Victory in Action Excerpt

Chapter One

 

“You’d think faking your death would be a lot harder nowadays, wouldn’t you?” Corin mused, chin on her hand, as she idly scrolled down the laptop screen with her trackpad.

The person passing her table, one of the coffee shop’s servers, stopped in his tracks. “I’m…sorry? Ms. Faulkner, are you okay?”

She snapped back to reality and grinned up at him. “Sorry, Davey. Yes, I’m fine. Thank you.”

His return smile was slow and a little nervous. “Okay. If you’re sure.”

“Yep! Just researching! For my book,” she added, since she couldn’t tell him what she really did. Used to do.

His pale face cleared of the worried expression and he nodded knowingly. “Gotcha. Need another latte?”

“Not yet.” She shook the half-full iced vanilla-peppermint concoction next to her computer and smiled again. He nodded—also again—and continued on his way, leaving her to scowl back at the very unhelpful information on the screen.

It had been two weeks since Victory, her employer, had officially closed its doors, and Corin was fully adrift. This coffee shop was cool and all with its exposed brick walls and gleaming old wood floors and bar, and comfortable enough with padded chairs and, most importantly, strong WiFi. But she missed the super-fast connection, massive computer storage, and unlimited bells and whistles that had all been taken away when Victory shut down, releasing her from the only job she’d had since finishing grad school.

“All you need is your brain, your fingers, and a starting point,” she muttered, ignoring the way a new customer sidestepped to put a couple of extra tables between them on their way to the ordering station. She missed the solitude, too, and hadn’t been able to curb her tendency to talk to herself while she worked.

So why are you working in a public place? would be the question asked by any of her former colleagues. There were some plausible reasons. Like working her secure network through a public one made her less traceable, since she could leave and never come back, which wasn’t the case at home. But the more obvious answer was that she’d been working for years around a fast-moving, interesting, talented collection of people, and now she was alone. The café couldn’t replace that, but there were people here, people like Davey who would check on her and bring her fancy cold coffees and call her “Ms. Faulkner” as if she was an old lady instead of, like, ten years older than him. She was more of an ambivert than an extrovert, but she liked being around people, vibing off their energy. It helped her focus.

Not that any level of focus was getting her anywhere. Cassandra, the controlling owner of Victory and Corin’s boss—former boss—had expressly forbidden everyone to pursue their enemy, Niall Raff. Raff was the surprise brother to Cassandra’s business partner, Iain. Well, surprise for Iain, who’d had no clue he wasn’t an only child. Raff, apparently, was not so in the dark and had a vendetta against his brother. A couple of months ago, Raff turned that vendetta on destroying Victory, and two weeks ago, he’d finally succeeded. Kind of. Someone working for him planted a bomb, and even though no one had been hurt and there’d even been minimal property damage, the fact that it had been planted had been enough for Cassandra to give up.

Which Corin would never do. No one liked that Cass was shutting them all out, taking the hit all herself while she tried to find a way to help Iain, but most of them had accepted it better than Corin had. Probably because they didn’t have the history she did with stupid people making stupid sacrifices as if those they were sacrificing for should be grateful or something.

Deep breath. She obeyed her own order, drawing it in through her nose, slowly exhaling out of her mouth. Then again. Forget it. It’s not the same. And you can’t change it—what else is new?—so just do what you can do.

She snorted at her mental self-therapy. It was driving her crazy that she couldn’t get anywhere with Niall Raff. He existed, and therefore she should be able to find him. Well, not him him, but information on him. That was her talent, what had made her so valuable to Victory. Her mind could follow any digital path on a beyond-conscious level. Kind of like hacking, but more intuitive. It was a more subtle talent than the team leaders at Victory had, like clairvoyant flashes and feeling the emotions of everyone around them and smelling lies and—

The laptop pinged faintly, and a pop-up blinked twice in the lower right-hand corner of her screen, just long enough for her to see it was from the encrypted message center. Yes. Something to distract her from the black hole that was Niall Raff’s everything.

She quickly switched over and found three new messages. Two were from half an hour ago—that was when she was engrossed in trying to figure out who Niall Raff’s mother was. General Tywether, father of both Raff and—surprise!—Iain, hadn’t shared that data. He hadn’t shared any data, as far as she knew, just telling Cass it was classified, and Corin had no reason to believe he was lying about that. Maybe he’d told Iain more, but if so, Iain hadn’t passed it along. Which hampered Corin’s ability to help, not that anyone cared, because they kept saying they didn’t want her help.

Well, too bad. She’d been digging and digging anyway, so certain that she’d find something. All she needed was one real starting point. But every detail she found had been a planted false lead, intended to send Victory’s people on multiple wild goose chases when they didn’t send her to a taunting dead end. Lies upon obfuscations covered in misdirection. Not one real tidbit in all of it. Jerks.

The internet wasn’t, of course, the way they showed it on those TV cop shows. Any time Corin tried to watch one, she only got as far as some so-called tech person rattling the keyboard for two seconds and immediately finding the exact bit of data they needed, whether it was a DMV record or a Social Security card from the 1950s or a random facial recognition match. That wasn’t how it worked. Sure, that technology existed, and a lot of that stuff was out there, but not easily sorted in one big database, and the ridiculous speed—

She huffed and cut off the mental babble. Even sitting still, she was like a little bird flitting from thought to thought, and it was driving her crazy despite being one of her defining characteristics. Hard to escape. She’d been like this since day one, according to her parents.

Sighing, she clicked the first message. All signs indicated to the outside world that Victory was closed for business, but Corin had put a secure link on the contact page. So far, nothing had come through that she’d had to pass along to Cass, who was sure to lambaste her for setting it up. Most of the messages had been gratitude for past service and well wishes for reopening, though nothing hinted that any of those people knew why they were closed. A lot seemed to think it was medical, and no one was going to set the record straight right now. Corin was compiling all of the non-essential stuff to send to Cass later.

The rest of the messages were like this one, from people who wanted to hire them and reached out despite the blank wall they’d put up to discourage it. Corin had forwarded them to Max, Victory’s operations manager, or to one of the team leaders, all of whom were willing to do contract work when they could. Corin thought they were all hoping to get through this and reopen Victory, no matter how convinced Cassandra was that it wouldn’t be possible.

Six years ago, your company helped my mother locate my father. He’s been contacted by someone claiming to have details of an inheritance…

Corin skimmed the rest of that and sent a reply with her legit contact info. She could track down the credentials and background to determine if the claim was legit or a scam. The second message was someone wanting to find a high school friend because someone they both knew was dying, and they all had old regrets they wanted to resolve. It both warmed and squeezed. Corin’s heart. It was the kind of case they’d taken regularly in the early days and had neglected when their clients got big and powerful, but that they’d been getting back to right before they had to close. She sent the information to Royce, whose talent was finding people. It wasn’t exactly the kind of “finding” that this person was looking for, because he had to have met the person and be within a certain range of them, but it would give him something to do. He was very frustrated, since he’d never seen Raff and therefore couldn’t use his talent to trace him.

The third message was specifically for Bas, human lie detector. She smiled a little, thinking about how he’d come to Victory to ferret out a saboteur and instead fell in love with Max and bought into the company as a minor partner, like the rest of the team leaders. She was a sucker for twist endings involving romance.

Or just a sucker said a little voice representing the tiny burning resentment she couldn’t get rid of. Cass hadn’t offered her an ownership stake. Only the team leaders. The fact that New-Guy-Bas was counted as one of them after so short a time, and Corin hadn’t even been considered, tried to eat at her. She was ignoring it, because logic was all on Cassandra’s side. Corin didn’t make as much money as the TLs did, and Cass knew Corin’s background didn’t include a big inheritance or anything, so she didn’t have as much potential to invest. She wasn’t a field operative. If they’d offered it to her, they’d have to offer it to more non-team-leaders, and that got complicated.

And Corin knew very well that she was looking for a better reason to be angry than echoes of childhood trauma. Or young-adulthood trauma, rather. Cass respected and appreciated Corin’s work and ability, her commitment to Victory and the team. Probably, if Corin asked her, she’d have a perfectly understandable explanation. Or a perfectly asinine one, like she saw Corin as a daughter figure and was protecting her or some bullshit like that. It was just that she couldn’t ask her, because Cassandra had flown off on a fool’s mission. Alone. Without support.

Gah. She was doing it again. She forwarded the request for Bas to call his old military friend who wanted him to interrogate someone for him and closed the app, rubbing her hands over her face and pushing back the strands of hair that had come loose from her ponytail.

She’d finished the iced coffee now, barely noticing it happening, and had to pee. So she shoved her laptop into her bag—she’d never leave it somewhere out of her sight—and went to the restroom, stopping to buy a cranberry-orange muffin on her way back. After tossing the cup and some dirty napkins and setting everything back up, she sat and stared at her empty laptop screen, letting her mind fuzz out of focus while she picked at the top of the sugary muffin and savored the tangy-sweet bites.

So far, she’d hit empty voids any time she looked at Niall Raff. The only reason someone could have that complete lack of information—and not just lack, but empty spots where the information should be—was because someone had systematically erased it, or changed it. Raff’s original birth records couldn’t be found, but that could be because Raff wasn’t his real name. She’d found evidence of aliases dating shortly before he “died” two years ago and hadn’t gotten any answers about which, if any, were real. Everyone was acting as if Raff was original, but if it was, there should be something for her to find. Lives lived left trails, and Corin could follow them in ways no one else could. It was as if her brain slid into the wormhole and zipped backward, following branches and offshoots until she got what she needed. Recent stuff was so easy it was laughable, and of course things that had never been digitized were the ultimate challenge. But he’d been born somewhere. Educated somewhere. He’d had housing, and jobs, and relationships. Hell, he had a daughter! Corin had proof that Frankie Nettleton was his, even though she’d been born right after he died…

Wait. He hadn’t died. She’d dismissed all the falsified data about that death because it was purposeful obfuscation. But for a dead guy, he had amazing resources. Including a whole bunch of random people who had been part of the attack on Victory two weeks ago. That hadn’t been orchestrated by Raff, it had been all Fake Amy, some kind of acolyte who had her own grievances and had gone overboard with a desire for revenge or maybe recognition. Corin wasn’t sure they’d figured out exactly what her problem was. Most of the people who’d been taken into custody had been hired by Fake Amy and claimed not to know Niall Raff. He’d gotten away from the scene, the one guy who’d for-sure been there with him had mysteriously been released from custody before processing, and Fake Amy had disappeared shortly after. Corin should have been able to find her, or at least determine if she was transferred to federal custody—aka a deep, dark hole—or if Raff had gotten to her, too. But Holly, who’d been the target of Fake Amy’s vendetta, had told her to let it go. That it wasn’t worth the risk of getting caught, by either the government or Raff. So Corin had let it go. Mostly.

But Raff had definitely known Fake Amy, had some kind of relationship with her, even if he’d reportedly been furious about the bomb, claiming he didn’t want anyone dead. Lies. He’d orchestrated a car crash that could have killed a whole bunch of Victory’s people. But that wasn’t the point. The point was that even if Fake Amy had gone off the rails Raff had put her on, he’d still started her off. They were connected. If Corin dug harder into Fake Amy’s little worm tunnels, her past, maybe she could learn something about Raff since his non-death.

She was about half an hour into the search when a figure blocked the sunbeam cutting across her table. She kept typing, so close to grabbing something—

“Corin.”

Shit.

Her hands stilled, and she pulled them off the keyboard into her lap. Then she quickly closed the laptop so Max couldn’t see the screen. Not that it wasn’t already too late. She would have perfect recall of everything on there if she’d so much as glanced at it.

Corin beamed up at her boss. Former boss. “Max! So good to see you! What are the chances of us running into—”

“Stop.” Max swiveled to sit in the empty chair across from Corin. “You know this isn’t coincidence. And I know you’re not just hanging out.”

Corin sighed. “I don’t work for Cass anymore. You’re not my boss. So neither of you can stop me from helping.”

Max’s mouth kicked up on one side, not quite a smile. “Your stubborn rebellion surprises me.”

She raised an eyebrow. “Does it?” Yeah, she’d been eager to please in her work, and she knew her personality came across as bubbly or perky or whatever, but she was no pushover.

“Okay, no, it doesn’t, but Cor, you know Cass is just trying to protect us all. There was a bomb in our basement.”

“I know. But the threat won’t go away just because we scattered. Doesn’t Cassandra know we care about her, too? And I know for damned sure she’s not quote ‘stopping’ unquote.”

“No, but—”

“And before you get on me about the assignments, people still need help, and we deserve to know how much we’re supported out there. So—”

“I’m not going to yell at you for making sure our team has work,” Max said. “Why are you so hostile at me right now?”

Corin sat back and blinked. “Hostile?”

“You’ve been edgy ever since we found out about Raff, but now it seems a lot angrier.”

Hm. Maybe she hadn’t been so good at muffling that tiny burning resentment. She drummed her fingers on the table. Being called out made it harder to do the whole deflection/transference thing. She wasn’t sure how many details Max knew about her past. She’d had to disclose her family’s “indiscretions” and was sure the background check had gone deep. But Max had never brought it up, and Corin never talked about it. Oh, wait. Maybe that was why Cass hadn’t wanted Corin to buy any shares.

Another reason to be furious, but not at Cass, and Corin hated letting herself feel this way. So confessing her resentment would be a good outlet. Keep that whole deflection thing going without addressing something she could do nothing about.

“It’s not you. I’m sorry. You’re just Cass’s avatar, but that’s not fair.”

“It’s structured that way on purpose, but if you’re upset with Cassandra, tell me. Maybe I can help fix it.”

She shook her head. “It’s too late now. And it’s dumb. I’m just hurt that she didn’t offer me a share in the company.”

Max’s mouth actually dropped open, shock lighting her eyes. “Oh, shit. Cor. I don’t think she even thought of it.”

Ouch. She nodded but knew the pain showed on her face. Real pain this time.

“No, I mean, she didn’t specifically omit you. She and Iain only offered to field operatives…and me,” she added belatedly.

Corin snorted. “You were in the field a lot for a desk jockey, and the obvious first choice anyway. I get that field people have more training and being able to protect themselves was a factor, but—” How could she mention Bas without sounding like a whiny child? Exactly the opposite of a mature businessperson.

But Max wasn’t superb at her job without reason. “But Bas was offered a share and you weren’t,” she said softly. “That had to hurt.”

She nodded and then shook it off. “It doesn’t matter now. But it does feel a little better to express it. Thank you.”

“If Victory is ever safe enough to reopen, I’ll make sure Cass considers it.”

That would entail restructuring so she didn’t lose her majority, and all kinds of other complications. Plus, Corin wasn’t sure she’d be able to afford it by then, because she currently had no income. The severance had been generous, but it wouldn’t last forever.

Max leaned her forearms on the table and indicated the laptop with her chin. “What were you chasing down?”

“Oh! I was close to something.” She opened the laptop and woke the screen, then hit a few keys. A wary glance around told her people were too close to their table for her to go into details, so she held back on her usual verbal spewage. “I was looking into FA’s connection to our nemesis, thinking about all the little things we do in regular life that I haven’t explored yet.” She navigated around a final firewall and beamed at what popped up onto the screen. “Found something.” She took screenshots, wrapped them in encryption, and shot them over to Max, whose phone chimed from where she’d set it on the table.

Max didn’t look. “What is it?”

Leaning forward and keeping her voice low, she explained, “A medication request through a private company that guarantees confidentiality. A friend of mine used to work for a company like that, and Raff has resources at that level. He has to. This one is shadier, uses a bunch of tactics for burying identifying data, but. You know.” She shrugged, and Max nodded. “The request was a year ago, and it was for Fake Amy’s previous name—not the last one, the one before. It was signed with a name that may be an alias of you-know-who. Nico Fraser. It dead-ended like all the rest of the leads, but I don’t think this one was planted. Anyway, I included all the metadata. It may not lead Cass and Iain to wherever he is now, but it could help give them a trail to follow.”

“All right. Thank you, Corin. But.” Max pointed a finger at her. “This isn’t good. You have to avoid drawing attention to yourself. The whole point of dissolving Victory was to take everyone off Raff’s radar.”

“He doesn’t want people hurt,” she said.

“He didn’t want murder,” Max corrected, her voice low. “But that accident caused a lot of pain. There are awful ways he can stop you short of killing you, and if we keep putting ourselves in his way, who knows what lines he’ll cross? Please,” she urged.

Corin slid her finger down the keypad on her computer. Max rarely pleaded. “I don’t know what else to do,” she admitted.

“A job would keep you busy,” Max suggested.

Corin made a face. She didn’t want to work for anyone else, and finding a new job was like admitting Victory had no future. She wasn’t ready to give up. “You’re not going to tell me to shut down the messaging app, are you?” It kept her connected to everyone. She was afraid they’d all drift too far apart if she didn’t hold them together.

“No, as you pointed out, I’m not your boss anymore. I can’t stop you from doing anything, including tracing leads. But you know the level of resources he has.”

She nodded reluctantly. She’d just been thinking about that.

“If you stay here, in public, that will make it way easier for Raff to find you if he decides you’re a pest he has to swat.”

That was true. Corin was too deep into the grid to ever really go off of it. “So you want me to run and hide?”

Max laughed. “No. But take a vacation. Go see your family.” She smiled knowingly at Corin’s new grimace. “I know it’s been a couple of years since you did that. Now seems like a good time.”

Annoying that Max would say that when Corin was working so hard to stay away from that sore spot. She was suggesting it because they were in California, a long way from Washington, DC. Corin was definitely overdue for a visit, but after the last one, she hadn’t been eager to go back. All Max knew was that she’d taken a trip a couple of years ago—the last time she’d taken any time off from Victory—and visiting family was always a reasonable suggestion.

“I’ll think about it,” she assured her, which was enough to get Max to wrap up and leave the café. But Corin didn’t think about it long. Going from one depressing situation to another held zero appeal for her.

But a vacation wasn’t depressing. Maybe she did need a break. Something relaxing and fun.

What the hell did that even look like?

 

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