(A Ruby Steele Cozy Mystery—Book Two)
Debut author Mia Gold is author of the HOLLY HANDS COZY MYSTERY, comprising three books (and counting); and of the RUBY STEELE COZY MYSTERY series, comprising three books (and counting).
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Copyright © 2021 by Mia Gold. All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior permission of the author. This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return it and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author. This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, organizations, places, events, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictionally. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. Jacket image Copyright popout, used under license from Shutterstock.com.
BOOKS BY MIA GOLD
HOLLY HANDS COZY MYSTERY
RUBY STEELE COZY MYSTERY
ON THE ROCKS (Book #1)
EXTRA DIRTY (Book #2)
FULL BODIED (Book #3)
CHAPTER TWENTY EIGHT
“Are you sure this is safe?”
Ruby Steele certainly didn’t feel safe. It was amazing that an innocuous thumb drive could strike so much fear in an ex-MMA fighter.
But she knew that whatever it contained had the power to change her world.
“Safe as can be,” the computer hacker said.
They sat at his dining room table in a respectable neighborhood in Nassau. The hacker was dressed surprisingly well for a computer geek. He obviously got paid handsomely for his work and had picked up some fashion sense along with his skills at cracking into virtual spaces where he wasn’t supposed to be. He looked about thirty, not bad looking except for a pair of thick glasses and a hunch from sitting in front of the computer all day. Ruby guessed he was the only local in the Bahamas who didn’t go to the beach regularly.
His laptop sat on the table in front of them. Ruby looked at it like it might leap up and bite her.
“You sure this is secure? This thumb drive might have some seriously sensitive information. It might have spyware too.”
“Relax,” the hacker said. Ruby wished she could. He was one of Javon’s friends, which put him in the untrustworthy-but-probably-capable category. That didn’t mean he couldn’t get zapped by whatever was on this thumb drive, though. Javon had assured her that he was the best hacker in the Bahamas. But how could a small-time pot dealer know that?
“Look,” the hacker said. “I had a friend buy this computer with cash. No trace. No image of me in the store. I’ve never downloaded any software that requires registration. In fact, I’ve never downloaded anything at all. I removed the WiFi port. Nothing can get in or out of this computer unless we use a USB port. Also, I have top-shelf antivirus software in here. Not the stuff that regular people buy. Government quality.”
“Well, all right,” Ruby said reluctantly.
Still she hesitated. Her old boss, Senator Wishbourne, had left this for her in a safety deposit box before she got assassinated on Ruby’s watch. Ruby had been in hiding ever since and didn’t know who had killed the senator, or why. Maybe it had something to do with arms deals arranged by Carl Wishbourne, the senator’s husband. Or maybe it had something to do with one of the countless other corrupt affairs the senator had her fingers in. For some reason, she had wanted Ruby to know.
This little electronic device could answer all her questions.
Or open up a whole new can of worms.
“You want to do this or not?” the hacker asked, giving her a sympathetic look. Ruby got the impression that he asked that question a lot.
“I do and I don’t,” Ruby admitted.
The hacker gave an understanding nod.
If I don’t, I’ll live my life wondering.
But if I do …
“Damn it,” Ruby grumbled.
She slid the thumb drive into the USB port.
“All right. Let me scan first,” the hacker’s voice turned businesslike. He hunched further over the keyboard. “I’m doing a deep scan so it will take a sec. Nope, no viruses of any kind. Let’s open this thing.”
A password prompt appeared on the screen.
“Damn,” Ruby muttered. She couldn’t decide whether she felt stymied or relieved.
“Don’t worry, I have a program for that.”
He tapped on a few keys and a flurry of words and numbers appeared and disappeared in a dialog box, too quick to read.
“The ten thousand most common passwords,” he explained, adjusting his glasses. “Along with variations in capitalization. It’s amazing how many people still use ‘12345’ or ‘password’ for their password. Beyond stupid.”
“The person who owned this was a lot of things, but they weren’t stupid.”
“You’d be surprised.”
They watched the passwords flick on and off the screen for another couple of minutes. Suddenly it stopped.
“Huh. Looks like this guy was smart after all.”
Not a guy, a woman, and a United States senator. Not that I’m going to tell you that.
“Now what?” she asked.
He got up, moved to the opposite side of the table so he couldn’t see the screen, and sat down.
“Try out anything you can think of. The guy’s name. His dog’s name. Your name. Whatever. Fiddle with the capitalization, and don’t forget numbers. What dates or ages were important to him? The number of his house. His locker at the gym. Anything.”
“This could take ages.”
The hacker shrugged.
Ruby stared at the screen. Knowing Senator Wishbourne, she had memorized some complex string of letters and numbers, something no one could guess.
On the other hand, the senator had wanted her to find this with the intention that Ruby crack it, so maybe she really could guess the password.
Ruby got to work. She tried out her real name and every name she could think of from Senator Wishbourne’s circle. Nothing. She tried out place names from the Bahamas, names of companies the senator’s husband had done business with, anything that popped into her head. She even tried the name of a childhood cat the senator had mentioned once, and the name of her favorite coffee at Starbucks.
Ruby took care to try every variation, try every pattern of capitalization, even combined potential passwords. No luck.
Finally she sat back with a sigh. Her fingers felt sore. She must have typed in hundreds of passwords. She glanced at the clock on the computer and noticed she had been going for an hour.
“I have a more robust program I can try,” the hacker said.
“Why the hell didn’t you tell me that in the first place?”
“Because it goes through tens of millions of alphanumeric sequences. It can take days.”
Ruby stared at the screen. Now that she had made her decision to let the genie out of the bottle, all hesitation had vanished. She really needed to see what was on this thumb drive. Senator Wishbourne had hinted to Ruby where to find it just as they got attacked by the assassins who ended up killing her. It was obviously important. But she hadn’t had time to give her the password, or had assumed she’d guess it.
Had that been what she had tried to gasp out in her last choked breath as she suffocated with a collapsed windpipe?
And were the contents of this thumb drive what the assassins had been after in the first place? They had stolen the senator’s briefcase full of sensitive documents. While everyone had assumed that’s what they wanted, had they really been after this thumb drive?
So many questions, and none of them could be answered because of a damn password prompt.
“The program works most of the time. No guarantees, of course, but if it doesn’t work I only charge a hundred instead of a thousand.” Ruby looked at him. “I have to have some compensation for my time,” he added apologetically.
It’s not the money, it’s that I don’t want to leave it with you.
“Can I run this program myself?” Ruby asked.
The hacker frowned and crossed his scrawny arms over his unimpressive chest. “Not without training, and I’m not going to give that to you. This is my livelihood.”
Ruby grunted and gave him the two hundred she owed for his “initial consultation.” She took the thumb drive and stood.
Then she hesitated. What chance did she have of unlocking it herself? She needed this guy.
But she couldn’t leave the thumb drive with him. Too dangerous.
She decided she’d take a page from his book andhave one of her friends buy her a laptop with cash and she’d try to crack it in her spare moments.
But first she had something else to do. An old friend, and an old flame, was flying back to the States in a few hours. She had to see him before he left.
This part of her past wouldn’t wait.
An hour later, she stood on the balcony of Tim Harris’s hotel room. It was a second-rate place and didn’t have a view of the ocean. Still, the azure sky and waving palm trees were pleasant enough, and it was Tim’s last day. He wanted to get as much sun as possible before returning to the States the following morning. They stood side by side, almost touching, looking out at the scene.
“Wish I could stay here longer,” Tim said. “This is a hell of a place you’ve found to hide.”
“It was nice having you here,” she said, and meant it. He had brought up a lot of old memories. Not all of them good, but some of them sure were. And it felt nice to know someone from her old life cared. Besides Axel, her most trusted MMA buddy, no one else knew she was here.
Tim gave her a wry smile. “You didn’t think it was nice when you thought I was jumping you in the alley.”
Ruby laughed. “I don’t mind a bit of bare-knuckle sparring.”
Tim touched the red lines on his face and chuckled. “I mind getting attacked by a monkey.”
“You made friends in the end.”
“He’s a sweet little guy when he isn’t sinking his claws into you.” Tim’s expression grew serious. “So … how did it go?”
Ruby shook her head. “Password protected. He couldn’t crack it. He tried a simple program, and I tried any words I could think of. Nothing worked. He has a more robust program, but it takes days and I don’t know him well enough to trust him with the thumb drive.”
“I know people in the States,” Tim said. “People I can trust.”
“I can’t let you take this on. The senator wanted me to deal with it. I just wish I knew why.”
“You were always her favorite.”
Did Ruby note a hint of jealousy in his voice?
“She always wanted a daughter,” Ruby explained.
Tim snorted. “Yeah, and instead she got Tucker.”
Tucker was her spoiled son. Connections had gotten him into Princeton, but nothing the senator or her husband could do kept him off the coke and the sorority girls.
“Are you seeing Sanyjah today?” Ruby asked. Tim and one of her Bahamian friends had hit it off.
Tim made a face. “Nah. She friend zoned me.”
“Awww.” Ruby patted him on the head. “I thought you guys were getting along great.”
“So did I. I tried to kiss her and she said, ‘I really like you, and if you lived here I would tear your clothes off right now, but I’m not looking for a one-night stand.’”
“Ouch. Friend zoning with a ‘what if.’ That’s gotta burn.”
Tim grunted. “Thanks.”
Ruby chuckled and elbowed him in the ribs. The news made her feel happy in a selfish sort of way. She and Tim had a fling once, many years ago. They had decided not to do it again since they worked together.
But they weren’t working together now …
“So what do you want to do today?” she asked.
Tim shrugged. “I don’t know. Show me around.”
“Sure, it’s a small island. I’ll show you everything.”
Tim cocked an eyebrow. “Everything?”
Their eyes locked. Ruby felt her heart do a little flip-flop. Tim moved in closer. Ruby lifted up her face. Tim bent closer …
… and Ruby stepped back.
Tim slumped. “Sorry.”
“It’s all right.”
“No, I was out of line. I was just thinking about, you know.”
“Yeah, I know, and it was amazing. But that was a long time ago and—”
“You really like me, and if I lived here you would tear my clothes off right now, but you’re not looking for a one-night stand.”
Ruby giggled, then felt bad. “Sorry.”
Tim shook his head. “Friend zoned twice in one day. And they call this place paradise.”
She took his hand. His eyes sparked with a wary hope.
Ruby felt bad about extinguishing it. “Well, let me show you some of paradise. As a friend.”
They went to the beach together, and it wasn’t long before the warm breeze eased their mutual tension and replaced it with happy companionship. Soon they were chatting and laughing like old times. They had a big seafood meal at a special place Ruby knew on the beach, and then another long walk before the time sadly came for Tim to check out of his hotel and take the airport shuttle.
They embraced just as it pulled up in front of the hotel.
“I’ll keep my ear to the ground,” Tim said. “Would you mind if I came down again? Like in a few months so it doesn’t look suspicious? No expectations. It’s just nice to see you.”
Ruby nodded, not sure what to say or feel. “All right. Take care of yourself.”
“You’re the one who needs to do that.”
“Big time,” she snorted. “And take care of that scrawny assed supermodel you’re guarding.”
Tim laughed. “I will.”
They hugged again, tighter this time. Pain jabbed Ruby’s side from the cracked rib she’d gotten in an illegal brass knuckle fight earlier that week. Ruby winced at the memory. She sure as hell didn’t want to ever see that place again.
The King says you still owe him two fights.
Why do I get so much drama in my life?
“Bye,” Tim said.
Ruby bit her lip as he got in the airport shuttle and it pulled away. Then she let out a sigh and headed for the bus stop.
She shoved her hands into her pockets, and her heart suddenly turned to ice.
The pocket where she had put the thumb drive was empty.