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Contemporary Romance, Dark Romance

Talk to Me

Part of the The Switchboard Duet

“Patch online…”

Five years ago, I disappeared from the life I had and built this one. I spend my days, and most of my nights, on the line helping my clients achieve their goals. They call me when they are in a jam or are getting ready to move on a target.

I’m their information specialist.

The woman in the chair.

I’m their switchboard.

Intelligence, electronic eyes, computer hacking—I do it all. My singular goal, bring my clients home safely. Some clients are more special than others. We all play favorites. I know them, they’ve never seen me.

No one sees me.

They can hear me. They can talk to me.

I will always answer.

Until the day I don’t.

Talk to Me

Part of the The Switchboard Duet

Talk to Me

Excerpt

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Prologue

If you knew this was your last day on Earth, how would you wanna spend it?

That question came up in philosophy class. It was tossed around at a girl’s night while we were drinking. It was asked during a damn episode of Grey’s Anatomy.

The thing was, every single time I heard that question, my answer changed. Today, I couldn’t seem to shake the question or come up with a good answer. I used my keycard to access the elevator lobby, then again to send the elevator up twenty-two floors. Once there, I would need to pass through the business front to get inside one of the country’s most secure watchdog hubs.

Though watchdog was kind of a misnomer. We were an operational center. More for off the books, black ops, designed to protect the security of our country from all threats foreign and domestic.

I’d taken an oath the day I received my security clearance. Everything about my employment was classified, from the offices we worked in to the people we reported to. Most were simply names in emails or an avatar on the screen.

“Morning Fallon,” Ralph Taylor greeted me from where he sat behind the semi-circle reception desk. He had video screens everywhere beneath the lip of the desk as well as weapons. A retired former detective from the NYPD, he confessed to enjoying his babysitting job for the nerd squad.

I didn’t mind being lumped in with the rest.

“Morning, Ralph,” I said before I set the brown paper bag on the desk.

“You remembered!” He gave me a wide smile.

“I did. The pirozkis were fresh too.” The smell would have made my stomach grumble if I hadn’t picked up two for myself to eat in the car.

“You’re the best,” he called as I carded my way through the last security door. It opened to an antechamber then closed and locked me in the room where I needed a retina scan, and to enter a code before it allowed me final access to the tank.

The light flashed from red to green, then a buzzer sounded as the door opened to let me inside.

“There’s my girl,” Marty Cartwright greeted me as I slipped inside. Cartwright was the senior supervisor here in the tank.

“Good morning,” I said as I released my card back to thump against my chest. It was secured by a retractable cord that clipped to my jacket. His presence set off alarm bells. Hadn’t he left to go on vacation two days earlier?

Not that we had nine to five, five day a week jobs. We came in when the work required it. He moved like a shadow, following me to my cubicle. In addition to Marty, there were five others already in and at their desks.

Headsets on, they had various assignments up on their monitors. I recognized some at a distance, but not others. I didn’t focus, just headed to my own control center. Marty continued to move in my wake, his unsettling presence leaving me on edge.

I set my bag down on the desk, opened the drawer where I always locked it in and then closed it before I pulled out the chair. Not sitting, I looked at Marty. “What’s up?”

“I’ve been thinking…”

Waiting, I tilted my head as I met his gaze.

“You’ve been handling most of the watch over Turkey and the Baltics.”

I nodded.

“We need to bring in someone to train. Currently, you’re the only one who speaks the language of that area.”

I knew this. So why was he bringing it up?

“For the next couple of days, I need you to log off of those servers.”

My stomach dropped. Did he know that I’d found out?

“Okay,” I said slowly, as though I needed to rework my schedule. “I think today’s tapes and calls are all Poland and the new canal.”

“Excellent. If you get tagged into the Baltics, just forward it to me.” Then he winked. “Maybe we can get a drink later.”

Never going to happen. I smiled. “If I have brain cells left at the end of the day, I’ll think about it.”

That earned me a laugh. Then he motioned me to my chair. “I’ll leave you to it.” But his humor faded before he’d even turned away. Then he was striding across the office.

Cartwright was supposed to be on vacation.

He wanted me to log out of the servers where I’d been running a dozen shadow operations for U.S. intelligence.

He also wanted me to forward him the intelligence and the open cases.

He knew.

My heart triple-timed against my ribs, but four years of cold calls and hot operations kept my hands steady as I settled at my desk, put my headset on and logged into my machine.

A brief flash told me the camera had been activated remotely, but I pretended to not notice. More the keystroke logger was activated. I had two keyboards, however, and I slid the secondary one out as I brought the other machines up.

Normally, all the units would be slaved to the center console. But I’d partitioned them gradually over the last two months. Right around the time I realized what Cartwright was up to.

Not that I’d known it was him before. No, today confirmed that. I opened another drawer, slid out a piece of gum, folded it in half and tucked it under my tongue before I started logging myself out of the various servers. I made a point of boxing the files, then forwarding them to him as requested.

They were encrypted. It would take him a while to realize I’d just sent him the logs from three weeks of battle gaming on God of War. The files were huge and contained enough data to work as a decoy.

Flipping the screens, I switched to the Poland tapes and started playing them. The language filled my headset and I looked for all the world like I was translating. The AI program wasn’t the best, but it worked to keep the keylogger entertained while I used my backdoor into the systems to clean out the treasure trove of information.

I hadn’t broken it all down yet, but it was hard to ignore the data once I’d lined it up. Someone was shadowing the shadow ops. They were profiting off operations. Twice, men had been deployed to eliminate targets that were not enemies of the state but actual competitors.

The last time, they’d used a drone strike. The data from the satellite had been corrupted, but I’d managed to piece enough together to see the family that had also been murdered.

Collateral. They didn’t care who was hurt. The fact money was being moved in considerable sums as well as exchanging arms and drugs—it was all there. You just had to know how to parse the data.

I was never supposed to find this. But now that I had—I wasn’t sure who to trust with it. So I did the only thing I could think of.

I emptied the bank accounts, swept the money through a dozen different dark web channels to clean it and deposited it in encrypted accounts. The program would keep the money on the move until it vanished. The rest I backed up onto two separate drives.

One I would take with me. The other would upload to the cloud when the data dump at the end of the day was done. It would use the normal dump to cover the amount of information.

I would also be long gone before that one initiated. Once that was complete, I monitored the AI translator until lunch time. I wasn’t the first one up nor the last. I waited for the tape to be done then filed it before I shut everything down and logged out.

Bag in hand, I stretched. I waved to Veronica as I passed her cubicle. She lifted her chin but her fingers never stopped moving. This had been my life for the past few years. A life where I’d been making a difference.

Or so I thought.

As I slid into the elevator and pressed the button for the garage below, I hummed a song. I didn’t even know which one. It let me fidget and not seem suspicious. Once I was in the garage, I bypassed my car as I headed for the ramp exit.

I turned my jacket inside out and pulled my hair up into a ponytail. There were cameras everywhere, but I’d long since mapped the blindspots and found a route to get out of the garage without being recorded. By the time I reached the top of the ramp, I had my backpack out of my bag and my purse stuffed inside of it.

Not slowing my pace, I went to the light and crossed the street. The bus was just pulling up to the stop. I climbed on board and swiped a bus fair card I’d picked up the week before.

After, I headed to the back of the bus.

I didn’t look behind me. There was nothing there for me anymore. I couldn’t afford to look back. I tugged up the hood on my hoodie and tucked my hair under it.

I wouldn’t be getting off until the last stop.

Then I would disappear.

This life was over.

end of excerpt

Talk to Me

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Talk to Me

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