“Are you sure?”
I can hear the sneer before I look up from my phone to see a beautiful young woman looking at me like I’m barely sentient trash.
She’s sitting beneath a red down-light that makes her look like the bouncer in a vampire movie, though she’s dressed like a puritanical stripper. Enough sex on display for everyone to appreciate how hot she is, but a high collar and long sleeves that make her still seem professional.
The poised receptionist gives me an icy once-over and given our surroundings, I can’t blame her. I’m not exactly dressed for this.
I’m wearing a faded red hooded sweatshirt, covering the t-shirt that has a rip in it. I have jeans on too. Not the sleek super tight-fitting jeans women like this receptionist might wear on a Saturday brunch, but ones with enough room in them to fit things in the pockets. Most important, I have my battered workhorse of a laptop tucked under one arm.
Okay, I don’t look my best. But I’ve been working fourteen-hour days for the past week and frankly, we’re all lucky I had time to take a shower at the company gym and put my hair into a ponytail. I made an effort, dammit.
“Very sure,” I say.
“Let me check with Mr. Keller.”
It’s pretty obvious that the only meeting taking place right now is the one with me. It’s ten o’clock at night. I’m surprised the secretary is still even here. Hope she’s getting some decent overtime.
“Okay, well, I have the email right here…”
I attempt to show her the calendar app on my phone, but she recoils from it and disappears through a door that is set into the wall in a seamless “I expect you to die, Mr. Bond” sort of way.
That leaves me standing there, bringing down the tone of the place.
It’s a long way up to the top of Vipyr HQ. And it’s a long way down too. I wander over and look out a highly polished window, down into the city below. Lights dance and flow with the pulse of life. Up here, I feel strangely removed from it all. It’s almost like whatever is out there can’t touch you here.
It’s hard to believe that all of this exists because of a relatively small piece of patented code. The least talked about, most installed piece of software globally. It’s embedded in the back end of thousands of other apps, helps them to communicate data to servers more efficiently than anything else.
“Mr. Keller will see you,” the secretary says from behind me. Her tone hasn’t changed much. She’s still acting as if she’s doing me a favor just by looking at me. Funny how the rich and famous seem to pay underlings to make other people feel like scum. It’s like they don’t know we mostly do it to ourselves for free. Everything about this place is designed to make people who don’t belong here feel inadequate. It’s working.
I don’t get to go through the sweet secret door. I have go through the glass doors marked with the V for Vipyr. It’s heavier than it looks and it threatens to swing back and catch me on the ass on my way through. This place is full of hostiles. Even the doors don’t like me.
“Goddamn,” I swear under my breath. The hall beyond is not long, but there are three doors in it. One at the very end, one on the left, the other on the right. There’s no indication of which one I should go to. Ethan Keller’s door doesn’t have anything so pedestrian as a name plate on it. I guess I’m just supposed to rely on the sensation of being on hallowed ground to know where I am.
I start with the door on the right and tap on it. There’s no answer.
“Uhm, Mr. Keller?”
“Over here,” a voice chuckles behind me.
I turn around to see the man himself standing in a now open doorway. The left. Of course he was on the left. The devil always takes the left hand path, and if the devil were to incarnate as a tech CEO, he would look like Ethan Keller, I’m sure of it.
“People do that all the time,” he says, his wickedly handsome face warped with amusement at my expense.
“Maybe you should try labeling the door then.”
“Maybe,” he says in the sort of tone that strongly implies he has no intention of doing that whatsoever. “Come on in.”
His office is bigger and more nicely decorated than any place I’ve ever lived in. It has the square footage of multiple apartments. It’s big enough to get lost in, and decorated with so many wonders of technology it’s hard to process them all. I’m sure some of them are as yet unseen prototypes. There’s something that looks like a VR headset, but it’s attached to a full body suit. I get a little closer to it, wondering how it works. Is Vipyr going into VR? Full body VR? That would be incredible.
He clears his throat again, reminding me that he’s there. Oh. Right.
I turn my attention back to the man himself and look at him. Really look at him. What I’m about to say is likely going to piss him off. I hope he doesn’t shoot the messenger.
There is no doubt that Ethan Keller is one of the great minds of his generation. He is thirty-three years old, with a thick head full of dark hair. He has piercing blue eyes, the kind that seem to be analyzing everything with ruthless intelligence. As he looks at me, I feel like I’m being taken apart.
I try to meet his gaze. He’s never seen me before, has more data to process. I see pictures of him all the time. It’s impossible to work in this industry and not know who he is, even though he keeps a relatively low profile. He has hard, angular cheekbones, eyes that are naturally narrowed. His nose is pronounced, but not unattractive, and he has a strong chin and jaw. A handsome face. He could be a model. But he doesn’t need to be. He could look like a bridge troll for all it matters.
I felt underdressed compared with the secretary. I now feel like I’ve wandered in wearing my pajamas. He’s wearing a suit. I’m guessing it’s probably very expensive, judging by the way it fits his body.
I am very, very close to losing my nerve.
Coming here is probably the dumbest thing I’ve ever done. But I have to do it. It’s the right thing to do. There’s always the chance he isn’t aware of what’s going on beneath his nose. Could be some rogue element in his company. If it is, he will appreciate what I have to tell him.
“So,” he says. “Your messages were very urgent. I hope you have the evidence to back them up.”
“Uhm, yes.” I fumble with my laptop, and open it on the corner of a desk bigger than a bath. I have it set up to run right away, so immediately a block of code appears, gleaming white on black. The screen is a bit dirty, I realize, never really noticed in my dusty little apartment.
He stands a few feet away, his arms folded over his chest. I find it almost impossible to keep calm as I start to speak. I hate giving presentations, and that’s what this feels like. Ethan Keller has the same effect on me as a crowd of a million might. My palms are sweating and my voice shakes as I start to lay out what I’ve found.
“Uhm. So. Okay. Well, I, uhm. Found something when I was working on an app using the Vipyr framework.”
“Mhm.” He waits patiently.
“It’s, uh… in the code… It, uh… well… it looks like it’s doing a few things it shouldn’t do. Like, uhm, well, it seems to be scraping personal data, and then using that data in concert with data collected from other users to create profiles that can indicate preferences a user hasn’t directly expressed. Like… uh…”
“You’re describing advertising,” he says dryly.
“Well, uh, yeah, I mean, yes,” I stammer. “But this is on a whole other level. This is, uhm… more like mind reading. Deducting qualities of a consumer based on a vast array of data points…” I find myself talking more quickly. What I’m describing is wrong, but it’s also pretty impressive.
“We call it deep penetration.”
I blush even though I really don’t want to. He said those words that way on purpose. He’s trying to throw me off.
“Oh, so you know about this?”
This is the million dollar question. And I already know the answer. I can see it written on his face. It’s in his complete lack of surprise. I thoroughly expect to be thrown out of his office at any moment. In the silence that follows, I start talking again.
“Well, because, if you didn’t know, it’s uh, illegal, and even if it’s not illegal, it’s wrong. People don’t know what they’re giving away when they use apps built on this framework.”
“I believe it’s all laid out in the terms and conditions,” he says calmly. Too fucking calmly. Why am I here? The question suddenly pops into my head. He knew why I was coming to talk to him. I hinted fairly heavily in the email I sent him. I figured his invitation meant he didn’t know, but now that just seems stupid on my part.
I never realized how much like a shark he looks in person. Those eyes. They’re frighteningly magnetic. Still waters run deep, and when I look into his gaze, I feel as though I’m at risk of falling into a void I might never return from.
He’s handsome, there’s no doubt about it. But he’s handsome in a way that should scare anyone with a soul.
“So,” he says in that husky purring rumble of his. “What you’re saying is you’ve discovered a function of the code, which you believe gives me the power to potentially manipulate millions of people. And you’ve come to me in the hopes of…” He spreads his large hands in an elegant questioning gesture, palms up.
Right here is the futility of my entire premise.
“Asking you to stop?”
He laughs. He laughs in my face, an amused, dark, borderline mocking laugh that makes me blush with shame.
“So you believe, Callie…” His laughter fades.
“Casey,” I correct him.
“Sorry, Casey, of course,” he smirks, not sorry at all. “So, Casey. You believe that you have uncovered something with the kind of power to influence everything from the washing powder people buy, to the candidates they vote for… and you think… that…” His cheek quirks a little, and I suddenly realize that all along he’s been trying not to laugh at me. “And you think you can ask me to stop using it and I will?”
“Well.” I clear my throat. “I mean, when you put it that way it sounds…”
“You are dangerously naive,” he says, his features becoming composed once more. “I thought you would at least be here to extort some kind of profit. If the technology you are describing does in fact exist, it would be worth billions of dollars. And you come in here…” He runs his eyes over me and I feel the judgment of me, my clothing, my presentation. I’m an engineer, not a model. He’s used to women in designer clothing. Does he even know what a chain store is?
“You come here,” he continues. “And you ask me just… to stop.” The muscle in his jaw is twitching again. I get the sense that when he tells this story later he will not be so restrained in the way he shares it.
“It would be the right thing to do.”
“You,” he says, “are a danger to yourself.”
I pull my hooded sweater a little tighter. He’s sort of right. I can feel the danger in the room, but it’s all coming from him.
“Are you going to have me killed?”
He snorts. “No, I am not going to have you killed, Cassie.”
“Casey. You know my name is Casey!” I add a silent asshole to the end of the sentence.
“Yes, Casey, of course,” he says in a way that strongly implies that it doesn’t matter to him at all. “You come to see the CEO of the largest tech firm on the planet, asking him to shut down an alleged technology that would allow him to make the people who use his platform puppets of his will, and you think that has a chance of working? You’re a very naive little girl.”
“I’m not a little girl.”
My voice shakes with fear as he takes a step forward. He’s even taller than I thought. I am not a tall woman, and he is a giant of a man.
“Yes, you are,” he says softly, his fingertip running beneath my chin to tip my head up. “You have no idea how small you are.”
I had no idea it was possible to be this afraid, this pissed off, and this aroused all at the same time.
He’s not just sexist. This goes so far beyond sexism I don’t think it even matters whether I’m female or male. Everybody is small compared to Ethan Keller. He has shrunk the whole world to the point nobody can touch him.
At least, that’s what he thinks. I can’t fucking wait to prove him wrong.
“I’m sorry to have wasted your time,” I say, reaching for my laptop.
He shuts it and pushes it away from my hands.
“We’re not done here, little girl,” he purrs in that dangerous tone. “I have a proposition for you, and a lesson to teach you.”
The breath catches in my throat.
“Proposition first,” he says. “I’m prepared to offer you a job here at Vipyr. You are obviously a talented coder and…”
“No, thank you.”
He cocks his head to the side. “No? I haven’t even mentioned remuneration.”
“It doesn’t matter.”
Now I know what surprise looks like. This is the expression I wanted to see on his face when I told him what his code does. Brows up, eyes wider, his mouth slightly ajar. He recovers quickly, but for a fraction of a second, I get my satisfaction.
“You are either more innocent even than you look, or you are…”
“I earn enough money from my own work,” I tell him. I know he won’t understand. Men like him accumulate wealth and power almost compulsively. My not being interested in a share of it doesn’t make sense to him.
“I would triple your income,” he says. “And offer you shares in Vipyr too.”
He doesn’t get it. He thinks it’s about numbers. It’s not.
“You can’t buy me, Mr. Keller.”
He smiles broadly, white teeth flashing in a dangerous smile. “Everybody has a price, Casey.”
At least he’s finally managed to remember my name. That’s something.
“My price isn’t one you can pay.”
“It’s integrity,” I say. “And you have a zero balance where that’s concerned.”
I am being ruder than I should be, but he has insulted me and wasted my time. He may as well just have blown me off. Then I wouldn’t have come here and made an idiot of myself.
One of his thick brows rises. “I see,” he says. “You like to think you’re independent, don’t you, little girl.”
“Stop calling me that.”
He ignores me completely and just keeps talking.
“Nobody is independent. Nobody exists on their own. Everybody has some place in the power structure, and if you’re not prepared to rise through it, you will find yourself sinking. I offered you a way out of what’s going to happen to you, Casey. Remember that.”
Now he’s just plain threatening me. I’m starting to lose my temper. And I’m starting to get scared again. A threat from Ethan Keller has to be taken seriously, but fuck this guy.
“What’s going to happen to me?”
“I’m going to take you.”
“I’m going to take you,” he repeats calmly, as if he’s saying something perfectly normal. “You’re going to be mine. I will train you to be something more than what you currently are.”
“You think you can make me a better software engineer?”
“I think I can make you my obedient possession.”
“What the fuck are you talking about?” There’s an edge of panic to my voice, because on one level, I don’t understand what he’s saying at all. And on another level, I understand him perfectly. Ethan Keller is a man who owns things. People are no exception. Because people are just another kind of thing to him.
They say there are more sociopaths in CEO positions than anywhere else. I’m pretty sure I’m looking at one. I refused his offer, but that’s not acceptable to him. It’s not an option I have in his world. So he’s going to just… take me.
Except he isn’t, because I am a person and unlike the sycophants and whores he surrounds himself with, I don’t want him. At all.
“That is not going to happen,” I say as calmly as I can. Is he even connected to reality? Am I? It really did feel as though I lost something the moment I stepped into the Vipyr offices. The rules of the world outside these walls are somehow suspended at the instigation of this entirely dangerous man.
“It already happened,” he says with a thin smile. “We could have done this the easy way, but you wanted to make it hard. So I’m going to make it very hard. From this moment on, consider yourself mine.”
There’s something hypnotic about him. He is almost archetypically perfect. Above everything. Above me. As I stare at him in shock, I take in all the little details I missed in my first rush of nerves. His face is brutally handsome, chiseled, and groomed. Nothing is left to chance. Even his brows are tamed, though still masculine. Movie star good looks, that’s what he has. And that’s what makes this so confusing. He is a leading man, but I am no leading lady.
I can’t imagine what he has in mind for me, but I am one hundred percent sure whatever it is, I will not like it.
Okay. I have to calm down. There has to be a way out of this. I stand there and I think as hard and as fast as I can. It occurs to me that from his perspective, I just came in here and threatened his business. It’s not what I meant to do, but I guess I didn’t think it through thoroughly enough. If I had spent a little less time being so pleased with how smart I was to have figured this out, and a lot more time on thinking how it would be received, I would never have come.
“I’m not going to, uh, tell anyone about this,” I say, trying not to stammer.
“Oh, I know you won’t,” he says smoothly.
I gulp. “You’re going to have me whacked, aren’t you.”
A smile breaks through the facade of control, and for a moment I see him truly amused. He lets out a warm, rich chuckle and shakes his head at me. “You have a wild imagination, little girl.”
“Well, uh, you just said I was yours. And if you think you can own people, then it’s not a big leap to just getting rid of them when they pose a problem.”
“Try to think less in if/then statements,” he smirks. “And try listening instead of thinking. The moment you came in here, I decided I wanted you. I would have been happy to employ you, but you didn’t want that, so I’ll have to go a step further and take you.”
“Take me?” I squeak his words like a chipmunk echo.
“I’ll have a car pick you up…”
I don’t wait to hear the rest of his sentence. He’s not listening to me. He’s just rolling right over me, imposing his will on me as if I’m just some dumb object to be acted upon. It’s become apparent that I need to get out of here. Now.
I grab for my laptop and I practically run from the room.
“No! I’m not yours!”
Those are words I never thought I’d have to yell at a billionaire, but here we are.
“You’re only making this harder on yourself,” he sighs as I leave.
I half expect him to come after me, but he lets me go without giving chase. I rush past the bitchy secretary and head to the elevators. It takes way too many heart-pounding seconds for the doors to open, and then, once I’m inside the elevator, for them to close.
It’s as if time has gone into slow motion, and as I stand there, clutching my laptop in front of myself like a shield, I see Ethan coming through those glass doors. My heart starts to pound so hard the blood rushes in my ears. He’s on the phone. Talking to someone. As our eyes meet across the lobby, he flickers a wink at me, which makes my stomach drop to my fucking toes.
Then the doors close and I am safe from his gaze. The elevator descends slowly, floor by floor. I am still buzzing with adrenaline, even though I am pretty sure I’m safe now. Whatever he said up there doesn’t apply in the real world. People can’t just take each other. That’s not remotely legal. In fact, it’s the complete opposite.
I hurry away from the building. My car is parked in a cheap spot a couple of blocks away, and I can’t wait to get into it. I’m half afraid that someone will come bursting out of one of the dark alleys I pass on my way, but I remain comfortably unhampered until I reach my Toyota and dive inside.
Cars are good places for feeling safe. They’re rolling armored fortresses. With all the windows rolled up and the doors locked, I feel a bit better. I grab my phone and reach out into the digital world where I feel the most comfortable.
‘Note to self,’ I post on my wall. ‘Billionaires be crazy.’ I append a .gif of Patrick Bateman in the middle of his infamous business card rant. Not everyone will get the reference, but it doesn’t matter. They get the gist of it.
It starts getting likes immediately. Everyone hates billionaires. Nobody is more of a universally reviled dick than somebody who has managed to make a vast amount of money.
Feeling validated, and better, I start the car.
A second later, a loud rapping on the window makes me let out a screech of shock. When I look up, there’s a police officer standing outside. He’s a younger guy, easy on the eyes. He motions for me to roll down the window. I do as I’m told.
“Step out of the car, ma’am.”
If I know anything from watching endless videos of police encounters online, I know better than to argue with him.
“Is there a problem, Officer?”
The clichéd question comes out of my mouth like I’m scripted. Police officers are the only people we ever ask if there are problems.
“Out of the car, ma’am.”
I put my phone down and get out of the car. I have an uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach. I’d understand being stopped if I’d just run a red, but I was sitting in a parked car. Even I can’t break any laws sitting still. I think.
Looks like I’m running into the second overbearing asshole on a power trip in one day. Maybe the moon is in Dickbagatarius, if that’s a sign, which it should be. I can think of quite a few people who must have been born under that sign.
It’s funny. Ethan Keller couldn’t stop me from just walking out of his office, but these guys can walk up to you and just take you prisoner. Literally. Like something out of Keller’s wet dream.
“Turn around and face away from me, ma’am. Put your hands on the top of the car.”
I do as I’m told and a second later I feel a pair of strong, masculine hands running down my thighs and calves, sweeping across my ass, finding my hips and waist. This is intimate as hell, even if the touch does only last a fraction of a second. Those hands come all the way up under my breasts. Then they come up over my shoulders, to my arms, which are pulled back behind me. Cool steel encircles my wrists as he cuffs me without so much as a word.
“Be advised, I have one in custody,” he says into his radio.
“You’re arresting me?”
“Watch your head, ma’am,” is all he says as he puts me into the back of a waiting police cruiser.
This isn’t right. The police can’t just handcuff you and put you in their car. Or can they? I’m really not sure anymore. The world has gotten very strange over the last hour or two. He’s supposed to at least tell me what’s going on, right?
“Officer,” I say, my voice becoming strained with the effort it’s now taking to remain polite. “If you could just tell me what this is in relation to?”
He doesn’t reply. Does he really need to? This is starting to get obvious. Ethan fucking Keller has gotten me arrested. That’s what he meant when he said I shouldn’t make it more difficult on myself back up in his office. I wonder what charges they’re going to lay on me. Hacking, probably.
What a fucking asshole. I am going to ruin him for this. I am going to lay complaints with every single authority I can find. I am going to sue him until there’s absolutely nothing left.
“Is there a reason I’m under arrest?”
This cop is not following protocol. He’s not reading me my rights. This is shady as shady gets and it can’t end well.
I’m guessing Ethan intends to flex his muscle, show me how much power he has, and then once I’m out, I’ll presumably do whatever he tells me to do. Except none of that is going to happen. I am going to broadcast this bullshit far and wide.
I sit in the back in the silence the officer has basically dictated, and I bide my time. The station isn’t that far away. He gets me out of the car, but doesn’t even bother with the charade of processing. No fingerprints. No mugshot. My anxiety starts to rise as I realize none of this is going to be on record.
He’s joined by a second officer who seems to have been waiting for us. Another bright young guy, probably on the take. They lead me to an interrogation room. It’s tiled and has a heavily marked linoleum floor in institutional green. I find myself wondering who makes products in these tones. They have to know they’re unpleasant to look at. Is there a decoration company somewhere with an ‘authoritarian oppression’ range?
The cops un-cuff me and tell me to sit in the metal chair that is bolted to the floor. I do as I’m told. This is not good. It’s so not good I can’t even really process how bad it is.
They leave. I sit there. It starts to sink in that I might actually be kind of fucked here if he has the cops on his payroll. Nobody in legitimate business has to pay off the police. Whatever the fuck Ethan is up to, it’s criminal. But I already knew that. And I decided to walk into his lair and tell him I knew.
Dumb. Fucking. Ass.
The chair is uncomfortable, and the nerves make it impossible to sit still anyway. Something bad is about to happen. Hell, it’s already happening. They haven’t read me my rights. They haven’t even arrested me. This is more like a kidnapping.
Still, if he was going to have me killed, I doubt it would happen this way. It would be way easier to just have someone shot in a drive-by. Those still happen occasionally. Or maybe have me ‘robbed’ and killed as a result. Or maybe crash my car into a tree and… I am getting way too deep into thinking about ways to be killed without suspicion. It’s not helping.
Time passes weirdly in the room. I’m not sure if I’ve been in here ten minutes or an hour when the door opens again. The same two officers file in—and Ethan Fucking Keller.
“Oh, my god.”
I have the weirdest feeling of relief at seeing him. Like he’s going to get me out. Like it’s all going to be okay, which is stupid because he’s obviously the only reason I’m here.
I’m pissing him off. I can see that, but I don’t have much power left in the world, and what power I do have comes in the form of words. I’ll curse him out until I can’t speak anymore if he keeps harassing me.
“You really do like making things more difficult for yourself, don’t you,” he says, tilting his head to the side and smiling at me in that half-smirk he has. The one that makes him look cocky and sexy, in spite of everything. There is something magnetic about a man who just doesn’t give a damn, who bends the world to his will. I don’t like it but I can see the allure.
The officers walk to the back of the room and stand behind me, one off to either side. Ethan comes and stands right in front of me, looking down at me with that dangerously pale gaze.
“You trying to prove a point, Mr. Keller?”
“I am,” he says. “But I get the impression it’s not working.”
“It’s not,” I say. But it is. It really fucking is. This whole evening has been one big long mistake. As soon as I get out of here, I’m going back to my car, I’m getting my shit, and then I’m going back to my apartment, getting some more stuff, and then I am splitting the state. This just got way too damn real for my liking, and he might have the cops here, but I doubt he’s paid off every trooper in every county across the country.
“Well,” he says. “I’m sure I’ll find something that works for you, little girl.”
“I doubt it.” I cross my arms over my chest, taking refuge in resistance. I figure he can’t do much more to me than this. He can’t actually get me into the justice system. If he does, there will be evidence of this bullshit and there will be too many people to control. Or I will end up in jail and then what will he get from me? Nothing. This is checkmate. It’s designed to intimidate me into working with him, and it’s not going to happen.
A slow smile spreads over his face. “It has been a long time since anyone was this much fun.”
“Enjoy it while it lasts.”
The smirk grows wider. “What do you think is going to happen next, Casey?”
“I think you’re going to try to scare me. I think you’re going to try to push me around. I think you’re going to regret it.”
“Ooh,” he laughs, a mocking note in his voice. “Listen to you, kitten. So dramatic. You’re already scared. Because I already told you what happens next. You’re mine. This game is over. I prepared for this, Casey. The minute you contacted me, I had people look into you. Having seen what our technology does, you can imagine how deep the data went.”
“You mean you read everything I ever wrote, including my emails.”
“Well, not everything,” he says with an unapologetic smirk. “But enough. I needed to know who you were. How much of a threat you were.”
So he pried into my private life. Hardly unexpected, I guess. What else is going to happen when you piss off a data maven?
He can do all of this, but he can’t force me to be impressed by it. Fuck this guy.
“You’re a sick fucking asshole. And you paid off the cops to pick me up? Just to prove a point? What are you? Some fucking super villain?”
I’m furious. I’ve literally never been this angry in my life. Ethan is everything wrong with the world. The fact that he’s rich, successful, and handsome as well just drives me even more wild. I’m going to work my ass off to make sure there are consequences for what he’s doing to me. He’s not going to get away with this, not in the long term.
“You’re mouthy,” he says flatly. “I like mouthy. You know why?”
I shake my head.
“Because breaking mouthy girls is so much more of a challenge.”
His hands go to his waist. His fingers work at his belt. He whips it off, leather sliding through designer loops in a smooth motion that sends a shiver through my body. What the hell is he doing? Is he going to take his clothes off in here?
He looks up to the officers and smiles.
“Hold Miss Casey here down over the bench,” he says. “I’m going to teach her a lesson in manners.”