The shrill, high-pitched chirp of an incoming e-mail was like a bell ringing in my head. I woke with a start and immediately put a hand on my gun. I took gasping breaths as my eyes adjusted to the light coming off my security screens. I looked over to the windowsill where I'd set my watch. The sky was still as black as ink.
I took the gun out from under my pillow and put it on my nightstand. Breathe.
When I regained my composure I scanned the monitors. There was no one in the hallway or the elevator. Nobody in the stairs or the lobby. The only person awake was the night watchman, who looked too engrossed in a book to notice anything. My building was an old ten-story, and I was on the eighth floor. It was a seasonal sort of place, so there were year-round occupants in only about half the rooms and none of them ever got up early. Everyone was still asleep, or away for the summer.
My computer chirped again.
I've been an armed robber for close to twenty years. Paranoia comes with the territory, as well as the stack of fake passports and hundred-dollar bills under the bottom drawer of my dresser. I started in this business in my teens. I did a few banks because I thought I'd like the thrill of it. I wasn't the luckiest and I'm probably not the smartest, but I've never been caught, questioned or fingerprinted. I'm very good at what I do. I've survived because I'm extremely careful. I live alone, I sleep alone, I eat alone. I trust no one.
There are maybe thirty people on earth who know I exist, and I am not sure if all of them believe I'm still alive. I am a very private person out of necessity. I don't have a phone number and I don't get letters. I don't have a bank account and I don't have debts. I pay for everything in cash, if possible, and when I can't, I use a series of black Visa corporate credit cards, each attached to a different offshore corporation. Sending me an e-mail is the only way to contact me, though it doesn't guarantee I'll respond. I change the address whenever I move to a different city. When I start getting messages from people I don't know, or if the messages stop bearing important information, I microwave the hard drive, pack my things into a duffel and start all over.
My computer chirped again.
I ran my fingers over my face and picked up the laptop from the desk next to my bed. There was one new message in my in-box. All of my e-mails get redirected through several anonymous forwarding services before they reach me. The data goes through servers in Iceland, Norway, Sweden and Thailand before it gets chopped up and sent to accounts all over the world. Anybody tracing the IP wouldn't know which was the real one. This e-mail had arrived at my first offshore address in Reykjavik some two minutes ago, where the server had encrypted it with my private-key 128-bit cipher. From there it had been forwarded to another address registered under a different name. Then another address, then another. Oslo, Stockholm, Bangkok, Caracas, São Paulo. It was daisy-chained down the line ten times with a copy in each in-box. Cape Town, London, New York, L.A., Tokyo. Now it was undetectable, untraceable, private and anonymous. The information had circled the world almost twice before it got to me. It was in all these in-boxes, but my cipher key could unlock only one. I entered my pass code and waited for the message to decrypt. I could hear the hard drive doing a spin-up and the CPU beginning to work. Five in the morning.
Outside the sky was empty, except for a few lights on in the skyscrapers, which looked like foggy constellations. I've never liked July. Where I'm from the whole summer is intolerably hot. The security monitors had browned out for a few seconds the night before, and I had to spend two hours checking them. I opened a window and put my fan next to it. I could smell the shipping yard outside—old cargo, garbage and salt water. Across the train tracks the bay stretched out like a giant oil slick. That early in the morning, only a half dozen or so headlights cut through the darkness. The fishing boats cast rigger beams over the nets, and the early ferries were setting off from the harbor. The fog rolled in from Bainbridge Island and through the city, where the rain stopped and the cargo express cast a shadow from the track going east. I took my watch off the windowsill and put it on. I wear a Patek Philippe. It doesn't look like much, but it will tell the correct time until long after everyone I've ever known is dead and buried, the trains stop running and the bay erodes into the ocean.
My encryption program made a noise. Done.
I clicked on the message.
The sender's address had been obscured by all the redirects, but I knew instantly who it was from. Of the possibly thirty people who know how to contact me, only two knew the name in the subject line, and only one I knew for sure was alive.
My name isn't really Jack. My name isn't John, George, Robert, Michael or Steven, either. It isn't any of the names that appear on my driver's licenses, and it isn't on my passports or credit cards. My real name isn't anywhere, except maybe on a college diploma and a couple of school records in my safety-deposit box. Jack Delton was just an alias, and it was long since retired. I'd used it for a job five years ago and never again since. The words blinked on the screen with a little yellow tag next to them to show that the message was urgent.
I clicked it.
The e-mail was short. It read: Please call immediately.
Then there was a phone number with a local area code.
I stared at it for a moment. Normally, when I got a message like this, I wouldn't even consider dialing the number. The area code was the same as mine. I thought about this for a second and came up with two conclusions. Either the sender had been extraordinarily lucky or he knew where I was. Considering the sender, it was probably the latter. There were a few ways he could've done it, sure, but none of them would've been easy or cheap. Just the possibility that I'd been found should have been enough to send me running. I have a policy never to call numbers I don't know. Phones are dangerous. It is hard to track an encrypted e-mail through a series of anonymous servers. Tracking someone by their cell phone is easy, however. Even regular police can trace a phone, and regular police don't deal with guys like me. Guys like me get the full treatment. FBI, Interpol, Secret Service. They have rooms full of officers for that sort of thing.
I looked at the blinking name long and hard. Jack.
If the e-mail were from anyone else, I would've deleted it by now. If the e-mail were from anyone else, I'd be closing the account and deleting all my messages. If the e-mail were from anyone else, I'd be frying the computers, packing my duffel and buying a ticket for the next flight to Russia. I'd be gone in twenty minutes.
But it wasn't from anyone else.
Only two people in the world knew that name.
I stood up and went to the dresser by my window. I pushed aside a pile of money and a yellow legal pad full of notes. When I'm not on a job, I translate the classics. I pulled a white shirt out of the drawer, a gray two-piece suit from the closet and a leather shoulder holster from my dresser. I fished a little chrome revolver from the box on top: a Detective Special with the trigger guard and hammer spur filed off. I filled it with a handful of .38 hollow points. When I was dressed and ready, I took out an old prepaid international phone, powered it up and punched in the numbers.
The phone didn't even ring. It just went right to connection.
"It's me," I said.
"You're a hard man to find, Jack."
"What do you want?"
"I want you to come to my clubhouse," Marcus said. "Before you ask, you still owe me."
From Ghostman by Roger Hobbs. Copyright 2013 by Robert Hobbs. Excerpted by permission of Random House, Inc.