The rented Land Rover shook as its tires dipped in and out of the ice ruts on the shoulder of Interstate 70 just west of Copper Mountain. A dour Mexican with a lazy eye at the Denver International Hertz had warned in a miso-mash of Spanish and Midwestern drawl about the state of the roads leading out to Vail, suggesting that perhaps she’d like to hire a male driver to traverse the treacherous ice roads on her behalf. Jane—her name for this particular engagement—had politely laughed the offer away, even though every fiber of her being had wanted to strangle Lazy Eye with his ratty clip-on tie.
Jane guided the SUV off the shoulder into the median and cut across to Spraddle Creek road. There, much of the snow had been plowed and salted, giving her tires the grip they needed to make the hairpin turns leading up to the Spraddle Creek Estates. At the final turn, she pulled off the road again and stopped parallel to a private overlook.
It was a bright afternoon in December; fresh snow melted on the wooden slats of a retaining fence near the edge of the outcropping. The gauge on the dashboard measured 28 degrees outside, so Jane left the Land Rover running as she fished a folder from her bag on the passenger seat. Inside were three pieces of hardcopy that would need to be shredded at the end of the engagement.
The first page told her who she was.
Jane Meade, twenty-eight years old, of New York City by way of Santa Fe, New Mexico. Bachelor’s degree from Columbia University in Radio, Television, and Film. Currently employed at Mainline Productions on the eighth floor of World Trade Center 6. Interests included film, photography, the essence of the human condition, and technology. Lover of Chinese food, protector of fur-babies, and as skilled in the discussion of global economics as she is at rattling off character backstories from Leopold Spectre: Ghost Detective.
Jane flipped down the visor and stared into her own eyes in the embedded mirror.
“Hello, Jane Meade,” she said.
The second page told her who he was.
Daniel Antoine du Montreal, popularly known as Danny “Guns” Montreal, or simply Guns. Despite his moniker, he was a man of average build and preferred to be called by his first name in real life. Danny was thirty-five years old, of mixed descent—Hispanic mother, black father—born and raised in San Antonio, Texas and settled now in the mountains of Colorado. He had no formal education to speak of. His income came from his work and continued reputation as a celebrity hacker for hire. His interests included movies, technology, and sugary snacks.
Like Jane, he loved dogs and abhorred Pop music.
The final page held a grid of black and white photos of Montreal surreptitiously taken the last time he’d been seen in Vail. Jane studied the close-ups of his eyes, stared into them until a familiar feeling began to stir in her chest. After several minutes of meditation, she slipped the pages back into the folder and resumed her drive.
By the time she reached the gate leading to Montreal’s cabin, clouds had gathered and a light dust fell from the sky. Jane pulled the SUV close to the call box and entered a nineteen digit code into the keypad with a gloved finger. As the gate opened, she drove uptimes o the threshold and shifted into park. A warning light flashed on the dash as she pressed a button to open the rear door.
Jane stepped out into the crisp December air
A smattering of fresh tracks led from the main driveway to a storage box a few feet away. From the outside, it appeared to be nothing more than a place for firewood; cloistered slats rimmed the rectangular white box while a sheet of plywood acted as a cover. Inside, however, was an insulated locker in which four bags of groceries had been placed. Beside them, a styrofoam cooler held refrigerated and frozen goods. Jane moved the bags one-by-one to the trunk of the Land Rover and then closed the tailgate.
Back in the driver’s seat, she removed her sunglasses and checked her selection in the visor mirror. Smooth black hair held tight in a high ponytail; cheeks flushed red from a mixture of blush and exposure; eyes surrounded by expertly applied shadow. She pushed the visor back, checked her clothes. Slipping her hand from her glove, she undid the top two buttons on her jacket, then her sweater, and finally the thin red blouse she was wearing underneath.
Jane found the subtle ruts in the recently plowed driveway and made her way along the path, winding through tall pines that swayed against a rapidly graying sky. Courageous birds darted through the snow-covered needles; a flash that could have been a deer or a skinny bear moved beyond the thick trunks. Finally, the private forest receded, and Montreal’s modest cabin came into view.
In a clearing no larger than gas station parking lot stood a two-story home with an attached garage and a large, wrap-around covered porch. There, Montreal stood with a cup of steam in one hand and the other shoved into the front pocket of his blue jeans. He wore a black, long-sleeve shirt, work boots, but no jacket or gloves. There was no hint of shiver in his slim arms.
Jane gave a small wave through the windshield as she pulled past the porch steps. She turned off the Land Rover, took a deep breath, and stepped outside.
“Hey, there,” she said, waving again to Montreal as she hurried around the SUV.
He raised his cup to her in greeting.
Jane smiled at his feigned restraint, let her eyes reacquaint herself with the man she hadn’t seen in six months. He had a face like a caricature of a skull: round at the top and angular and almost pointed 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 were he fifty pounds heavier. His hair was cut short to the scalp; neon blue frames deformed the flesh above his ear.
He reached out with his free hand as she climbed the steps.
Jane pulled herself up and into his embrace. With her arms still wrapped around him, she pulled back and planted a kiss on his lips.
“Hello,” he said, holding the cup out so as not to spill on her.
“It’s been too long,” she replied, nuzzling his neck. Her sighed warmed her face. “Much too long, Danny.”
“Yeah.” He gave a slight shrug. “Work.”
Jane slipped out of his arms, smiled at him. “That thing you were gonna do for Coker, right? About his wife’s nudes?” She pulled the conversation from memory and the dossier notes equally. “Did you help them out?”
“It was nothing. Just money in the bank.” His eyes drifted to the Land Rover. “How was the drive?”
“Treacherous. I’m lucky I made it here alive.” Jane put her eat against his chest. His heart quickened in response, and for the first time, she felt him shiver a little. “Let’s go inside where it’s warm.”
Danny nodded and handed her the cup of what turned out to be hot chocolate. She didn’t care of the taste, but sipped it politely.
“I’ll grab your bags,” he said.
Jane pressed the gate release on her key fob. Despite the hot mug in her hand, she had started to feel the elements.
“I’ll be inside,” she called.
The cabin was warm but not overwhelming. Its style, obviously not picked out by Montreal, was a mix of modern furniture under a pastiche of throw blankets and knitted thermals. To the right of the entrance, a sunken living room nestled against a roaring fire. To the left, a small but functional kitchen hid behind a high bar on which a bottle of champagne sat chilling. Ahead, a circular staircase anchored the center of the open floorplan.
To the rear of the cabin, Montreal’s work area sat on the left while his bedroom occupied the right corner. There, an elevated bed sat unmade.
On the far wall, floor-to-ceiling glass connected to an outdoor shower. Jane smiled, remembering the many times she had pressed her forehead against the glass, staring into the serene woodland pastoral outside, as Montreal gripped her hips from behind.
Jane stepped to the side as he walked past her with her suitcase. The plastic wheels spun along the wood floors, screeching to a halt next to a long, free-standing dresser that separated the bedroom from the living room He lifted the suitcase and placed it horizontal on the dresser.
“Gonna grab the groceries,” he said, touching her lightly n the stomach as he passed her. “Make yourself comfortable.”
After another sip of the bitter chocolate, Jane put the cup down on the bar and slipped out of her overcoat. 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 her white camisole with it. She unhooked her bra and discarded it in another drawer.
“That’s kinda what I had in mind,” said Montreal. He kicked the door closed with his foot and took the grocery bags to the kitchen.
Jane smiled at his comment, unzipped her suitcase, and dug for a faded San Antonio Spurs t-shirt. She pulled it on, letting the persona of Jane Meade envelop her completely.
“Want me to make us some dinner?” she asked, kicking off her shoes and replacing them with warm Uggs.
“No,” he replied, his face buried in the fridge. “I’ll make it. You relax. You’ve had a long drive.”
Jane crossed to the bar and sat down on a padded stool. She spun 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; she poured him a glass of wine in a stemless glass. The alcohol hit her fast, and soon the long drive was forgotten, as was the past life in which she was nothing more than a glorified escort, a meretricious companion for which well-to-do but lonely men paid three thousand dollars a night.
The job did have its perks though, especially with men like Montreal.
He was a fair lover, not overly skilled but nothing to complain about. He was respectful almost to the point of awkward, but sincere in his efforts. To him, Jane Meade was a long-lost lover, a necessary part of the human experience that he just 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 in a rave club jumping up and down to some techno slop under a matrix of multi-colored lasers.
The reality was far less sexy.
Simply put, Montreal was lonely and craving 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 made salads and offered bread; he plated everything with care, obviously proud of himself. They ate and laughed as the sun set beyond the open rear windows. The lights in the ceiling ramped up slowly as the even progressed.
After dinner, they retired to the long sectional in the living room where they opened another bottle of wine. Jane listened with practiced intensity as Montreal laid out the Eileen Coker nude photo affair. Had he kept some of the pictures for himself? Most likely. Would he let her see them if she asked nicely? Probably not. Though he appeared to almost love her, Jane often sensed the gulf between them, not just because of the paid relationship, but more of his inability to connect with people.
He was known the world over, and yet, he wasn’t.
No one really knew Daniel Antoine du Montreal.
The last bottle of wine went empty around 11:30 p.m., after which they retired to the bedroom. Jane suggested a shower, and as the stars twinkled high above the glass roof, she scrubbed Montreal from head to toe. He stood there like a statue, his eyes closed, as if remembering what it was like to be touched by another person. He didn’t have many kinks, but he loved to be bathed. Something primitive from children, Jane supposed. She pulled a razor from the wall and ran it gingerly over his stubble as she stroked his erection.
His hands moved from her hips to the small of her back, but his eyes seemed to look past her, somewhere beyond the physical representation of the world.
“Are you here with me?” she asked.
She ran her fingers along his earlobe, feeling for a whisperer. Sometimes he had trouble disconnecting from the network, a face plainly spelled out in his engagement rider. He’d specifically asked for someone to bring me back to center. Jane had brought no technology with her, didn’t even have a sliver installed in her wrist like most people. Of the many things she was tasked to do, keeping him away from the network and the feeds and the never-ending stream of data was often the most difficult. He seemed to connect out of habit, not really wanting anything from the outside world but unable to stop himself from reaching out.
Like most men, sex usually got his undivided attention.
“Take me to the bed,” she told him.
He obliged, leading her by the hand from the shower to a tiled anteroom where warm air blew over them as he patted her down with a soft blue towel. When she was dry, he picked her up and carried her to the bed, laying her gently among the crumpled sheets.
They smelled of lavender and man.
Jane crawled backwards 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, and Jane reached down to guide him into her. Montreal gave a few tentative thrusts, then came down onto his elbows, wrapping his hands behind her head, as he settled into a steady tempo.
Jane stared at the wooden slats in the ceiling, at the crisscrossing wires and metal casings. As the pain lessened, she closed her eyes, rubbed her cheek against his. She wrapped her arms around his back and pulled him tighter.
Not the worst job in the world. It paid well. And there were perks. At least Montreal made an attempt to be tender.
“Do you love me?” she asked.
“More than anything,” he replied, breathless, in her ear.
“Then fuck me like you mean it.”
His rhythm 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 it would be over long before that moment could be reached.
Montreal cried out.
Jane opened her eyes, expecting to see his face contorted in stolen ecstasy. Instead, he had put his hand to the back of his neck, as if someone had stabbed him and he was trying to staunch the bleeding. He slipped out of her and tumbled backwards off the bed.
She 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 too coughing.
Jane rushed to his side, grabbed him by the neck. Something hot stung 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, went wide and misty.
“Johnny,” he sputtered. “It’s Johnny.”
There was only one Johnny that mattered to him: Johnny San Vito, a fellow celebrity hacker for hire and one of his oldest friends.
“What about him?”
“Dead.” His voice broke. “Johnny’s dead.”
Montreal looked away, slowed his breathing.
As the snow fell on the remote Colorado cabin, Jane held one of the most feared hackers on the planet in her arms and listened to him cry.