SEX, LIES & BLACK TIE
I wiped the perspiration from my brow and watched my hand quiver. This was everything I’d been waiting for. Graduation was two weeks away but my instructor, Special Agent Harlan Jackman, liked me enough to include me in the briefing sessions at the apex of a year-long quest to break up a credit card hacking ring. I’d noticed anomalies in the code we were studying and now here I was, ready for a takedown as part of a special taskforce of the FBI.
Jackman, like me, was a southerner, complete with a Georgia accent and the shit-kicking attitude of a man raised on whiskey and sweet tea. With two tours in Iraq and Iran, he was a tri-lingual American hero who spoke Farsi and Arabic. When I’d asked him once why he signed on for a second tour, he simply replied, ‘If you can’t beat ‘em, you should join ‘em. And I’m not ready to join ‘em.’
He’d taken a shine to me, once saying he saw himself in my resolute demeanor. I’d shown what I was made of not only in my Cyber Crime classes, but in all areas. Here I was a month later, not even off the Farm yet and on my first raid. I walked a little taller around my classmates after Jackman asked me to join his team. It was hard not to be excited, but now my body pulsed with surges of adrenaline. I’d trained for all kinds of scenarios but none of it felt this real. Now that I was in the moment, all I could think was, what if I have to pull the trigger?
It wasn’t that I was afraid. In fact, I’d been one of the best shots in my class. It was the thought of using force on a live human and not a simulated target. Shooting a paint gun at an agent trained to be a criminal or using simulation software was a far cry from taking a human life.
I hid my anxiety, purposely holding my chest tight when drawing a breath. Leaning into the crumbling brick wall of an old warehouse, I knew from the briefing they were forging credit cards inside —cards so accurate fraud prevention departments of the biggest worldwide banks couldn’t identify them as fakes.
A strong hand gripped my left shoulder forcing the other into the wall, knocking sandy mortar from the deteriorating building on my sleeve. “Shit, Callahan. Breathe.” His voice was like gravel—low and full of Georgia grit.
“Hell, son. Every agent’s a little tense before he pops his cherry. Stick with me. You’ll do fine.”
The full-fledged agent in front of me turned to give me a bro-nod as if to say, it’s cool. Or maybe he was silently mocking me. I nodded, but didn’t look back. I was anxious. Anxious to take down a criminal, anxious to get in on my first case, anxious not to only think about being an Agent for the FBI, but act like one.
“You ready?” he asked.
“Ready to kick some ass, sir.”
Jackman chuckled, tossing his half-smoked Lucky onto the broken pavement before rubbing it out with the toe of his boot. He, like me and the other members accompanying the SWAT team, was dressed in full tactical gear. Even though I’d worn it while training, I wasn’t as comfortable in the ninja suit as the regulars—especially Jackman. He was the kind of guy who lived for taking criminals down. It was a controlled rage you couldn’t see in his face, but behind his eyes I knew he was twitchy, eager—ready for anything and everything. The man was a damn animal when it came to sniffing out Cyber Crime and loved flexing his physical muscle during the takedown as much as he relished in showing off his intellectual acumen. It was a mental state I’d need to master if this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.
A bead of sweat rolled down my nose, hanging on the tip as I stared at the spray painted door—the target for our breach. I was hiding under a faux cloak of confidence, but honestly had no idea what we’d find on the other side. Whatever it was, I felt better about it just being with the men and women surrounding me.
We’d received our orders while riding in the bogus ice cream truck we used to roll into the neighborhood of Queens Chapel outside of D.C., and I followed Jackman and the team along the side of the building, exactly as I’d been instructed.
After borrowing some software from the NSA in order to track the untraceable IPs that had kept the team going in circles for months, here we were. The boys at the NSA weren’t too happy about helping, but I’d learned early on that powerful politicians and people with money could get a lot of things done in Washington—even if the CIA, FBI and NSA didn’t share a lovefest for one another.
One day with the Black Widow software, and Jackman’s team had found what they were looking for—a string of code in the deepest part of the Internet—the dark web. Rife with illegal activity, child pornography, drug deals and the selling of identities, it was a new frontier in crime. Perpetrators active on the dark web treated it like the Wild West—get away with what you can while you can.
Jackman cocked his head with purpose, giving us the move ahead signal. It was time. My heart raced and my hands steadied. Following the others up the narrow concrete stairs by a battered loading dock, we stopped in our tracks at the metal door waiting for the Go sign.
Quietly, Jackman eased open the door to the warehouse and motioned for us to trail him. One by one we left the sweltering heat, following him inside. The bright sunlight and warmth of the unexpected Indian summer changed to near frigid air and total darkness.
Adjusting my eyes and scanning the space, I, like everyone else, looked for anything— at all. In my head, I’d pictured a slick operation and a room filled with card making machines and unsuspecting hackers toiling away over keyboards and lighted computer screens.
Gripping my weapon, I followed the others through the narrow hallway that lead to the open warehouse—the open and empty warehouse.
Without saying a word, I watched the tension fall away from the shoulders of not only the lead SWAT, but Jackman himself.
“Mother fuck,” Jackman hissed, dropping his firearm to his side. “Whoever was here has closed up shop and moved on.”
Everyone cursed under their breath, relaxing their posture.
“Spread out and see what you can find.” The frustration in Jackman’s voice was palpable and I couldn’t tell what he was more pissed off about—that we’d missed our mark, or that he’d need to ask the NSA for help—again. “I don’t care if you find a damn gum wrapper, bag it as evidence!”
Holstering my Glock, I took off my helmet after watching Jackman do the same. Half the team took the rusty stairs to the open level above, while the rest of us searched the first floor of the run down warehouse. I had no idea what we were looking for, the building was deserted. I was, at the very least, thankful for the cool air that continued to rush through the building.
I followed the draft twenty yards into the dark, looking for anything left behind in what seemed a hasty departure. The rest of the team was merely a muffled sound in the distance by the time I reached the back of the building where the air was even colder.
A steady stream flowed over me from above, and I looked up to find a round, industrial sized duct forcing frigid air from the massive line that seemed to cool only the back of the warehouse.
Taking two steps back, I started to join the others when I saw it. From the corner of my eye, light broke through the darkness via a thin crevice to my left. The ramshackle bathroom door had a faded men’s room decal and someone had taken it upon themselves to draw a set of balls and a penis on it in Sharpie. Instinctively, I reached for my gun and moved in. Plastering myself against the wall—a shadow floated back and forth under the doorway. I had him.
Rocking my gun, I rested my trigger finger along the slide. Eerily calm, I knew in the moment, this was what I was made for.
I heard the click of the light switch from inside the door and took a deep breath. Go time.
Matching the speed of the opening door, I extended my weapon and waited.
“Get down! Get down!” I roared. “FBI! This is a raid!”
The tall man wearing jeans and a hoodie was long and gangly from behind, but collapsed facedown, his hands in the air without a fight.
His voice cracked with desperation. “Don’t shoot! Please don’t shoot!”
“Where are the others?” I shouted. The entire team was yelling and making tracks to the back of the warehouse.
“There aren’t any!” he screamed, his face now flat against the concrete floor as I placed a knee in his back to holster my gun and cuff him with lightning speed.
“Someone check out the back!” I shouted, looking to Jackman with a nod. “I found him in the bathroom.”
“Please don’t hurt me. Please,” the man pleaded.
“You should’ve thought about that a long time ago, buddy. Now, who else is here?” I shouted.
“I’m begging you.” His voice fractured and for a moment, I thought he might be crying.
Turning him from his belly to his butt, I propped him against the wall and stepped back to fully take in my first arrest as Agent Jackman came to my side.
“What the fuck?” Jackman asked, his deep voice echoing off the empty walls.
I did a double take to make sure I was seeing what was in front of me. Dark hair, glasses, acne and braces.
“You’ve got to be kidding me.” I relaxed my stance, squatting to look him in the eye. “You’re just…a kid.”