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Project Gecko: Lara Kingsley Series, #2

Project Gecko: Lara Kingsley Series, #2

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Project Gecko: Lara Kingsley Series, #2

Length:
598 pages
5 hours
Publisher:
Released:
Oct 31, 2019
ISBN:
9780999800126
Format:
Book

Description

Secrets turn deadly in the streets of Washington D.C.

When a young man scales a ten-story building assisted by high tech military-grade gear and falls to his death below, private investigator Lara Kingsley knows her powerful Chinese client will demand some answers. But she doesn't realize she's about to get swept into a deadly, international technology race between the United States and China.

As Lara begins a desperate mission to prove the man's death was a homicide and restore her professional reputation, she uncovers a Top Secret Pentagon project and confronts a complex world of nanotechnology, neural implants, and passenger drones.

To solve the murder and stop Chinese operatives from stealing vital defense technologies, Lara must enlist the help of her AI-powered virtual assistant, her ex-boyfriend, and an ill-tempered detective from the D.C. Metropolitan police.

Just how far will Lara go to protect national security and prevent China from gaining critical advantages on the battlefield of the future?

Project Gecko is book two in the Lara Kingsley Series, which weaves together elements of mystery, techno-thriller, and science fiction. If you liked Bionic Bug, then you'll love the latest installment of Natasha Bajema's action-packed mystery series. 

Buy Project Gecko to join Lara and her team on their latest exciting adventure.

Publisher:
Released:
Oct 31, 2019
ISBN:
9780999800126
Format:
Book

About the author


Book Preview

Project Gecko - Natasha Bajema

One

The Companion

March 20, 2028


Life is like a game of whack-a-mole. Every time I whack a mole, another one rises to the surface. Lara Kingsley was fairly certain her foul mood hinged upon more than her grief over losing her friend Sully. But she couldn’t put her finger on the true source of her doom and gloom. Over the past few months, life had dealt her one crisis after another—near bankruptcy for her business, Sully’s death, and being stalked by a mad scientist and his deadly beetles.

All of that was over, and life seemed to have settled back into the old doldrums.

That should be a good thing.

And yet, a persistent tightness hung in her chest like heavy chains, keeping her breaths short and tight, keeping her on edge. She sighed heavily, unable to escape a deep sense of loneliness and despair.

Why am I waiting on pins and needles? For another disaster to happen? Life can’t get any worse, can it?

She quickly pushed that line of thinking away, as if the thoughts themselves might tempt fate. Of course it could. The damn moles keep coming back.

In an attempt to shake off her melancholy, Lara inhaled deep breaths of the cool, fresh country air. Her nose filled with a hint of flower blossoms. A crisp, gentle breeze wafted through the air, carrying the familiar earthy smell that comes after rain showers. Shivering, she pulled her black leather riding jacket more tightly around her slender frame.

In front of her, the quaint, red brick, ranch-style house with a large screened-in porch stood against the backdrop of gentle rolling hills and the thick pine forest of Northern Maryland. It was home to Green Meadow Dobermans, an American Kennel Club-registered breeder of champion Dobies. In the distance, bright green tufts dotted large patches of dead, brown grass on the hilly landscape, showing more signs of spring.

Inside the tall white fence surrounding the perimeter of the five-acre property, there were several enclosed kennels. The largest one housed a stern-looking pair of adult Dobermans, their pointy ears standing on alert. She had a strong feeling they were watching her and Maggie play with their litter of puppies.

You didn’t seriously drag me into the bush to get one of these cute little buggers, did you? Maggie asked in her thick Australian accent, cuddling a three-week-old black and tan Doberman puppy. Her auburn hair tied up in a loose bun, Maggie sat cross-legged on the damp grass in her black skinny jeans and a thick blue sweater.

Lara shrugged.

Either way, it’s totally worth me chucking a sickie. Maggie flashed her a toothy smile.

Now that’s a new one.

Chucking a sickie? Lara laughed, the heaviness in her chest lifting slightly. Her friend’s over-the-top Aussie expressions were a constant source of amusement.

Maggie had taken a sick day to make the trip to Aberdeen and spend the whole day with Lara. More than once, Maggie had expressed concern about Lara’s dismal state of mind. This was her way of showing up as a friend, and it was working. The camaraderie gave Lara a warm feeling in her chest. Lately, it was hard to get any quality time with Maggie.

Or anyone for that matter.

Maggie giggled as several puppies bounced around her, chasing after each other. Another pair of pups wrestled, growled, and yipped excitedly back and forth. Her forehead wrinkled. How are you ever going to take care of a puppy? She glanced cautiously at Lara, her pale-blue eyes catching the midday sunlight. They’re as bad as ankle biters, you know… draining away all your resources and time.

I’ll manage, Lara said, shuffling her feet across thin blades of green and brown grass.

But what about your National Guard training? What happens when you get called away for another combat mission like last month?

Lara frowned, clenched her jaw, and turned away. She glanced over at the adult Dobermans in the faraway kennel as a forceful deluge of troubling images and sounds rushed back into her mind. She took a deep breath and rolled her neck and shoulders.

For a blissful moment, her pleasant surroundings had made her forget about her last combat mission, which had lasted several weeks. The contrast between the lush scenery of Maryland and the blazing hot, barren desert in Yemen could not be greater.

The combat mission was deemed a success by both the U.S. and Saudi governments, despite the brutal death of their Yemeni asset—a twenty-something kid named Nadheer. He had offered his help to Lara’s unit in exchange for a life free from civil war and a shot at the American dream. From the perspective of the U.S. government, the kid was expendable, and his death was discarded.

He knew what he was signing up for, her commanding officer had said.

Yeah, right.

Lara shuddered, closing her eyes and trying in vain to suppress the horrific memories—the blood gushing from the kid’s leg after being shot, his cries of agony, and the repeated order coming over the radio from Command to leave him there. If she’d defied the order, Lara would have put her unit at risk.

Better him than us?

Lara, are you even listening to me?

She looked up, pulled out of her memories.

Maggie shot her a playful glare. You’re not seriously getting a puppy, are you?

And why not? Lara crossed her arms. National Guard training is one weekend a month and two weeks each year. These days, combat missions are voluntary. Plus, as a PI, I’m self-employed, and my schedule is flexible. I can always find someone to watch the puppy while I’m out on a job.

Maggie furrowed her brow and remained silent for a few minutes. You could also quit the National Guard if you wanted more of a home life. Aren’t all your debts paid off now? I don’t understand why you stick with it. Especially if you want a dog.

Staring at her tennis shoes, Lara clenched her fists. Whenever the topic of her military service came up, Maggie assumed Lara served because she had to pay off the illegal bonuses from her eight years on active duty and was struggling financially. Lara sensed at times that her friend looked down on the military, as if it were somehow beneath an intelligent and accomplished person.

Maggie was born into a family of well-to-do Australian scientists, and her parents were Nobel Prize winners. As a lifelong academic, she didn’t understand why Lara wanted to be a soldier or the sacrifices it entailed.

And how could she?

Not wanting to defend her choices, Lara would simply nod her head and change the topic. Even though they were close, a vast chasm existed between them when it came to her military service and lack of family life. Lara had always yearned to feel part of something—to belong somewhere, to have a family. Without Sully, her fellow soldiers were the closest thing to family left in her life. They were the only ones who understood what she’d done or what had happened to her—out there. And they’d lost loved ones, too. And yet, after losing her entire unit in Afghanistan three years ago, she was hesitant to bond with her new team.

No, I can’t just quit the National Guard.

She’d worked damn hard to make something of herself in the Army. As a female, she had overcome huge physical obstacles to qualify for the Green Berets and get promoted to Captain in the Army Special Forces. She didn’t want to be active duty anymore, but she couldn’t leave it for good. The Army was part of her identity.

Lara gazed down at her pale, freckle-faced friend. The entire litter of Doberman pups, all eight of them, clamored for Maggie’s attention. Her eyes twinkled with delight as the puppy scrum jumped into her lap and began climbing up her chest to lick her face.

So, what do you think? a stern voice asked from behind her.

Lara jumped slightly and turned to see the breeder, Kim Meadows, approaching her. The woman was tall and broad with strong cheekbones and kind brown eyes. She tilted her head and put her hands on her hips, staring fixedly at Lara.

Kim pointed to the puppies. Five are the traditional black and tan color. Three of them are male and two are female. There are two red and rust males, and one rare fawn and rust female, but she’s already spoken for. They all have a good temperament. They’re also champion pedigree and would serve as fantastic guard dogs, if that’s what you’re looking for. She gave Lara a friendly smile.

They’re adorable, Lara gushed, lowering herself to the ground. Before she got settled, a black and tan pup with a red collar and giant paws bounded toward her, its ears flopping up and down as it ran. The puppy launched itself directly at her face and licked her on the nose before she got a chance to react. Lara laughed heartily, lifted the squirming puppy into her lap, and scratched its velvety ears. Seconds later, the puppy nipped her, tore away from her grasp, and raced back over to Maggie.

I really like that one, Lara said, pointing to the puppy with the red collar.

Kim pressed her lips together. That one’s a male, the largest in the litter. He’s quite a force of nature, destined to be the alpha dog of any pack. What’s your experience with dogs?

Oh, this would be my first… Lara trailed off when the smile on Kim’s face vanished suddenly and was replaced with wariness.

He will need a strong hand and would be a great dog for a professional trainer. I don’t think he’s the right choice for you.

Uh oh… looks like the sales pitch has ended.

But I’m sure I can handle it… Lara’s voice wavered slightly, and she gave the breeder a nervous smile. Dr. Stevens has two of your Dobies and suggested I come out here. She’ll vouch for me.

How hard could it be?

Caroline referred you? Kim paused, frowned, and inspected Lara’s face as she nodded. In that case, I’d recommend one of the two black and tan females instead. They’re a bit more passive. That is… if you’re absolutely sure you’ve made the proper breed choice. She paused, her arms now crossed. I need you to understand that I place my pups in only the best families. It has to be the right fit on both sides. Choosing a dog isn’t about aesthetics, you know.

Ugh.

Kim put her hands on her hips. Dobermans can be quite a handful. They’re strong-willed, extremely challenging to train, and certainly not appropriate for a first-time dog owner. Perhaps you should start out with another breed. Maybe a golden retriever? I can make a good breeder recommendation if you like.

What’s wrong with being strong-willed?

Lara wasn’t the type of person to shy away from a challenge. More importantly, she didn’t like anyone telling her what things she could or couldn’t handle—especially not some second-rate dog breeder. Any statements about her ability to take on a Dobie only made Lara dig in her heels further.

This woman doesn’t even know me. I did my research, and I want a Dobie.

Still, Maggie’s remarks weren’t entirely untrue. Lara didn’t know without a doubt she’d have enough time for a puppy. Major adjustments would be necessary, especially during the early phase. But the notion of having a reliable and loyal companion tugged on her heart with an increasing sense of urgency.

Do I really want a puppy? Or am I trying to fill the gaping hole in my life?

Lara wasn’t sure if the answer to the question mattered. Even if getting a puppy didn’t make her feel any better, it would be a useful distraction from her thoughts.

"I like this one," Maggie said, holding one of the red Dobies next to her face and grinning broadly.

Of course you do. Lara smirked. The pup’s color matched her friend’s long, glossy auburn hair to a tee.

Kim nodded. That’s one of our females. She’d be a better choice for you than the male… if you still want a Doberman. There was a hint of disapproval in her tone. She watched Lara for a few moments. I’ll need to do a comprehensive assessment before I allow you to take one. I don’t usually do business with beginners. But if Caroline vouches for you… She paused. Why don’t I have you meet the parents? she said, turning on her heel. That way, you can get a better idea of the size and strength of dog you would be dealing with.

Kim strode across the grass toward the large kennel that housed the adult Dobermans. Lara looked down at the ground. Since exposing her empty doggie resume, the breeder didn’t appear to take her seriously anymore.

Maybe I should get one, too. Maggie said. Three pups nestled quietly in her lap with their eyes closed, tired from their romp.

Lara grimaced. "You just told me I’m too busy. Between your work and all the boys, where would you find the time?"

Maggie nodded. Yeah, you’re right. I’ve been flat out like a lizard drinking lately.

Lara burst out laughing. Lizard drinking… she muttered.

Maggie grinned mischievously. I forgot to tell you… I met a new bloke at last week’s Mensa event, and we’ve been out three times already.

Well, that explains why she hasn’t been answering my calls.

What? Lara’s mouth fell open. She’d first joined Mensa as a gimmick to try to meet a smart guy, but so far she hadn’t had any luck. Well, not entirely. She’d met Maggie and made a lifelong friend.

Of course Maggie meets a guy there. Lara rubbed the back of her neck, her blood pressure rising a notch. Shit. Sanchez.

Maggie made a swooning motion. His name is Clay Sterling. He’s not only handsome, he’s also incredibly smart. He’s a nanoscientist at George Mason University.

But what about Detective Sanchez? Aren’t you still seeing him?

Maggie shrugged her shoulders. Sure, we’re dating. Mario asks me out on a date once a week—just… like… clockwork. She yawned for effect.

You’re not stringing him along, are you? Lara raised her eyebrow, her voice taking a serious tone.

No, I like Mario. She paused. Then she looked at Lara and grinned. But there’s nothing wrong with playing the field, is there?

Great. I’m going to have to deal with the fallout.

I guess not. Lara smiled, feeling her heart sink. She and the detective had a rather tumultuous history before working Sully’s case together. Detective Sanchez was cantankerous and often intentionally difficult. Since he’d started dating Maggie, however, he’d become a bit easier for Lara to deal with. If Sanchez got wind of her friend’s romantic escapades, Lara feared this thawing of relations might reverse.

Anyway, I thought you stopped working with the D.C. police.

I did. Lara fidgeted with the hem of her leather jacket, a trace of guilt pinging her. Her involvement in Sully’s murder case had been a one-time thing.

Or was it? Lara would never admit it, but she missed the adrenaline of that investigation.

And didn’t you just land a contract with that tech startup? Spectre? Maggie asked.

Lara nearly laughed out loud as a scene with an evil mastermind from a classic James Bond movie starring Daniel Craig flashed through her head.

No, not Spectre. My new client is Spectral Industries. I begin installing their new high-end surveillance system tomorrow.

Maggie’s wearable smartphone buzzed, and she glanced at her wrist. Bloody hell.

What?

Her eyes scanned the text slowly. Then she looked up at Lara with sad eyes. I’m really sorry, mate, but I need to get back to the lab right away. Getting up, Maggie brushed off her pants. The puppies began racing around her and tugging at the cuff of her jeans.

But don’t they think you’re out sick? Lara asked, objecting to the abrupt change in plans. She turned her face away, doing her best to hide her disappointment. The male black and tan puppy with the red collar began biting at Lara’s shoelaces, making one of them come untied. She leaned forward to retie her shoe and scratch behind the puppy’s ears.

Now I wish I’d driven my Harley out here.

Then at least she could ride out her frustration on the two-hour drive home. But Maggie had insisted on driving her out to Aberdeen in her Mini Cooper in the event that Lara actually decided to get a puppy.

I wouldn’t do this to you if it weren’t an emergency. Maggie bit her lower lip, her eyes wide and apologetic.

Lara nodded.

Maggie was the Director of the Genetics Lab in the Department of Entomology at the University of Maryland. She was responsible for conducting groundbreaking research on insects using the CRISPR gene editing technique and gene drives. It wasn’t the sort of work that stopped for vacations, illness, or anything else.

So, what’s the emergency? Lara asked, getting up from the ground. The puppies swirled around her excitedly.

Maggie glowered at her phone. The new gene sequencing machine we bought is complete rubbish. According to my tech assistant, the machine broke down last night and ruined our morning batch of sequences. She shook her head in disbelief. I had a graduate student watching the damn thing through the night, but apparently he felt asleep and couldn’t be bothered to let me know about it. I’m so sorry, hon.

Don’t worry about it, Lara lied. After two hours of driving through hellish traffic, they’d been there all of thirty minutes. She hadn’t come to a decision yet about the puppy and wasn’t ready to leave. But making a decision under pressure was not a good idea.

Maggie’s eyes lingered on Lara’s face. My proposal to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is due next week, and I’m the only one I can trust to see it through. If I don’t get the funding, the bean counters at the university will shut the lab down. They’re looking for stuff to cut these days, now that the federal government placed a cap on tuition fees.

It’s okay. I’m fine… we’re fine, Lara said hastily, looking at her watch and suppressing a wave of disappointment. Let’s get back on the road before rush hour traffic starts up again.

You’re not going to get a puppy? Maggie asked, her voice full of concern.

Lara shook her head. No, you were right. Where would I find the time?

Two

Family Matters

Maggie honked the horn twice and waved a quick goodbye. Lara raised her hand limply in the air, a cheerful grin plastered to her face. As soon as Maggie’s Mini Cooper raced around the corner, Lara’s smile disappeared, and her body slumped. Her legs felt like massive lead balls attached to thick chains. Willing herself to move, she staggered toward the townhouse and trudged up the cement steps, grasping the cast-iron railing to steady herself. Swallowing hard, she suppressed the impending meltdown.

What’s my problem? Am I upset about Maggie ditching me for work? Still depressed about Nadheer? Or do I want the puppy? C’mon Lara, pull it together.

The light gray facade of the brick townhouse towered above her. She stopped for a moment to catch her breath. Her thoughts drifted involuntarily to Sully. A thick lump formed in her throat, and tears welled up in her eyes. Looking up at the regal entryway, she remembered how jealous she’d been when Sully first bought the fixer-upper, his boyish giddiness during the guided tour of each room, and how much care he’d put into every detail of the two-year renovation. She shook her head in despair and exhaled sharply.

My name might be on the deed, but this is really Sully’s house. The thought made Lara pause. Maybe that’s the blasted problem.

Over the past four months, each time she arrived home, the same sharp pangs jabbed her chest. Her best friend Sully was gone forever. He was the only family she had left. Inside the townhouse, the grief over his loss haunted her every waking step, always lurking in the next room… waiting for an unexpected moment of happiness or distraction to pass. She hated the unpredictability of it, not knowing when feelings of profound sadness would rush in like a torrent of water and knock her off her feet.

For several blissful hours each night as she slept, Lara forgot about his death. But when she woke up in the morning, her memories flooded back, taking her breath away. The last time she’d lost family members, she was eight years old. The feelings of loss were different then. Maybe she hadn’t fully understood what losing both of her parents would mean across the long and barren expanse of a lifetime.

At least I still have Vik and Maggie.

Lara unlocked the front door and let it creak open as she stood at the threshold, her feet glued to the outside landing. The townhouse wouldn’t let her forget Sully’s dying wish either. Inheriting all of Sully’s assets—worth over two million dollars—had solved her financial problems and saved her company from going under. But it had left her with a heavy burden on her heart. In his farewell letter, Sully wanted her to carry on his mission to fight crime and put the bad guys behind bars. So far, she hadn’t done anything to heed his last request.

I already have a job where I save the world. That’s what she’d told him when he was still alive.

It had been Sully who convinced her to become a PI when she returned home from an extended deployment in Afghanistan, where she’d lost her entire unit to a drone IED attack. He’d wanted them to be partners in fighting crime in the streets of D.C. Lara didn’t think she had the stomach for it. She didn’t want to experience the darker side of humanity so close to home.

Death and destruction on the battlefield were somehow more distant and abstract. She was able to compartmentalize the things she’d seen and experienced during overseas combat missions, far away from her real life. Witnessing a gruesome scene only a few blocks from her own house would be more difficult to forget. Lara had disappointed Sully when she started up her own company to install surveillance systems for wealthy clients.

He thought I’d sold out, but he never told me so.

Lara dragged herself inside and dropped her keys on the oak console table, hung her leather jacket in the closet, and strode through the dark living room toward the library, which was lit by several floor lamps.

Huh. I must have left these lights on.

She scanned the room for anything out of place. The library was Sully’s favorite room. His impressive liquor assortment stood on an antique oak chest in the corner, collecting a thick layer of dust. The bottles were arranged in alphabetical order and included a diverse selection of whiskey, vodka, rum, tequila, and wine. Lara didn’t dare touch the liquor. It would be too easy to drown herself in a bottle of booze night after night, but it would solve nothing. Life had a way of bringing its own moles to the surface. She wasn’t about to create new problems on top of those she already had.

Sully had loved his whiskey, and Johnnie Walker Black Label was his sin of choice. Sometimes Lara had worried about his alcohol consumption, especially when he overdid it. Every night, he’d sit in his armchair and enjoy a quiet glass of whiskey after a stressful day. From there, he’d text her about his latest case, about the new girl in his life, or about nothing at all.

She poked her head into the kitchen, but there was no sign of life except a lonely coffee mug sitting on the counter. She bunched her hands into fists.

Grr… Vik must have left a dirty cup out again.

Groaning, she kicked off her tennis shoes and threw herself onto the brown leather armchair in the library. She put her feet up on the pouf ottoman, and her body sank into the deep cushions. She leaned back into the chair, inhaling deeply in an attempt to relax.

The memory of one of Sully’s final nights entered her mind like an uninvited guest. A week before he’d died, Sully had drunk one too many at his victory party at Wicked Bloom. That night she’d suspected something was wrong, but he’d refused to talk about it. Out of respect for his wishes, she’d dropped it. That was the last time she saw him until he died in front of her eyes at the ballpark. A surge of guilt washed over her.

If only I had pressed him to tell me. Maybe then, Sully would still be alive. Her chest tightened at the thought. She glanced at the bookshelves across from her.

Although the library was large, it retained a cozy feel with its original hardwood floors, intricate woodwork, a huge colorful Persian rug, and shelves of books lining the entire perimeter. His vast book collection ranged from American classics to how-to manuals on computer coding and a few self-help books, all in perfect alphabetical order.

If Sully could see the disarray in the rest of the townhouse, he’d literally flip his lid.

She chuckled for a moment and then frowned, a dull ache rising in her stomach. Sully hadn’t tolerated any amount of disorder. Lara, on the other hand, thought keeping everything super tidy was a waste of precious time. For the past few months, she’d left the library just the way Sully would want it, but her version of organized chaos had crept into the other rooms.

Vik had been pressuring her lately to change things in the library and make it her own space. He asked her why she needed to keep the liquor cabinet if she didn’t plan to use it. They’d even fought about it, and she insisted angrily that everything stayed put. She wasn’t ready. The library was the only place she could still feel Sully’s presence. The memories of his face had already gone blurry. And his warm embrace felt like part of a distant past.

I don’t want to forget him.

Vik didn’t understand. Sully had been like a brother since college when they’d learned they were both orphans who’d been stuck in the foster system. They promised to have each other’s backs for life. They never discussed what would happen if one of them died early. They never even considered the possibility.

Her eyes flickered toward the bookshelves and landed involuntarily on Isaac Asimov’s science fiction classic collection of short stories, I, Robot. She froze in her seat, her pulse quickening. Perhaps her eyes were fooling her, but the book appeared to be slightly crooked. She climbed out of the chair to get a closer look.

Sully’s hidden safe room was located behind the center bookshelf across from her. The secret button for the door was tucked away out of sight under Asimov’s famous book. Only a few people knew about it, but the list had recently grown to include her ex-boyfriend and FBI special agent Rob, his team at the FBI, and her partner Vik.

She reached up to straighten the book when the sudden creaking of the bookshelves startled her. Her heart pounding, Lara whirled around and watched in horror as the bookshelves turned outward to reveal the hidden door to the safe room.

Who activated the safe room door?

She reached for her gun, but remembered she’d left it upstairs in the safe. Wasting no time, Lara raced up a flight of stairs to her office on the second floor. Her hands trembled as she turned the dial to the right, to the left, and then to the right again. When she heard the familiar click, she tore open the door, grabbed her gun, turned off the safety, and chambered a round.

Lara sprinted down the stairs, pointing in front of her with her gun. At the foot of the stairs, she stopped to listen. Over her heavy breathing, she could hear muffled voices coming from the safe room as the steel door began to screech open. Running along the wall of the living room, Lara peeked around the corner. The steel door was now fully open.

Rotating her body around the corner, she aimed her gun chest level at the doorway, her finger nearing the trigger. Seconds later, a sepia-toned arm swung through the door, and Vik entered the library wearing a red polo shirt, jeans, and a broad smile on his face.

Lara gasped and instinctively lowered her gun. Vik! What the hell are you doing? You could have been shot. Relief mixed with anger as adrenaline coursed through her body. She was about to shout at him when she heard more voices coming from inside the safe room. Her mouth fell open.

Vik’s face blanched when he saw her fiery glare. He rubbed his hands together nervously. Uh, Lara… please let me introduce you to my Aunt Myra and Uncle Samar, who are visiting from New York City. I was just showing them around, and they are very impressed with your surveillance system. He spoke in an unusually loud voice and pasted a smile on his face, as if signaling for Lara to play along.

A middle-aged woman with long, glossy black hair wearing a golden jacquard sari and a red sash rounded the corner. She wore a bright red dot in the center of her forehead, which stood out against her olive skin. Her dark brown eyes widened with fright at the sight of Lara, and she raised her hand to her mouth and staggered backward a few steps.

Lara raised her eyebrow, confused by the icy reception… until she remembered. The blood drained from her face. She was still holding her gun.

Oh this… sorry. I didn’t know. Lara stumbled over her words and awkwardly stuffed her gun in the back of her pants.

Myra’s face relaxed when the gun disappeared. A tall, exuberant man with bright eyes, dark skin, a full head of black wavy hair, and a stubble goatee appeared from around the corner. He was practically the spitting image of Vik, except twenty years older.

Lara closed the gap between them and extended her hand to Myra, smiling as warmly as she could. It’s such a pleasure to meet you. Vik has told me so much about both of you. The woman’s grip was firm but soft. Her eyes were kind, and she didn’t seem to have taken offense to Lara’s precaution.

Vik’s uncle beamed at her, reached out his hand, and squeezed hard, his brown eyes twinkling with tenderness.

Her heart still racing and her temper fuming, Lara plastered a smile on her face and hoped she could pull it off.

Why didn’t Vik warn me about the visit? He could’ve at least sent me a text.

Lara, it is so nice to meet the brilliant lady who employs my favorite nephew, Myra said in a thick Indian accent. We are so very proud of him. To think, he is studying computer science just like his father… but in America at Georgetown University.

Computer science?

Lara nodded, suppressing a frown. I don’t know what I’d do without him. He’s the heart and soul of my business. She glanced at Vik, who was staring at his feet. His face appeared somewhat flushed.

Myra seemed slightly taken aback. Well, my dear… you’d better figure out something soon. While his uncle and I are ever so thankful for the part-time work you’ve offered to help finance his studies, we expect he will be moving on after graduation to get a job with a computer firm and do the work he was meant to do.

Lara’s jaw dropped. Vik gave her a pleading look, and she closed her mouth.

He hasn’t told them he wants to solve crime for a living?

Lara felt a heavy pit form in her stomach.

He’s not leaving me, is he?

She cleared her throat, but a frog remained stubbornly lodged there. Ah, yes, of course. He’s a brilliant programmer. He coded the entire surveillance system for this townhouse. She attempted to make direct eye contact with Vik, but he avoided her gaze. Lara then tried to signal him with her hand to move into the kitchen for a conversation, but to no avail.

You have a very lovely home and place of business. You must be doing well for yourself, Samar said, stealing a glance at the original oil paintings mounted on the walls.

Actually, this is Sully’s stuff. But thanks.

Thank you, yes. I’m very fortunate.

That my best friend died.

Lara tried to get Vik’s attention again. When their eyes finally met, she motioned to him with her head.

Um, if you would excuse me and Vik for a minute— Lara said, moving toward the kitchen. Please make yourselves at home. I just need to talk to Vik about our new client. We’re installing a high-end surveillance system next week. Can I maybe make you some tea?

Myra nodded eagerly. Do you have green tea?

Yes. Would you both like a cup? Lara asked.

That would be wonderful, Samar said, taking a seat in the leather chair where she’d been sitting before.

Lara walked into the kitchen, filled the water kettle, and put it on the stove before turning to face Vik, her nostrils flaring. Leaning against the oversized farm sink, she crossed her arms and pinched her lips, waiting for him to speak. Her body trembled with fury.

Vik moped around in the corner, his eyes darting around nervously. Lara, I’m so sorry. His voice cracked as he stared at the floor, shifting his weight from one foot to the other. His long arms hung limply by his side.

Lara couldn’t hold back any longer. What exactly are you sorry for?

Vik motioned urgently for her to be quieter. Shh… I don’t want my aunt and uncle to hear.

Lara crossed her arms and glared at him. Sorry for springing your aunt and uncle on me unannounced? She spoke in a carefully controlled tone, drawing in slow and steady breaths. Sorry for making me think there was an intruder in my home? Sorry for lying to them about your education? Sorry for quitting on me when you graduate from school?

Vik looked at her with pleading eyes. For everything?

Lara’s jaw clenched. She didn’t know why she was so angry with him.

What did Vik do to inspire such a temper?

Oh Lara, I don't know what’s gotten into me. I was trying to impress them. I’ve been so worried about the wedding and proving to my aunt and uncle that I’m worth marrying up. He paused to catch his breath. You see, they’re vouching for me. Shanaya’s parents are close friends of theirs. If it weren’t for that, I would never even be considered for her match.

The kettle began to whistle. Her heart pounding in her ears, Lara turned away from him, poured hot water into the mugs, pulled out two tea bags from a decorative ceramic container, and dipped them in the steaming water to steep. For a few minutes, she stood in silence, her head pulsating with each second. When the tea was ready, she put the cups on a tray and began carrying them toward the library.

We’ll talk about this after we finish the Spectral job next week, Lara mumbled.

Vik nodded and followed her back into the library.

Three

The High Rise

March 27, 2028


Brilliant flashes of lightning spread across the dark sky like a delicate spiderweb. A cascade of rumbling thunder followed the display of light. Standing on the fourth stair of the ladder, Lara stopped for a moment to watch nature’s dazzling show through the floor-to-ceiling glass windows of Wei Zhang’s office.

Lara propped her elbow on the top of the ladder and pursed her lips at the rain drops on the window. Riding home on her motorcycle in the middle of a fierce storm was not her idea of a fun time. She’d hoped to avoid the thunderstorm forecasted for the evening, but completing the job at Spectral Industries was taking far longer than she’d planned. She'd never installed such a complex surveillance system in her two-year career as a private investigator.

I should have known better… twenty-four thousand square feet.

Spectral Industries, a Chinese technology startup located in a luxury high-rise in The Wharf District of D.C., produced nanotechnologies for defense industries around the world. The CEO’s vast office suite came with some unexpected complications—a massive seawater aquarium running along the entire interior wall and a large terrarium that was impossible to move. These required some creative workarounds to install her equipment. She’d asked Vik to begin setting up the operating system only after she thought the end was in sight. But they were nowhere close to being done.

Mr. Zhang expected me to be finished an hour ago.

Lara had met the firm’s CEO, an intense Chinese man in his fifties, at a Mensa event. There, he’d explained in excessive detail the range of impressive developments taking place at the nanoscale with sizes of matter invisible to the human eye.

She was flabbergasted to learn that a single inch equaled 25,400,000 nanometers and asked him all sorts of technical questions to satisfy her curiosity. He explained that scientists can see and manipulate molecules and atoms using special instruments called atomic force microscopes. His company aimed to leverage new chemical properties at the nanoscale to produce new materials with battlefield applications.

Somehow she’d managed to impress the famously persnickety CEO and landed the job to install Spectral’s new security system. He’d offered her fifty thousand dollars plus expenses for a job that would take several days, a week at most. Plus, she could count on referrals around town if he was pleased with her work.

My favorite kind of job.

She glanced over her shoulder at Vik, who sat at the CEO’s glass desk, staring at the widescreen Retina iMac display and typing on the holographic keyboard. He’d been consumed with coding the IT portion of the system. Despite working side by side for the entire day, they had not yet spoken about their heated exchange.

Are you almost finished over there? Lara asked, breaking another long and tense period of silence between them.

Vik nodded, but kept his eyes on the screen. I have to finish up a few more lines of code, and then we’re all set. He furrowed his brow. Do you know why Mr. Zhang is replacing his old system? I mean, the old surveillance system was pretty decent.

Not sure. He was really keen on adding these infrared cameras and twenty-four-seven exterior drone surveillance.

Mr. Zhang had chosen the huge penthouse office space for its unique security features, including iris recognition scanners, purified air, and bulletproof glass windows. Everything was top of the line, including a fully automated window washing system.

The surveillance system she’d selected for Spectral was also state of the art. The IT system was protected with quantum key distribution encryption, and the cameras were capable of detecting visible light, infrared, and motion. Mr. Zhang insisted she install surveillance cameras to cover every square foot of the office suite with high-quality audio and motion sensors.

In addition, he wanted autonomous drones to surveil the exterior perimeter of the penthouse. She figured Mr. Zhang had hired her over a more experienced PI for her drone specialty. She glanced over at the untouched boxes that contained the drones.

Not gonna finish this job tonight. I shouldn’t have overpromised.

I don’t get it, Vik blurted.

What don’t you get?

Vik raised his hands in the air. What’s with the Fort-Knox-level security? I didn’t notice anything valuable in the office suite.

Lara shrugged.

And where’s Mr. Zhang? If he needs this place secured so tightly, why isn’t he here overseeing the operation?

Good question, Lara said, surveying the office one more time. But our job is to install the system, not ask questions. As long as we get paid, right?

Yeah, Vik said, shaking his head. It’s just odd.

Once installed and activated, Mr. Zhang would be able to control the angle and zoom of the motorized high-definition cameras and drones from his cellphone. Lara installed a total of thirty cameras throughout the penthouse office suite, some of them hidden from sight. Whatever happened at Spectral during the day or night, Mr. Zhang would be able to see it in real time.

Maybe some of the artwork decorating the walls is worth a small fortune?

What do you think this button does? Vik pointed eagerly to a small red button on the underside of Zhang’s large glass desk, just inside one of its four chrome legs. His finger inched closer toward it.

Lara glared at him and snapped, "Whatever you do, please do not go around pressing any buttons."

Vik’s face went slack.

She regretted sounding like a killjoy nag. But after Vik took his aunt and uncle on a tour of her safe room without asking, she wasn’t sure if he understood proper boundaries. Plus, she’d given him a lecture about not touching things before they started the installation. You know Mr. Zhang is rather particular about his stuff, she added in defense of her sharpness.

And that is not an understatement.

Turning back to the task at hand, she steadied the power drill in her right hand and held a metal bracket in her left. The drill squealed as it sprang into action. Lara bored two holes in the wall and then secured a bracket with a couple of screws. It took only a minute before another tiny security camera was mounted in its place.

You know what's missing from this picture? Vik asked.

What? Lara asked, a bit too sharply again. She wanted him to focus on the job.

He motioned to the aquarium spanning the entire wall. Come on. Think about the whole James Bond feel of this office. What’s missing? he asked again.

Lara glanced around and cocked her head. I don’t know, what?

Mr. Zhang’s office was sparsely decorated with modern furniture. In addition to the glass desk where Vik sat, there were three black leather chairs surrounding an empty glass coffee table and a gray couch along the back wall. Across from her stood the brightly-lit aquarium with fluorescent turquoise water. The massive tank contained a variety of exotic fish and plant life. She thought she’d even spied a small shark, but she couldn’t be sure.

Vik flashed her a goofy grin. Uh, a white, fluffy cat and a trapdoor in the center of the room with a shark tank underneath… to go with the little red button.

I guess the office does have the ambience of a spy film.

Lara chuckled as she climbed down the ladder. Vik turned away from her as she began gathering her tools in an effort to wrap things up. Outside, the thunderstorm approached quickly, threatening heavy rain.

Hey, did you see these geckos over here? They’re huge! Vik called out from across the room.

Along the wall, behind the glass desk, stood a large terrarium. She’d avoided looking at that tank all day, but not because of the geckos. She didn’t want to be reminded of her close encounter with bionic bugs in a human-size glass tank.

Glancing over, she saw two unusually large geckos of a blue-gray color with bright red spots. They probably bite. I wouldn’t touch them.

"This one must be fourteen inches long. I think they’re Tokay geckos. Did you know they live for more

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