A black Land Rover tore through the snowy roads of the Colorado mountains. Seated in the back on heated leather, Jane Meade of New York City looked up from the dossier of Daniel Antoine du Montreal.
Through the tinted windows, she could see the resort city of Vail twinkling in the last minutes of dusk. Snow fell softly from the sky in great sheets, blanketing the road, trees, and distant Christmas lights that dotted the mountain, appearing to Jane like ornaments on a massive tree. The unbroken white made the world look serene and safe, as if nothing in the world could touch the people living there. They were protected by their high mountains and gated properties and private security teams.
It was the perfect place for someone to disappear, provided they could afford it.
Jane returned her attention to the dossier, to the photos of a man who was known in the hacker community as Guns, but who lacked the corresponding biceps in real life to back up the name. There wasn’t much in his file she couldn’t have learned on the net, with the exception of the personal notes she’d accumulated over her four previous visits. Those throwaway facts, the minutiae of his life, and the candid photos she’d snapped formed the continuity that would carry her from their last meeting to the impending one, such that to Danny, it would feel as if they had been steadily trading emails for the last six months rather than spending that time cut off from each other, as the contract stipulated.
Jane smiled at some of the things she’d written down.
Hates John Mayer.
Possible Information Dependency Syndrome.
“I tell Mr. Montreal we arrive,” said Marcelo, a large Italian man with a thick accent and a mop of dirty blond hair.
They’d come into Vail via Interstate 70, but instead of following the tourists into the city proper, the Land Rover had turned off onto Spraddle Creek, a winding road that climbed ever upward, leaning this way and that to touch the long driveway of some mansion or oversized cabin.
When the SUV left the main road, its tires sank into fresh snow that led up to a wrought-iron fence. Jane checked her reflection in a mirrored compact as Marcelo slowed to a stop next to a call box with a keypad.
A man in a white snowsuit stepped out of the tree line, leaned slightly to get a better look at Marcelo, and then waved him in. He had to take a hand off of his assault rifle to work the keypad.
The gate swung open.
High pines marched by in close ranks, until finally the SUV pulled into a wide, snow-covered clearing.
On the far side stood a two-story cabin with an attached garage and a large, wrap-around veranda. There, Danny Guns Montreal posed casually against a post with a steaming mug in one hand and the other shoved into the front pocket of his blue jeans. He wore a black, long-sleeve shirt, gray slippers, but no jacket or gloves. There was no hint of shiver in his slim arms.
Jane gave a small wave through the window as they pulled past the porch steps. Marcelo put the car in park and got out. He reappeared at Jane’s door and opened it for her.
Deep breath, she told herself. Just do your job.
She inhaled slowly and stepped out of the car. A smile spread across her face automatically.
“Hey there,” she said, waving again as she crunched through the snow to the porch.
He raised his cup to her.
Jane smiled at his feigned restraint and let her eyes rediscover the man she hadn’t seen since last June. He had a face like a caricature of a skull—perfectly round at the top and angular almost to a point from his cheeks down. It made his eyes appear darker than they were and gave his mouth a wide fullness that wouldn’t have been so noticeable if he had been fifty pounds heavier. His hair was cut short to the scalp; neon blue glasses bit into the flesh above his ears.
He reached out with his free hand as she climbed the steps.
Jane pulled herself up and into his embrace. She pressed her face into his chest, pulled back after a moment, and planted a long kiss on his lips.
“Hello,” he said, holding the cup out so as not to spill on her.
“It’s been too long.” She nuzzled his neck. “Much too long.”
“Yeah.” He gave a slight shrug. “Work, you know?”
Jane slipped out of his arms, smiled at him. “That thing for Lucas Cotton, right? How’s that going?” She pulled the name and previous conversations from memory and the dossier notes equally.
“We’re getting closer,” he said, his eyes drifting to the car. “How was the drive up?”
“Treacherous. Marcelo got us through safely though.” Jane put her ear against his chest. She could hear his heartbeat quickening, and for the first time, felt him shiver. “Let’s go inside where it’s warm,” she suggested.
Danny nodded and handed her the cup. She expected coffee but tasted hot chocolate. The drink was much too bitter, but she sipped it politely.
“I put inside,” said Marcelo. He followed them into the cabin carrying Jane’s bag with both hands to avoid rolling it in the snow.
The cabin was warm but not overwhelmingly so. Its style, obviously not chosen by Danny himself, was a mix of modern wood furniture under a small mountain of plush blankets and knitted thermals. To the right of the entrance, a sunken living room nestled against a large, roaring fireplace. To the left, a small but functional kitchen hid behind a high bar on which a bottle of champagne sat chilling in a bucket of ice. Ahead, a circular staircase anchored the center of the open floorplan.
Jane looked to the rear of the cabin where an elevated bed and free-standing dresser marked a bedroom. On the far wall, floor-to-ceiling glass connected to an outdoor shower. She smiled at the memory of the serene woodland pastoral beyond the glass, a scene she had stared at many times while Danny gripped her hips from behind.
Marcelo placed the carry-on on the dresser near the bed.
“I’m happy to see you again, signora,” he said, bowing slightly to Jane.
“I’ll walk you out,” said Danny. Then to Jane, “Make yourself comfortable.”
After another forced sip of the hot chocolate, Jane put the mug down on the bar and slipped out of her jacket. She hung it on a hook by the door. Crossing the room, she removed her sweater, folded it neatly, and placed it in one of the several empty drawers in the dresser. Nimble fingers unbuttoned her blouse halfway before she pulled it over her head, taking the white camisole with it.
Jane unzipped the suitcase and dug for a faded San Antonio Spurs t-shirt. She slipped it over her head and let the persona of Jane Meade wash over her. Reaching under the back of her shirt, she unhooked her bra, and pulled it off with a quiet sigh.
Danny returned in a gust of cool air. Only after the door had closed and Marcelo was out of sight did he relent and rub his arms. Why he had to put on an act in front of Marcelo was beyond Jane, but it wasn’t really anything new for him.
“Want me to make us some dinner?” she called, kicking off her shoes and replacing them with warm, fur-lined slippers.
“No.” His head was buried in the fridge, muffling his response. “I’m gonna make it. You relax. You’ve had a long drive.”
Jane crossed to the bar and sat down on a padded stool. She regaled Danny with invented stories of New York City nightlife as he prepared a pasta dish. He let her taste the sauce on the end of a wooden spoon—too much garlic—and she poured him a glass of champagne in what might have been a flute made from real crystal.
The alcohol hit her fast, and soon the drive from Denver was all but forgotten, as was the past life in which she was nothing more than a meretricious companion for lonely men who could afford the $3,000 nightly fee.
For his money, Danny got a friend, a girlfriend, a confidant, and whatever else one human might want from another human. Jane enjoyed clients like Danny, simple men who wanted nothing more than basic companionship and the potential of passionate sex.
He was a fair lover, as lovers went, not overly skilled but nothing Jane would write a bad review about. He was respectful almost the point of awkwardness, but sincere in his efforts to please her. In bed, Jane was his intermittent lover, a necessary part of the human experience that Danny couldn’t afford to have in his life full-time. The movies liked to paint hackers as gregarious party monsters who spent all their time in synth dens or at raves cavorting with underage techno-junkies under matrices of neon lasers.
The reality was far less sexy and felonious.
Simply put, Danny craved connection.
There was a sadness to his existence that Jane did her best to ignore as he served her a dish of shrimp carbonara. He’d made salads and baked some bread; he plated everything with care, obviously proud of himself. They ate and laughed as the sun set and the lights in the ceiling ramped up.
After dinner, they migrated to the long sectional in the living room where they opened a bottle of wine—a 2011 Malbec from Argentina. Jane listened with practiced intensity as Danny laid out the Lucas Cotton job. He spoke with enthusiasm and took delight in the opportunity to school her on the latest technology. The way he smiled at her, engaged her non-verbally, gave the illusion that he loved her.
In those moments, the gulf between them stood out in stark relief, not just because of the pay-for-play relationship, but more from his inability to connect with people.
He only had a few friends that she knew of, and yet he was known the world over.
But perhaps that was only half true.
No one really knew Daniel Antoine du Montreal, and Jane sensed he preferred it that way.
The last bottle of wine went empty shortly before midnight, after which they retired to the bedroom. Jane suggested a shower, and as the stars twinkled high above the glass roof, she scrubbed Danny from head to toe. He stood there like a Greek statue, his eyes closed, as if he were carefully storing away the sensation of being touched by another person.
He didn’t have many kinks, but like a lot of men, he loved to be bathed. Something primitive from childhood, Jane supposed. She thought about how long it had been since he’d called his mother as she ran a razor over his stubble and stroked his erection.
The intrusion into what was clearly a non-sexual moment for Danny forced his eyes open. He moved his hands from her hips to the small of her back. He was facing her, and yet, he didn’t seem to be looking at her at all.
“Are you here with me?” she asked.
She ran her fingers along his earlobe, feeling for a whisperer. He often had trouble disconnecting from the network, a fact plainly spelled out in his engagement rider. He’d specifically asked for someone to help me shut out the noise. Jane had brought no technology with her except for her palette and the subdermal sliver in her wrist. Of her many expected tasks, keeping him away from the network and the feeds and the never-ending stream of data was often the most difficult.
Danny’s entire life was in the network; he couldn’t stop himself from reaching out to it.
When all else failed, sex usually got his undivided attention.
“Take me to bed,” she told him.
He followed orders well, and Jane was almost certain he delighted in being told what to do. He led her by the hand from the shower to a tiled anteroom where warm air blew over them from above and below. What the fans missed, Danny addressed with a soft blue towel. When they were both dry, he picked her up and carried her to the bed, laying her gently among crumpled gray sheets that smelled of lavender and man.
Jane crawled backward on her elbows until she could rest her head on a pillow. She reached out for him, stared into his eyes the way she’d stared at his photos in the Land Rover earlier. She watched him climb onto the bed, stopping to kiss her feet, shins, and thighs. A warm tongue dragged through her labia and over her light pubic hair.
Finally, he settled over her, his face shadowed in silhouette. Jane reached down to guide him into her. Danny settled onto his elbows as he always did, wrapped his hands behind her head as he always did, and fell into a steady and familiar rhythm.
Jane stared at the wooden crossbeams in the ceiling, at the wires and metal casings that ran along them. As the discomfort lessened, she closed her eyes and rubbed her cheek against his. She wrapped her arms around his back and pulled him closer.
Working for Adelai Associates wasn’t the worst job in the world. It paid well, and there were perks. At least Danny made an effort to be tender.
“Do you want me?” she asked.
“More than anything,” he replied, breathless, in her ear.
“Then I’m yours, Danny. I’m yours.”
His tempo increased. He extended his arms, lifting his weight from her chest.
Jane grabbed his hips, threw her head back, and moaned in time with his movement. In the deepest core of her being, a tingle alighted, threatened to grow and explode, but she knew the threat was empty, the window of opportunity too small.
Danny cried out.
She opened her eyes, expecting to see his face contorted in selfish ecstasy. Instead, he had his hand on the back of his neck, as if someone had stabbed him and he was trying to stanch the bleeding. He slipped out of her and tumbled backward off the bed.
Jane gave chase, reached the edge of the bed in time to see him convulsing on the floor, flopping around like a fish on the deck of a boat. His muscles went rigid, and the screams turned to coughing.
She rushed to his side, grabbed him by the neck. Something hot burned her fingers; she moved her hand to his hairline.
“Danny, what is it?”
He gasped for air, his eyes circling wildly.
Jane thought of the landline on the wall in the kitchen. How long would it take an ambulance to arrive? How would Adelai Associates deal with a client dying during an engagement?
“Look at me, sweetie,” she said. “Look at me.”
His eyes focused on her, but they were wide and misty.
“Johnny,” he sputtered.
There was only one Johnny that mattered to him: Johnny San Vito, a fellow celebrity hacker and one of his oldest friends.
“What about him?” she asked.
“Dead.” His voice broke. “Johnny’s dead.”
Danny looked away, slowed his breathing.
Jane held him for a long time, unsure of what to say or do. There was nothing in the Adelai Associates handbook that covered powerful men and what to do when they were reduced to quivering boys. All she knew for sure was to keep her arms around him.
She stroked his hair, made soothing noises, and listened as one of the most feared hackers on the planet sobbed into her chest.