"A high-octane thriller… It is a thrill-a-minute, edge-of-your-seat thriller that will have you quickly turning the page… will keep you entertained and engrossed until it’s thrilling denouement. A great read that will spike your blood pressure accordingly – not for the faint-hearted!"Goodreads Reviewer
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She thought she was finally safe. She was wrong.
The #1 Bestselling Audible Thriller of the Year
A desperate girl held captive somewhere in the city, her liquid brown eyes pleading with the camera as the clock tick-tick-ticks down.
An agent with a broken past, who has seen what happens when the counter hits zero. It took the last one three days to die while the world watched . This killer is never late, and he never breaks his promises.
But how do you catch someone who could be anyone – who only speaks through the eyes of his terrified victims and never leaves a trace? To catch a killer with no face, you have to become faceless yourself…
A pulse-racing thriller that will keep you turning the pages late into the night. For fans of Sandra Brown, Willow Rose and Mary Burton.
Please note: this book contains scenes of a sexual nature.
What readers are saying about Winter Dark :
" Lots of twists, lots of action... Exciting new hero who works outside the box with her supporting crew fights through a maze of adventures keeping the reader guessing." Goodreads reviewer
" Loved it! I want more! Can’t wait for the next instalment." Goodreads reviewer, 5 stars
"It is hard to put this one down! Lots of twists in this quite different and spectacular read! RECOMMEND HIGHLY!!! " Goodreads reviewer, 5 stars
" I loved it. Intense and filled with twists and turns. Just when you think you know what is going to happen next, Winter surprises you… I cannot wait for the next instalment!" Goodreads reviewer
Release date: January 7, 2020
Print pages: 336
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Erik stared at the words until his eyes crossed and the typeface blurred. He said them in his head, trying them on for size. He rolled them over his tongue, sex-u-ally om-ni-vo-rous. Nope. He had nothing. Animal, vegetable, mineral? He had no idea. He looked through the mirrored observation glass at the sexually omnivorous candidate in the GCHQ interrogation room.
The dreadlocked girl lounged, side on to the glass, swinging the cast on her left wrist. She blew a vast pink bubble and surveyed her surroundings.
‘Just see what you think. That’s all I’m asking,’ said Control beside him.
Erik peered closer. A nose ring. He already knew what he thought.
The bubble popped and the candidate turned and winked at the mirror.
Erik flinched. Face on, she had the kind of looks that bypass beautiful and go straight to unobtainable: long dark lashes, striking green eyes, sharp angular features. Not pretty. Spectacular.
Erik scowled. Never in the history of the cyber intelligence services had they hired non-military for the field.
‘Is that a Dalmatian onesie?’ he said.
Erik looked down at the candidate’s biography again, playing for time.
Boarding school from the age of six.
So, traumatised or psychotic.
She didn’t look old enough to have acquired many sexual preferences, omnivorous or otherwise. He checked her date of birth.
At that age, he was still congratulating himself on getting to last base.
‘Where did you find her?’ Erik dripped disapproval.
‘Pulled her off a mountain,’ said Control, unrepentant. He turned to the darkened room. ‘Put up the Hahnenkamm footage.’
Max typed a command and YouTube appeared on his monitor. ‘Extreme Streif posted by JakeBoardPro,’ Erik read.
Erik rolled his eyes. The Streif – the World Championship men’s downhill ski course. So, she was a skier. He should have guessed from the onesie. A sexually omnivorous, crazy fast skier. Just what GCHQ didn’t need.
On the screen, a figure shuffled forward to the starting gate with a swing of the hips, a distinctive, twisting swing of the hips, a spine contorting flick and curl. Not a skier, a boarder. A night boarder. Piste lights glinted off her black visor.
Erik knew the Streif. It opened with the Mausefalle, a blind 260-foot jump onto a vertical sheet of ice. He had never heard of anyone trying it at night. He had never heard of anyone trying it on a board.
The figure leapt, and the image went into free fall. A wall of snow hurtled towards them. With a thud of compression and screech of inside edge, the boarder landed the fall-away turn, banking so hard the camera grazed the snow. Crystals of ice filled the lens.
Erik breathed out.
There was no way he was going to be impressed. He just had to stand firm, sound reasonable and wait for Control to get over this sudden interest in hiring civilians.
‘So, she’s got some boarding skills,’ he said. ‘It takes a bit more than that.’ A bit more brainpower, a bit more discipline, a lot more everything.
‘She broke the bank at the Colony Club in Mayfair,’ said Control. ‘She has a photographic memory.’
What was she doing in a casino at seventeen?
‘Does she know why she’s here?’
Control shook his head.
Control put his hand on Erik’s arm. ‘See what you think, that’s all I’m asking. And watch yourself. Some martial arts.’
Now that was just insulting.
‘Yeah, I’ll watch myself with the little girl with the broken arm.’
Winter sat in the brilliant white of the interrogation room, her wrist burning. She looked at the bare walls with their black rubber skirtings, at the surveillance cameras in the corners and finally at the mirrored wall.
She hated mirrors – the way they showed your true self. Sometimes, if she looked long and hard enough, she thought she could see an entirely different person behind her eyes. She knew where she was. GCHQ. The Government Communications Headquarters. The snoop police. What the hell was she doing here?
A tall dark figure entered and shut the door carefully behind him. Stance said, military. Highly developed pectoral muscles said, can handle himself in a fight. Scarring along underside of right hand said, martial arts – probably karate. Slight curve on left side said, armed. Lines round corner of eyes said, thirty to thirty-five.
Calm. Bored even. Not the heavy squad then – here to talk. Well, he could stick it.
How about I give you the finger and you give me my phone call?
The blow caught the side of her head, knocking her sideways. Her chair skittered out from under her, crashing over.
He was fast.
She crouched, hair in face, arms outstretched.
‘Hey peace, man.’ She waved her hands. ‘Aren’t you supposed to ask the questions first?’
He smiled and looked towards the mirrored wall.
‘Consider it more of a practical.’
He rounded the table and yanked her up by her hair, twisting her good arm hard behind her back. She considered her options. Her broken wrist, in its blue cast, hung useless.
What the hell. It was only her left hand after all.
Erik opened his eyes and regretted it. The strip light burnt into his retinas, leaving dancing monkeys of black. He pushed himself onto his elbow, feeling his jaw. His fingers worked their way across his cheekbone and up to his temple. Unbelievable. She had hit him with her cast. He had a lump the size of Mexico.
The teenager was back in her seat, arm stretched out along the table, her complexion grey. Good. A medic in green scrubs fussed with the cast. Control sat at the table opposite. Erik couldn’t remember ever seeing him in an interview room before.
‘I think we can say she passes the practical.’
Control turned to the mirror. ‘Bring in the technical.’
The technical interview with Max, the GCHQ Head of Research, was a programming challenge. Erik watched as Max set up the laptop. A snowboarder taking the programming challenge? Now he had seen it all.
Control’s cold eyes turned on him. ‘Are you getting up?’
Erik knew he was never, ever going to live this down.
Back in the observation room they adjusted the camera angles and waited. The darkness enclosed them, cocooning them in a warm fug of pot noodle and caffeine. Erik fingered his cheekbone. In the interview room, the teenager was considering the laptop.
‘How long have I got?’ she asked the mirror, holding up her wrist.
‘Take as long as you need,’ said Max through the overhead speaker.
Erik rolled his eyes. What a colossal waste of time. He sat back and glared as the teenager took some bubblegum out of her mouth, teased it with her teeth then plastered it on the laptop camera. Beside him, a screen went blank. She did the same to the wall-mounted camera behind her. They looked at each other.
‘This is a closed loop?’ Control checked.
Max sighed. ‘Yes, sir. The laptop exists on its own with no outside connection. The air gap is watertight.’
Control stared at the blank cameras for a moment then he nodded.
‘OK. Leave her be.’
They watched the teenager type for ten minutes, wincing as her wrist came under pressure. Then she pushed back from the screen. She put her feet up on the desk, folded her arms, put her chin on her chest and closed her eyes.
‘What is she doing? Has she done it? Has she finished?’ asked Control.
‘I’m guessing she has written something to test the parameters of the system,’ said Max with satisfaction. ‘It won’t work.’
Control was edgy. ‘And she definitely can’t get a signal out on that?’
‘No,’ said Max patiently. ‘As I said, it’s a closed loop.’
‘I’ll be in my office. Don’t take your eyes off her.’
For an hour or more nothing changed. Max watched a 24-hour news channel, Erik paced, the teenager slept. Then, at some signal from the laptop, she sat up and stretched.
‘Now she’ll see it hasn’t worked,’ said Max, leaning forward. ‘Let’s see what you’ve got for us, little lady.’
She typed for maybe five minutes, then she stopped as suddenly as she had started. She stared at the two-way mirror and pressed the last key with a theatrical flourish.
What was she up to?
They didn’t have to wait long to find out. In the corner of the observation room the main terminal registered a firewall breach. Across the screen ran the words:
WHY USE A SLEDGEHAMMER TO CRACK A NUT? ANSWER: SOMETIMES YOU NEED A SLEDGEHAMMER
WHY USE A SLEDGEHAMMER TO CRACK A NUT? ANSWER: SOMETIMES YOU NEED A SLEDGEHAMMER
The message repeated over and over.
The internal phone rang. Erik picked it up on autopilot, staring at the words on the screen. It was Control.
‘Why have I taken a call from the NSA asking if I have the hacker, call sign Sledgehammer, in custody? Our American friends couldn’t stop laughing.’
Erik caught sight of the news channel. The Sky-copter was hovering over Piccadilly Circus. Someone had hacked the giant electronic billboards:
FREE SLEDGEHAMMER. SAVE THE WHALES. PEACE MAN
The message vanished, replaced by a countdown.
Thirty seconds later the GCHQ mainframe collapsed under the weight of the world’s hacking community. A targeted DDoS of unprecedented scale. A distributed denial of service attack that flooded every server with malformed requests. It was the largest DDoS ever to be aimed at a government institution. It was going to go down in history.
In the bright white interrogation room, Sledgehammer stood up and took a bow.
Twenty-four hours later and a thousand miles away, a boy opened his eyes at the bottom of a well in the courtyard of an Italian castle. Far above his head he could make out a circular glimmer of light.
He lifted a cuffed hand to his cheek. Something was dripping on his face, stinging the cuts. He could feel blood trickling down his neck. It was the third time he had been kidnapped and this time felt like it might be the last.
Fight, his brother ordered in his head.
Alek always expected him to fight.
His knuckles burned. There had been too many of them.
Maybe if he wedged his back and feet against the stone walls he might be able to inch his body up the shaft. Then, if he got to the top he could use his head to lift the cover. He gritted his teeth.
After twenty minutes he looked down, he had climbed about as high as a man. His head throbbed. The higher he climbed, the harder he would fall. He shifted, trying to ease the ache in his back and thighs.
A light broke overhead, flooding the well. The boy screwed up his eyes, flinching away from the brightness.
Peter’s voice echoed down to him, shaky with panic. If Peter was here, so was his brother.
This time Alek had caught up with them fast.
Alek had pulled himself off the streets and been on the way to serious money when he found out he had a baby brother left behind in the gutter. The last thing a teenager on the make needed. Even now, years and millions later, Alek still didn’t know what had possessed him to yield to that weakness. Because there was no doubt it was a weakness, a vulnerability. If you cared, your enemies had all the leverage they needed.
He looked around at the castle courtyard. Flaming torch brackets on the walls. A well in the centre, dark green moss circling the rim. A tower on one side, silhouetted against the night sky, squat stone barracks on the others. Medieval. Giant stone hounds with collars of iron stood guard. He could see Peter leaning over the green brick wall of the well and his brother being pulled out, blinking, into the light.
Alek turned back to the figures kneeling at his feet. Twelve kidnappers. Amateurs. They needed twice as many for a job like this. His reputation for mercy had probably decided their surrender. He would keep the castle. He knew nothing about the set up in Umbria but the local Camorra would fold. People were easy to control. Find their weak spot and press.
There had been too many challenges to his authority recently. He was starting to realise it wasn’t enough to control his own region. These days everyone was playing on the global stage. Yesterday, hackers had brought down GCHQ – a UK government institution – without leaving their desks. The internet made a lot of things possible. It made the world small. It brought people within reach. And Alek knew that people within reach could be controlled. The potential was all there just waiting to be exploited. He could imagine a time when everywhere would be within reach and the whole world could be controlled.
Alek crouched down on his haunches until he was on a level with the figures in the dust and spoke to them gently. After a while the conversation came to a natural end. He stared at the dirty floor, then got to his feet. He thought about his reputation for mercy as he took his handgun out of its holster and passed it to one of his men. Then he looked at his brother and he thought about vulnerability.
His hands reached into his pockets. When they came out, his fists were ringed with metal.
It takes a really long time to beat someone to death with your fists, a really laboriously long time. But there is a certain science to it if you know what you are doing. The boy stood watching, his knuckles white from the effort of gripping a bottle of water, his ears ringing with the steady thump, thump of fists on flesh. Finally, his brother held out an iron-covered hand, palm upwards, asking for his gun. The puckered scar on his wrist was splattered with blood. It was an old scar, wide and white, stretching round the wrist like a giant snake. A boa constrictor or an anaconda.
The boy knew what was coming and nothing he could say would prevent it. Alek called his name and he limped forward, handing his water to Peter. He caught the gun clumsily in his bruised hands. The knuckles burned and his grip was weak. He glanced down: a Smith & Wesson. He cocked it one-handed and looked the question. Alek gave an impatient jerk of the head. The boy limped forward and put a bullet between what was left of his kidnapper’s eyes. He was twelve and it was by no means his first kill.
Being the brother of a billionaire crime lord wasn’t all silver spoon.
The internet changed everything. It made the world small. Which was gravy for the intelligence services. Everywhere was accessible. Everything was online. Good news all round for the anoraks (and I include myself here). When we found we could hack vibrators we thought we’d hit nirvana.
Then it turned ugly. Where the intelligence services could go, others could follow.
The ransom attack was born: government departments, the utilities, the National Health Service, and that was just the start. Soon, whole countries were being held to ransom and nuclear arsenals dismantled for fear of cyberattack.
And then it got organised.
The old crime networks – that for centuries had been kept apart by distance and differences – woke up to this age of opportunity and found that there was no distance and that their differences were far fewer than they had previously imagined. It took us a while to realise that the Yakuza, the Bratva, the Mafia, the Triads, the ‘Ndrangheta and the Cartels were all connected, all regional divisions of the same organisation, and at the top, holding the power, was a single anonymous man.
For a while, things hung in the balance.
Then Firestorm came along.
I remember that day so clearly. It was a morning like any other – we were in the Bunker, our GCHQ London home: Viv fussing over an egg-white omelette for Erik, love in her eyes; Max staring at his screens halfway through his first caramel Crunchie of the day; Simon, my quartermaster, standing in the doorway all Buddy Holly glasses and floppy hair, clutching bags of breakfast sandwiches in his arms. Grease had turned the paper clear. Overhead, the ceiling cooling ducts roared. We had been up all night. Bacon and weariness filled the air.
I remember the bacon and my empty stomach and the hit of saliva and I remember Viv glaring because she thought Simon had brought an evil grease-sandwich for Erik, and then I opened the link.
Welcome to Firestorm
Cheating husband? Bitch wife? Hate your boss?
Let Firestorm take care of your problem.
Safe. Anonymous. Cheap.
The primary colours mimicked the old eBay homepage. I saw it was the same idea but with Dutch auctions: the contractor with the cheapest price won. A cyber currency.
eBay for contract killers.
Not a closed peer-to-peer market on the dark web but an ordinary Clearnet site. Murder for the masses.
I clicked on a link.
Rate your Firestorm Contractor:
Speed of comms
Delivery of service
And I knew nothing was ever going to be the same again.
‘Get ICANN,’ I said, my voice overloud in the morning quiet.
Simon glanced at his watch. Bacon sandwiches dangled. ‘It is 1 a.m. in Playa Vista.’
Viv looked over my shoulder. ‘It is a joke,’ she said. ‘And even if it isn’t, I can’t see it taking off. Not that many people are really murderous.’
I had stared at my screen in silence with a bad, bad feeling because if childhood had taught me anything, it was that people are really murderous.
By its first birthday, Firestorm had chalked up more than fifty thousand contracts and a whole new industry had been born. It passed a hundred thousand a few months later and we were no closer to tracking the site or its founder. By then its potential for intimidation had been realised. People are easy to control if you are prepared to apply the fear. Everyone has someone they care about, someone they don’t want hurt.
And the bad news is, the man at the top of organised crime is prepared to apply the fear. He controls Firestorm and we have no idea who he is. All we have is an artist’s impression of the white snake tattoo round his wrist. A boa constrictor, squeezing the life out of the whole world.
What does the internet do? It brings people together. It matches buyers with sellers.
Imagine a world where everyone’s life has a price.
Now there is not a politician, judge or policeman safe from Firestorm. As Simon says: control Firestorm and you can control the world. When the Democratic presidential nominee resigned, blaming the site, we thought it couldn’t get any worse.
And then, last month, they spun out Slashstorm.
The security centre of the Hôtel Grand in Geneva is in semi-darkness. Wall-to-wall monitors flicker with CCTV images of the ballroom and a gala event. The social whirl plays out on soundless black-and-white screens − politicians, glamorous women, guys in tuxedos, round tables littered with the remains of dinner. Men in black stand in the corners. What Firestorm calls a ‘target-rich environment’. Fertile ground for contract killers.
I should be monitoring the surveillance at the gala, looking out for the safety of the captains of industry at the World Economic Forum, instead I am on my laptop logged on to Slashstorm.
It is headline news everywhere:
SLASHSTORM IS BACK
The hottest new internet voting phenomenon just launched its ticking countdown again.
The faces on death row stare out from my screen. Boy, girl, black, white. Twelve faces. Twelve scrolling counters. Two weeks for the viewing public to vote. Who will you save?
The Slashstorm website. A popular vote for fourteen days then a live climax. Simple. Effective. Primetime TV meets torture porn. Firestorm repackaged as entertainment.
I stare at the thumbnail pictures. Three rows on the screen, four pictures per row. These days it is easy to disguise the point of origin even from the experts. Cold traces the back of my neck, pricks my hairline. The faces are young. Teenage. Twelve to fifteen years old. A girl with wide brown eyes looks into the camera. There is nothing behind her. Mirrors. Or a green screen.
The concept is simple. Twelve teenagers. Who will you save?
The last Slashstorm vote took us all by surprise. The teenager who lost polled well early on. Floppy-haired and cute, he was too good-looking to be in danger. Then, as the public campaigns got behind the chubby one and the sad one in a hysterical global pandemic of voting, he got left behind. He took three hours to die. Three hours that I have watched and re-watched and analysed, until every time I shut my eyes, I see the lurid, blurring images against my crimson eyelids.
Now it is happening again. An hour ago, Slashstorm announced a new vote and we are nowhere. We can’t trace the money, we can’t trace the site, we can’t trace the kids and we can’t trace the man behind it. ‘The Prince of Darkness’ – Simon calls him – the man at the top of organised crime, the man behind Firestorm and Slashstorm. We’ve never managed to get near his identity. The white snake tattoo on his right wrist is all we have.
Panic grips me, raising my heart rate, drumming in my ears. Fourteen days to crack a website and I am here on surveillance detail in a Geneva hotel, babysitting a gala dinner.
I need to be back in GCHQ. Not that I have anything left to try against Slashstorm. I pulled every technical trick I know last time, my searches desperate as the deadline approached, and then frantic. The GCHQ incident room froze in horror, analysts unable to believe their eyes as I tried everything. I tried everything and it wasn’t enough. The screaming went on and on, his hands clutching at nothing.
Slashstorm got started almost by accident. A Firestorm contract was screened live. A US Senator had refused to bend to the fear. The contract was called: the Senator’s son. A blond student. Very photogenic. The robed and hooded contractor who won the contract screened it live like a reality TV show.
A voyeur, said the psych profilers. A psychopath and a voyeur. No response to the boy’s mercy signals. Cutting and strangling MO. Unusual, said the profilers, leaving me wondering exactly how many precedents they have. He took a while to die. By the end, his hair wasn’t very blond.
Public outrage was matched only by public fascination. Mouth-drying, breath-catching, compulsive viewing. It practically broke the net and Slashstorm was born in a wave of public hysteria and blood.
The second time, there was a proper online vote with an untraceable cyber currency payment. Twelve anonymous candidates to choose from. Fourteen days to vote. It tapped right into the human traits of choosing and empathising. We just can’t stop ourselves having favourites.
The Hôtel Grand may have five stars but there is nothing high-end about its security suite. Dirty scuffed walls, hairy floor tiles, Chanel Bleu cologne – although that may be Brad, my US National Security Agency opposite number. I shiver in the gloom.
Brad glances across at me. He scowls when he sees the faces on my open laptop.
‘How many this time?’ he says.
‘Twelve. Twelve again.’
He smooths the label back on his bottle of water. He has spent all evening picking it off. ‘We’ve got nothing,’ he says finally.
A big admission from the NSA. Hearing it makes the panic rise again. It crawls up my throat. I want to screw up my eyes, pull at my hair, rock back and forth.
‘I just can’t understand why we can’t trace the kids,’ he says. ‘That is the weirdest thing. Where are they getting them from?’
He is right. Facial recognition technology has made the world a very small place. Absolutely everyone can be traced once you know who you are looking for.
I zoom in on a US Senator shiny with postprandial sweat. He knocks back his glass and holds it out for a refill. I move on to John J. Traynor III, millionaire philanthropist, and his grey-haired wife. In an age where image is everything, her grey hair and gentle, lined face are almost declarations of war on social media. Serious philanthropists with the Nobel to prove it.
I wonder what Erik would do if he were still alive. The only time I ever saw him cry was after the live Slashstorm show. Nothing in ten years as Head of Field affected him like it. What would he say if he knew it was back? It has been a. . .
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