Baby Play the Game – Sneak Peek 1


Sitting in a Ford Expedition on a stakeout in downtown Chicago wasn’t my idea of a great vacation. Last night, as I’d been waiting to board my plane to Aruba, my long-planned getaway had gone the way of the dodo bird, the Pony Express, and civil politics with the arrival of one encrypted email on my cell phone.

Now I was sweating on leather SUV seats instead of on a blanket in white sand, as my partner and I watched Jason Jensen. Jason is one of the world’s best hackers, an IT genius, and—most importantly to me—my best friend. On that stifling July afternoon, he was dressed in navy blue board shorts and a teal T-shirt, leaning against the brick front of a building, and innocently scrolling through his phone.

Or so it looked to the world. As part of our elite Alpha Team at Headquarters for the Elimination of Advanced Threats, the covert government agency otherwise known as HEAT by the few who were aware of it, he was rarely up to anything truly guileless. What he’d really been doing was trying to pinpoint a network signal from inside the building. He’d been unable to hack into it from the comfort of his computer desk back at headquarters, so he had insisted we let him go into the field.

Since he wasn’t technically cleared for nonemergency fieldwork, the four of us who were cleared—two of us on the logistics crew and two on the tactical crew—were staying on him like white on rice, ready to jump into action to protect, contain, or extract him. But sitting in the Expedition and watching him hold up the side of a building was about as exciting as it sounded, even if I did appreciate an excuse to stare at him. He was also off-limits to me for many, many reasons, so I told said lizard brain that always noticed Jason’s hotness to shut the hell up.

I sighed, shifted in my seat, and glared at my partner, logistics crew lead Martin Penn. None of this was his fault, but I had enough annoyance to go around for all my HEAT colleagues. I’d needed my now-canceled vacation not only for R and R but also for some temporary distance between Jason and the aforementioned, way-too-chatty lizard brain.

“Get over it, Sparks,” Penn said. He was grinning, which meant he wasn’t really upset by my poor attitude. “The beach will still be there when this mission is over.”

“And when will that be?” I groaned, immediately as annoyed with myself as I was with my coworkers. “Ugh. Sorry for the self-pity party. Whine over, I promise.”

“I get it,” Penn said. “It’s been too long since any of us have had a break. TJ gets it, too,” he said, referring to our team commander. “He’s doing his best to find replacements from other HEAT teams so everyone can get some vacation time soon, but the agency is stretched thin.”

The kind of work we did with finding, following, and taking down the worst of bad guys requires recovery time. But in the seven months we’d been trying to dismantle our arch-nemesis organization, The Carbonados Group, we’d barely had time to come up for air between missions.

And now there was a hiring freeze in effect for the first time in over a decade since our counterterrorism agency had been founded. The halt coincided with the beginning of our war with the Carbonados. We’d all begun to suspect that wasn’t happenstance, after all. The criminal Carbonados enterprise was linked to wealthy and powerful people across the globe. Why wouldn’t it have tendrils reaching into the Senate, maybe even into the secret Senate subcommittee that controlled HEAT’s line item on the black budget each year?

With personnel stretched so thin, one of the best weapons left to us to contain the Carbonados was our tech advantage, intercepting communications, hacking networks, and manipulating their data to sow confusion among their ranks. Last night, while I’d been on my way to a commercial airport near DC, Jensen had broken the code on a number of encrypted emails that had led us to Chicago, this building specifically. So, instead of boarding my plane to paradise, I’d switched flights, and our eight-person team had converged on the city, with this building in our crosshairs. If I didn’t know better, I would have thought my best friend had picked the worst possible time to make a breakthrough, just to mess with my vacation.

“Jensen, what’s your status?” TJ asked, his voice coming through on the tiny comms units each team member wore in their ears. He, along with Samantha Bond, our team doctor, and Kate Alder, Jensen’s partner in IT, were in a van parked a block farther away.

Jason thumbed something into his phone, and a few seconds later, Alder relayed his message. “No luck with the building network,” she said, “but there are other nonnetwork devices inside. Probably personal cell phones. If he can find one that’s strong enough, he’ll piggyback on it to get closer to the network signal.”

“He typed all that, that fast?” Penn asked.

“No,” Alder said. “He typed a few words. I was translating for you.” After a beat of silence, she added, “Fuck me.”

“What?” TJ asked.

Alder cleared her throat, stalling. Which meant Jason had sent her a message about something he absolutely should not but was about to do. “Um, he typed, Hostile with signal on move. Will intercept.

“Jensen,” TJ said quietly, “if that’s you saying a thug is coming out the door and you’re going to be there to greet him, abort.”

Static hissed across the line, and Jensen rubbed the top of his ear, our gesture to indicate losing communication.

“Bullshit,” TJ said. “Stand down. That’s an order.”

“He’s not lying,” Alder said. “His signal dropped.”

“You mean he dropped it,” TJ said, then let out a string of curses.

“I’ll head in his direction,” Cynthia Kessler, from our tactical crew, said.

“Tactical, hold your position.” Penn unbuckled his seat belt. “I’m closer, and I’m not under surveillance.”

I glanced into the Ford’s side mirror to see Kessler’s position, sitting at a table at a sidewalk café. At least three different men were tracking her. I wasn’t worried they were Carbonados. They were just red-blooded, hetero men, watching a beautiful blonde. Sitting at a table at a different restaurant, tall, lean, black-haired Mai Li, our other tactical agent, was garnering a similar level of attention.

“Extractions are us,” Penn said to me as he opened the driver’s side door and slid out of the seat. He nodded for me to slide into it. “Be ready to floor it if we need a quick escape.”

I nodded, not needing to be told twice. In fact, I didn’t need to be told once, since curbside rescue followed a standard procedure, but Penn verbalizing handing over driving responsibilities to his subordinate was protocol.

“What are the odds Jensen will catch a live one?” TJ asked Alder. “Someone foolish enough to be carrying around an unencrypted device?”

“I can’t run the exact numbers right now,” Alder said. She was our resident statistics expert, but she was now holding down the entire IT fort by herself. “Probably low.”

That answer led me to believe she knew exactly how low the odds were but didn’t want to share with the class how little payoff there was bound to be for Jason taking such a huge risk.

“Would someone working for the Carbonados be that careless?” TJ asked of no one in particular.

“Maybe,” I answered. “We know they can get reckless when they’re in a hurry about something.”

Calling the group ‘they’ was probably a stretch in and of itself, since our best estimation of their organization’s structure was some powerful, key figures at the top, with a layer of lieutenants, more like warlords, under them, and loose collections of gangs and even solo criminals making up the vast majority of their ranks. They relied on mercenaries, too, ramping up for certain jobs, handing everyone a big paycheck at the end of it, then releasing them to blow away in the wind. The decentralized model was a favorite amongst terrorist organizations for a reason.

“They like to hire local talent through shell corporations for one-off jobs,” I continued. “It’s faster and keeps a lot of hands in the upper echelons clean if anyone on the ground gets caught. But it comes at the cost of losing some control over security, which might give us an in here.”

Jason, still staring at his phone, grinned. He was still listening to all of us, so he wasn’t being as reckless in cutting himself off as I’d first assumed. His smile added to the whole package of hotness that he was that day, and my heart did a little staccato beat. I tried to tell myself it was just objective appreciation of an attractive friend, but the truth was, no other BFF had ever affected my sinus rhythm. Fuck me.

My rescheduled vacation could not come soon enough. I needed a lot of alone time, several tropical drinks, and at least one quick and dirty fling to clear out the mess in my head. I needed a break so I could return to HEAT rested, focused, and no longer in lust with my best friend.