TITLE: Blood & Bitcoin
SERIES: Criminal Delights (Organized Crime)
WINNER - Bisexual Book Awards, Mystery Category
Chris Emmett has a talent for screwing up and landing on his feet. As a SEAL, he managed to evade bullets and court-martials alike. As an FBI agent, he dodged danger and disciplinary action—right up until he didn’t.
With his career and freedom hanging in the balance, he’ll do whatever it takes to clean the slate… including an off-the-books deep cover solo mission.
The objective: infiltrate the Hive, a complex crime syndicate operating on the dark web, and find out who’s trying to kill Piker, the organization’s enigmatic and strangely alluring modern day Mob boss.
The moment he’s pulled into the Hive, Chris enters a world where no one is what they seem, including the man he’s there to protect. Lines blur between moral and wrong, legal and criminal, ally and foe, and—as Piker’s seductive magnetism draws Chris in—straight and queer.
Chris is running out of time to stop a killer. He has dangerous feelings for a dangerous man, and the deeper he moves into the realms of modern day organized crime, the less he knows and the fewer people he can trust.
And that’s before he learns the truth about Piker’s assassin.
Chris didn’t know which of the assholes had split his lip, but did it really matter?
Sitting under blanched and buzzing fluorescent lights in an uncomfortable metal chair with his hands bound behind his back, he tongued the cut for the hundredth time. At least it had stopped bleeding. The steady trickle down his chin had annoyed him like a bad itch, and there’d been nothing he could do except dip his head and try to brush it off on his T-shirt. The shirt was already trashed, so he didn’t care.
He scanned the room, searching it yet again for some hint about where he was. No such luck. The bare concrete walls and floor offered nothing. Apart from the chair he was tied to, the room was empty. The structure could have been literally anything from an abandoned warehouse to something still under construction, especially since he hadn’t seen a damn thing before he’d been locked in here. He’d been blindfolded when they’d dragged him from the van into this place, but he’d counted steps. Twenty-three from the vehicle to the stairwell. Twelve steps down. Hairpin to the left. Twelve more steps. Another door. Forty-seven steps straight forward. Left turn. Twelve. Right turn. Six. Door. Room. Chair.
Over and over, he replayed that mental map and all the details of his situation. Not that he had a lot of faith that he’d be getting out of here on his terms or on his own power, but it was something to focus on.
There were voices outside the room, some just beyond the door behind him. He didn’t catch what they were saying, but he recognized the deceptively relaxed banter of bored sentries.
People had come and gone. Presumably sentries changing shift, and he assumed they were well-armed. After all, between the beating and the blindfold, he’d caught a glimpse of firepower—pistols, a Mach 10, something big, black, and nasty—and he had no reason to believe the men outside had left those in the van.
Zip ties bit into his wrists and ankles. He’d tried to break them, but they weren’t plastic, and no amount of struggling on his part would snap them. Struggling was a challenge in and of itself. His knee and shoulder had taken a few hits during the struggle. Bruises throbbed all over his body, especially in the places pressed against the chair. He wasn’t even sure how long he’d been here. A couple of hours at least. Possibly longer.
Earlier, a tall black woman in a well-tailored suit had come into the room. Natalie Harper. The consigliere. Even with his bell rung, he’d immediately recognized her face, especially those steely eyes, from his pre-mission briefing. She’d demanded to know why he’d been sniffing around Worley Security Tech property. What his business was. Why she shouldn’t have him turned over to the cops or tossed into the river, depending on her whim.
He’d gritted his teeth and—quietly and repeatedly—demanded to see her boss. “I need to talk to Trent Worley. It’s important.”
She’d injected more contempt into a single huff of humorless laughter than he had ever heard. “I can’t imagine you have anything to say that’s worth Mr. Worley’s time.”
Chris had turned his head and spat blood on to the bare floor beside him. “Might be worth his time if he wants to stay alive.”
She hadn’t reacted. Not visibly anyway. He’d refused to give up any further information, and Harper had stalked out. That had been at least two hours ago. Maybe more. Since then, no one had come into the room.
That could only mean they were waiting for someone, and if they were smart, that someone was Trent Worley. Though it was a long shot, Chris held out hope.
Trent was not an easy man to meet. He was the public face of WST, his father’s multibillion-dollar cybersecurity empire. And if meeting the son was difficult, an audience with the father was nearly impossible to obtain. Jim Worley never attended functions, preferring to address his shareholders and the media from the comfort of his plush high-rise office by way of teleconferences and televised speeches. Some said he was a modern-day Howard Hughes—an agoraphobic germaphobe. Others said he was paranoid someone wanted to kill him.
Ironically, it was his playboy son who was in the crosshairs. While the media painted Trent Worley as a carefree heir who partied his father’s fortune away, anyone within the cybersecurity industry knew the truth—Trent was a business savant and a ruthless negotiator. He was the brains of WST, effortlessly securing so many contracts his list of clients read like the Fortune 100 list.
And that was to say nothing of the Hive—his very secret, astronomically successful, and highly illegal side hustle. The Hive was notorious among law enforcement for its unapologetic manipulation of cryptocurrency values, particularly Bitcoin, in order to undermine competing black market cartels. They especially targeted any cartels going head-to-head with The Tea Horse Road, the Hive’s virtual marketplace on the dark web. Billions of dollars of profit had been thwarted again and again by Trent’s side job.
Wasn’t hard to imagine why someone wanted him dead.
Chris closed his eyes and swallowed against a wave of nausea. He’d been queasy ever since someone had landed that blow to his head. It was worse now that the adrenaline and endorphins were gone, leaving him with pain and the twitchy fear of a caged, cornered animal. Though getting grabbed by Worley’s people had more or less been part of his plan, his instincts and senses didn’t know that. They did know, just as his brain did, that this was dangerous, and everything could go south quick, fast, and in a hurry. Fight-or-flight had been crackling at the very edges of his nerves, one threat away from exploding to the surface. Only his training was keeping him from snapping. One slammed door or sudden shout or a goddamned spider dropping on to his shoulder, and he’d lose it.
He concentrated on breathing. If he panicked now, he’d just give himself a heart attack. He was bound to a chair and contained in a room inside a building whose layout and location he didn’t know. This was going according to plan. It wasn’t fun, and he’d feel like shit for a few days, but he was on Trent Worley’s radar now. And he hadn’t been shot. So far, so good.
Far away, a metal door opened and closed. He assumed they were changing out guards again.
But then the banter outside ceased abruptly. Footsteps approached that didn’t match the others that had come and gone, and not just because these were the rapid, determined strides of someone on a mission. Throughout the hours he’d been here, there’d been only the heavy sound of combat boots, but now…
Those were high heels. Chris would have recognized that sharp thunk anywhere.
Damn. Who the hell had they called in? Natalie Harper, who hadn’t been wearing heels when she’d been here earlier, was Trent’s right hand woman. No one else ranked higher on the food chain aside from Trent himself and his old man.
Nerves prickled along Chris’s spine. He listened to the approaching footsteps. There was nothing else to listen to—the background buzz of conversation remained MIA. The entire place had fallen deathly silent except for those sharp, fast footfalls.
Just outside the door, the steps halted.
Chris held his breath.
“He’s in here, boss.” A gruff voice he didn’t recognize.
Boss? Who the fuck…?
Behind him, a lock clanked, echoing through the stillness. The door opened, the change in pressure popping Chris’s ears and making his head swim again.
The high heels came closer, no longer muffled by walls and distance. The door shut with a heavy thud, but the sharp steps didn’t stop and the conversations outside didn’t pick up.
His senses tingled with the proximity of another person, and his brain whirred with attempts to conjure up a picture of who this woman might be. It was an instinctive response—a primal drive to know what the predator looked like so he could be vigilant and protect himself. Too bad millennia of evolution didn’t take into consideration that the prey might be zip-tied to a metal chair with absolutely no means of escaping the faceless predator.
The woman came around him, moving in two long, graceful strides through his peripheral vision and right into his line of sight, and—
And this wasn’t a woman.
The slim, dark-haired white man in a finely cut suit stopped in front of Chris and watched him with intense but somehow disinterested blue eyes. As if he intended to let Chris know with nothing more than a look how bored and annoyed he was, and at the same time wanted to intimidate the hell out of him.
Intimidation should have been laughable. The man was much slighter than Chris, and had they both been standing, he would have been at least two or three inches shorter even in the heels he was wearing. Because yes, he was wearing heels. The black dress boots under his trousers were men’s shoes, but they definitely had heels. The shoes alone would have given the man a disadvantage in a physical altercation. Heels or no heels, he’d have had a disadvantage going up against Chris, who’d been extensively trained by both the SEALs and the FBI.
Except Chris had to admit there was something about this man that did intimidate him. Something that put him on edge, anyway. The icy stare, maybe. The fact that he’d almost felt the guards in the hallway snap to attention when their boss had appeared. Chris had been held prisoner and tortured before, and while this man didn’t remind him of any of those captors in the least, there was something about him.
Or maybe it was simply the fact that he hadn’t expected Trent Worley—the painfully cheerful and charismatic man with a smile that could light up a city block—to be so murderously cold in person.
Gritting his teeth, Chris tugged at the restraints again. They still didn’t budge. He wasn’t sure what he would have done if they had.
His silent captor folded his arms, the motion revealing the subtle outline of a pistol under his jacket. “You going to tell me why I’m here? Or are we just going to silently enjoy each other’s company?” Dangerous boredom and irritation permeated his tone, and Chris marveled at how easily Trent presented himself as calm, cool, and threatening as fuck. Like he was one eyeroll away from snapping his fingers and ordering the goons outside to finish Chris off. And yet at the same time, his voice was smooth and lyrical, hinting at a man who was incredibly charming when he wasn’t so obviously restraining himself from decking someone. Yes, this was definitely Trent Worley.
Chris swept his tongue across his lips, wincing when he brushed that stinging cut. “Nice to finally meet you, Piker.”
The man’s posture stiffened so subtly, Chris wouldn’t have caught it if he hadn’t been zeroed in on Trent’s every twitch. Trent—Piker—strolled closer, his movements graceful like a dancer. He stopped just in front of Chris and stared down at him, as if to emphasize that at least for now, he was taller and had the advantage. “My name is Trent.”
“Yeah. It is.” Chris held Piker’s gaze. “But we both know you go by Piker, too. We both know you’re the hacker who runs the Hive.”
Piker leveled a menacing stare at him, fury darkening his expression. In a low and warning tone, he said, “You’re bound and I’m armed. If you want to walk out of here, I would suggest you start talking, because this is where you make yourself either very useful or very dead.”
Chris’s heart went into overdrive. Shifting in the hard metal chair, making his restraints bite into his raw skin, he lowered his voice. “I know who and what you are, and I also know that someone is trying to kill you.”
The icy laugh that broke through the man’s features did nothing to quell Chris’s nerves. “Tell me something I don’t know. I wouldn’t have a bulletproof limo and a legion of personal security if—”
“I can stop them.”
Piker’s humor vanished. He set his jaw and narrowed his eyes. “How do I know you’re not the one who wants to kill me?”
Chris looked down at himself, then up at Piker, hoping his expression conveyed Seriously? “Listen, I—”
“How do you know who I am and why do you care if I’m dead?” There was a note of warning. A distinct don’t fuck with me or I will happily shoot you right here and now.
“I’ve been… I’ve been researching the Hive.” Chris dropped his gaze, avoiding Piker’s piercing stare. “I need a job.”
“Anyone ever tell you you’re shit at charming Human Resources?”
“I don’t know about charming anyone, but I got your attention, and you’re part of the Hive, so—”
“Part of the Hive?” Piker laughed. He moved his hands to his hips, his unbuttoned jacket sliding back enough to reveal the butt of the gleaming nickel-plated pistol under his arm. “Bitch, if you know who I am, then you know I’m its queen.”
Yeah, and now that Piker had admitted out loud who he was, this situation was ten times more dangerous for Chris. He’d seen Piker’s face. Knew he was both Piker and Trent Worley. That was a fact guarded like a state secret, and rumor had it the Hive—especially its queen—had no problem using bullets to keep its secrets safe.
Refusing to let his renewed apprehension show, Chris said, “So we both know who you are. How about we cut the crap and—”
“You’re a little too tied up to be making the rules here,” Piker snapped. “And you need a job? Is this really how you think you get hired?”
Chris sighed heavily. “Obviously not. But when I started digging around for information about the Hive, I stumbled across people talking. Rumors mostly, but the more I dug…” He lifted his gaze again. “The bottom line is that there’s a threat out there. I want to work for the Hive, and the Hive is nothing if you’re dead. So when I realized someone wanted you dead, I needed to make contact.”
“Oh. Yeah. Nicely done there.” Piker gestured at him. “Get your ass kicked by my security team who, by the way, has authorization to use deadly force. Impressive.” He rolled his eyes.
Chris offered a tight half-shrug, wincing at the pain in his shoulder. “Nothing else put me on your radar. That, and I needed to see you one-on-one like this because there’s a damn good possibility that whoever wants you dead is in your inner circle. Either at WST or the Hive.”
Piker scowled. After a moment, he began to pace across the floor, heels clunking on concrete in a way that shouldn’t have been this unnerving. He pivoted on one heel and headed back the direction he’d come.
From the chair where he was bound, Chris watched the man pace. It reminded him of a pendulum swinging under a clock, except this clock was counting down until the Hive dumped his body somewhere.
It was still hard to believe that this was Piker. The kingpin. The unrivaled hacker who had, in between running WST for his father, built the Hive from the ground up and run it like a modern-day Mafia. Most people would—and in fact did—dismiss Trent Worley as an entitled kid with loads of sex appeal and no brains. They thought Trent was an idiot blessed with natural charm and a mouthful of silver spoons, but no one doubted for a second that Piker was razor sharp. He could work a business or a computer like his airhead alter ego could work a crowd. That they were the same person had blown Chris’s mind. It was difficult to conceive of just how much power this man really had, just like it was impossible to imagine how ruthless and brutal he could be in order to hold on to that power.
“You say you want to work for the Hive.” Piker didn’t stop or look at Chris. “In what capacity? Why the fuck would I hire you?” He paused. “What good is an ex-SEAL and recently fired FBI agent to my organization?”
Piker glanced at him and laughed humorlessly. “You don’t think I had my people do some digging of their own before I came down here to meet you? I know who you are, Special Agent Emmett.”
It wasn’t surprising. It really wasn’t. Just…unnerving. The Hive had an incredible reach when it came to accessing data that wasn’t supposed to be accessible.
Chris shifted, trying to ease a cramp in his arm from having his hands bound behind him for so long. “I picked up a few skills in the SEALs and in the Bureau that might be useful.”
“Like breaking into secure buildings without being detected?”
“Your boys only caught me because I wanted to be caught.”
“Is that what you said about the FBI?” Piker threw back. “Did you want them to catch you too?”
Chris gritted his teeth. “That was different. I didn’t…” He hesitated. “I didn’t kill those people.”
“So you say. I’ve only read a little about what happened there.” Piker tsked. “Does sound like they did you dirty.”
“And you won’t?”
“I never said that.” Piker glanced at Chris before he turned again and continued pacing. “The difference between me and the Bureau is that I won’t tell you to your face that I’m your friend, and then stab you in the back.”
“You’ll just look me in the eye and stab me.”
“Shoot you, most likely.” He said it so casually, as if he were picking out a restaurant.
Chris swallowed hard. “Look, I want a job, and someone wants to kill you. I’ve got training. Resources. Put me on your security team and I’ll keep you alive.”
Piker stopped pacing. The sudden absence of his resonating footsteps jarred Chris. Left his ears ringing in the silence. The seemingly unlikely Mafia boss looked right in Chris’s eyes. “You’re pretty confident that I’ll keep you alive.”
“It’s your call.” Chris tried to sound more flippant than he felt. “But if I had a red dot on my forehead and someone said he could figure out where that dot was coming from, I think I’d take my chances and see what he could do.”
Piker’s lips pulled into a thin, bleached line. “You still haven’t given me any reason to believe this boogeyman with the laser sight actually exists.”
“You think I’d let your boys bust me outside your building, hand me my ass, and tie me to a chair if I wasn’t serious?” Chris forced himself to hold Piker’s gaze and not let it slip that he was even the slightest bit intimidated. “No legitimate company is ever going to hire me. The Hive is my best chance at a paycheck, and it’ll crumble if someone kills you. I’m out of career options, so I’ve got every reason to want to keep you alive and in charge of the organization. And I know you’ve got the resources to figure out if I’m bullshitting you. Only an idiot would try.”
Piker didn’t speak.
Chris took a deep breath, which hurt like hell. “I know someone shot at your car three days ago. I know that an explosive—specifically an IED with a cell phone attached to it—was received at WST’s downtown facility the day before that. I know that someone has started making identical death threats against both Piker and Trent.” He looked right in Piker’s eyes, more than a little satisfied that the hacker appeared duly unsettled. “And I know that last week, you attended the funeral of a member of your security team, and that he was dead before he took the bullet he allegedly used to kill himself.”
Piker went white.
Do I have your attention now?