, sued the police and the local prosecutor’s office for misconduct, and a bunch of other wild stuff. She was stabbed by some forensic pathologist who was mixed up in a political scandal, and she nearly died. The list just goes on and on. I didn’t know if I should put all these articles in the background file because they don’t really have anything to do with her practice, but … I thought you’d want to know.”
From his hesitant tone, if Oliver had been a puppy, he’d have had his tail between his legs, waiting to be reprimanded for piddling on the floor. She relented.
“Send me everything. You’re right, most of it is likely irrelevant. And you’re also right, it’s unusual enough that I’d like to know about it. Good work.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he chirped. She could hear the smile in his voice. “Oh, there’s one more thing.”
“What is it?”
“I was surprised to see Maisy Farley’s name featured prominently in one of the more recent articles. She’s apparently started a true crime podcast and solved a murder that the local cops had misclassified as a suicide. The dead guy was supposed to be the star witness in McCandless-Connelly’s case against the prosecutor’s office. That’s a weird coincidence, right?”
There he went with the weird again. How had the Supreme Court missed snagging this guy as a clerk?
“I suppose it is. Pittsburgh’s not that small of a town, is it?”
“No, ma’am. At the last census, the population—”
“It was a rhetorical question, Oliver. Just send all the articles and make a note of which one involves Maisy Farley.”
“Will do. I’ll put them all in a folder on the document site. The headline for the one about the suicide that was really a murder is ‘Peach of a Podcaster Take a Fresh Look at Landon Lewis Death.’”
Stasia returned with the fresh coffee and an apologetic smile. “It’s time to board,” she mouthed.
“I have to go.” Amanda hung up on Oliver and stowed her phone in her bag before he could formulate a hesitant goodbye.
As she followed Stasia out to the tarmac where the glossy white private jet waited, she drew her eyebrows together and searched her memory. Landon Lewis. She knew that name. She just didn’t know why.
“How long is the flight?” she asked as they crossed the carpet to the stairs.
“Five hours from wheels up to wheels down,” Stasia told her.
Five hours. That gave her plenty of time to figure out who Landon Lewis was and what connection, if any, he had to this plain-vanilla case. Or to take a nap.
We hope you are enjoying the book so far. To continue reading...