As a teaser, here’s the first two chapters to my new novel, DARKNET, available now for pre-order on Amazon (will be released March 11th): http://www.amazon.com/Darknet-Matthew-Mather-ebook/dp/B00R52OLSI/

CHAPTER 1

 

Wednesday, August 10th

Central London, England

12 pm

One hour until the next assassin deadline. Dead-line. An appropriate word. Sean Womack checked his wind-up wristwatch.

Tried to steady his shaking hand.

It was noon.

Clang. Clang…

The clocks of central London chimed their consensus. Sixty minutes until the next assassin’s bet, but he only needed half that. Time was on his side, if barely. The Assassin Market—a crypto-based, crowd-funded murder site—was on the hunt for him.

Sean sat on a granite bench beside a statue of Queen Anne, balancing a thick manila envelope on his knees while he stopped and rolled up his sleeves to relieve the sweltering July heat. My God, he didn’t know England could be this hot.

Buses and cars rumbling past, tourists staring at maps, children on summer outings squealing with excitement—the noise of the city surrounded him. Next to Sean, a man in a tailored suit had his brown-bagged lunch spread out on his lap. He chewed thoughtfully on a whole grain sandwich while staring at a flock of pigeons that scratched and cooed in front of them. Glancing at the man—perfect silk tie, coiffed hair, polished brown shoes—Sean wondered if he was the one. The man didn’t look the part, but then it was impossible to tell anymore.

Sean’s stomach growled. He hadn’t eaten in a day—maybe two—but he had no appetite. Wiping the sweat off his forehead, he adjusted his sunglasses.

Staring at the immense face of St. Paul’s cathedral in front of him, Sean wondered why there was only one clock, or at least, only one clock face, located on the right side. On the left, there was an empty space where a clock face should have been. Had it been designed like that? He didn’t think so. As scared as he was, the inconsistency of it annoyed him. He reached for his phone—to do a web search and find out why—before stopping himself.

He didn’t have one.

No cell phone, no computer. No electronics of any kind.

Sean glanced back up at St. Paul’s. His mind deconstructed it, visualizing where the flying buttresses, hidden behind the towering walls, lined up to support the dome in the middle. In his mind’s eye, the stones of the cathedral hovered in space, great wooden arches coming up around them, his brain recreating the systems and sequences of events needed to build it hundreds of years ago.

He couldn’t help himself.

His mind never stopped planning, creating systems, imagining possibilities.

He checked his watch again.

Fifty-six minutes.

Looking at the envelope sitting on his knees, he pulled a pen from his pocket and scrawled an address on it. Taking a deep breath, he closed his eyes. When he opened them again, he scratched out the address and wrote a different one, then pulled a scrap of paper from his pocket and scribbled something else on this and inserted it into the envelope. Satisfied, he rocked to his feet and pocketed the envelope, then walked forward to join the line of tourists going into St. Paul’s.

At the entrance there was a stone box: a suggested donation of five pounds. Sean fished in his back pocket and stuffed his last twenties into the box. Walking inside, he followed the tourist flow and gawked up at the marble arches, the gilt frescos of gold and blue lining the cavernous main dome, the wrought-iron chandeliers dangling from vaulted ceilings. Jake would love this. They never would have dreamed of visiting a place like this when they were kids.

Every few feet, Sean stopped to glance back at the entrance.

Reaching the back of the cathedral, Sean stepped over the cordon rope into a corridor. Melting into the shadows, he turned and ran down the passageway. The sound of his footfalls echoed off the stone walls. Reaching the end, he banged on the lever of an emergency exit.

No alarm sounded.

Back outside, he squinted in the sunshine. A helicopter hovered overhead, chop-chopping in the clear blue sky. A red double-decker bus growled past, belching fumes as the driver changed gears. Green trees swayed in the breeze. Has the story already broken? He looked at the helicopter. Another had joined it. Keeping his head low, he continued down the street, glancing back at the emergency exit.

Nobody followed.

Blue glass-and-steel skyscrapers rose past the dome of St. Paul’s on his left, construction cranes balanced between them like insects atop termite mounds; building, building. He glanced at the helicopters again, then took a sharp right turn to duck down an alleyway, colliding with someone coming from the opposite direction.

“Can you help me?” the man asked.

Sean grabbed him. “Who are you?”

“Dave,” the man squeaked, trying to step back. “I wanted to know if you’d take a picture of me and my family.” He pulled free.

Sean looked up. The man’s wife and kids were huddled behind him. Sean glanced up higher, at a CCTV camera on the corner of a building. London had the highest concentration of surveillance cameras in the world. It was a risk Sean was well aware of, but one he needed to take.

“Sorry,” Sean said to the man. “Sorry, I was just…” but he didn’t finish his sentence as he jogged away from them, down the last steps of the alleyway.

He stopped at the corner.

Looked in all directions.

Glanced at his watch again.

Forty-four minutes.

Turning left onto Queen Victoria Street, Sean started back toward the center of the City of London. People thought that London was this huge city, but the City of London, proper, was contained in one single square mile. One of the smallest cities in Europe, in fact, but it was also probably the highest concentration of financial firepower on the planet—and the money laundering capital of the world.

More helicopters assembled overhead.

After three more blocks, Sean found what he was looking for. A Royal Mail box, bright red, with the Queen’s ER insignia emblazoned in gold on the front, standing at attention next to the entrance to the Bank tube station. It was in the middle of a roundabout in a five-way intersection of streets—Victoria, Cheapside, William, Threadneedle, Prince—and in the shadow of the imposing Bank of England building. Next to the post box stood an equally red and iconic English telephone booth.

Sean slipped the envelope into the post box, double-checking to ensure it slid all the way in, then opened the door to the telephone booth while searching his pockets for change. No credit or debit cards, not since Amsterdam. Even if he didn’t use them, he wasn’t sure if someone could track their RFID tags. It was best not to take chances. Sean leaned against the inside wall of the booth and dialed a number he’d committed to memory.

Glanced at his wrist.

Thirty-eight minutes.

More than enough time.

The entrance to the Bank of England building was directly across from him, the Governor’s limousine parked in front, waiting. The quarterly Bankers’ Assembly meeting had started inside. Across the street was as far as he needed to get to finish what he’d started.

As he cupped the receiver to his ear, the line started ringing, and not the long muted tones of a UK or European number, but the short, familiar jingling of a North American one. He stared at the Bank of England across the street.

Three rings.

Then four.

Nobody answered.

Then an answering machine picked up.

“You have forty seconds,” announced an automated voice before connecting him, telling him how much time he’d paid for. He only heard the tail end of an answering machine message on the other end, “…the O’Connell residence, please leave a message.”

Sean took a deep breath. “Jake, hi, it’s me.”

How to put this?

“Listen, I’m sorry I haven’t been in touch for so long, but there’s something I need to tell you…”

Behind him, a growling roar erupted, and Sean turned in time to see the front of a double-decker bus bearing down on him. It crashed into the telephone booth, crushing and dragging him across the center of the square.

 

 

CHAPTER 2

 

Thursday, August 11th

Atlas Capital Offices, Long Island, New York

4:54 pm

 

“I like the ring of it—blood diamonds.” Danny Donovan, the CEO of Atlas Capital, held up his arms to show off his new cuff links. Diamonds the size of gumdrops glistened on them.

Jake O’Connell held his gaze steady on his boss. “Nice,” he replied.

They sat across from each other in the main conference room of Atlas Capital, at a mahogany table that stretched the length of the thirty-foot space, the room separated from the rest of the office by a glass wall. Nice, but not too nice. The table was scuffed in places; the chairs bought from a bankruptcy auction. Donovan liked to keep up appearances, but only to the outside. Few people, except those who worked here, ever came to Atlas’s offices.

Atlas liked to say it was a Wall Street firm, but in reality, it was far from it—at least physically. Like the legendary garage start-ups of Silicon Valley, Long Island now housed more financial upstarts in abandoned shopping malls and reconverted warehouses than all of Manhattan combined.

“I didn’t defraud them,” Donovan added, getting back to their discussion. He maintained persistent two-day-old stubble below thick eyebrows that looked plucked and arranged, his black hair parted and slicked back to one side, his three-thousand dollar bespoke suit immaculate.

Donovan’s father had been a school teacher in the Bronx, and he fought his way up on scholarship at Harvard before making a rapid ascent through the ranks of JP Morgan, the largest investment bank on Wall Street. These were the things Jake genuinely respected him for—hard work, coming up from the bottom, working class roots. After only three years at JP Morgan, Donovan led a rebellion in the high frequency trading group and dragged some of their best minds out to Long Island for his own start-up. A risky move that paid off. Rumor had it that Donovan cleared two hundred million the year before.

“I’ll admit to bending a few rules,” Donovan continued, “but I didn’t steal from those pensioners’ accounts. I would never do something like that.”

Jake watched a veil pull over Donovan’s eyes like a translucent third eyelid to obscure the reptilian depths below. Probing. Searching for weakness. The edges of Donovan’s words were all too familiar to Jake.

“I know,” Jake replied, the same way he’d always acknowledged his own father’s lies. “I believe you,” he added.

But he didn’t.

If there was anything Jake knew about, it was psychopaths. His experience was as personal as it could get: his own father was one.

It was something that took Jake a long time to see for what it was. Growing up, Jake had assumed that every father treated his children as possessions. But one day in middle school, a kid taunted Jake, saying his dad thought Jake’s was a psycho. Jake beat the crap out of the kid, but afterward he looked up the word in an encyclopedia. A great truth was revealed. Many things came into focus.

And a life-long obsession with psychopaths was born.

The popular media vilified ‘psychos,’ made them out to be ogres, but they possessed the exact qualities celebrated by Wall Street and the modern world: charm, ruthlessness, and a win-at-all-costs mentality. Psychopathy wasn’t black or white, but more a multi-colored rainbow from Ted Bundy to the Dalai Lama, with everyone else fitting somewhere in between.

Jake often wondered why psychos seemed to surround him.

Did he search them out?

Or did he notice them more than most?

It was hard to tell.

Jake rated everyone he met on his psychopath scale, from full-Ted to deep-Dalai, even himself. He stared into the mirror sometimes, deep into the depths of his own eyes. Did a full-Ted psychopath know what he was? How? Everyone thought they were good people—even Hitler imagined himself a savior, bearing his cross for the greater good.

It was all a matter of perspective.

Jake spent his life trying to hide the void inside. He used to rely on anger and violence to do the job, but now his family and work fulfilled that role. Still, his life often felt like a show, a collection of learned behaviors.

Donovan pulled back from Jake and smiled. “I don’t know which one of us is the better liar.”

Jake forced a smile in return. “Do I have to answer that?”

“Not yet.” Donovan grabbed his coffee cup from the table. “But soon you’ll be answering questions. The Securities and Exchange Commission’s lawyers are getting ready. It’s not just my neck on the line, you understand?” Donovan pointed his cup at Jake. “Who would have imagined that an ex-con like you would end up a Wall Street trader? You want to keep it that way, you play ball.”

Jake nodded. “Understood.” It was a point Donovan never let him forget. Ever.

Five years ago, Sean Womack, his childhood friend, started bringing Donovan into the bar Jake managed in the Meatpacking district, one of the hottest late-night party corners of Manhattan. Soaked in tequila and high on cocaine, night after night Donovan had promised to bring Jake into his new financial start-up.

Jake never believed it would happen, but he took to treating the guy with a few shots whenever he showed up. Then one day Donovan made good on his word.

Almost inexplicably.

Donovan flashed his cufflinks again. “Three carats. Not bad, huh?”

“They are nice.” Jake couldn’t care less about the cufflinks. He leaned forward, elbows on the table, and steepled his fingers together. “Listen, I need to know what to do with this Joseph Barbara guy. Who is he?”

Donovan smiled. “Who is he? You don’t know?”

“I put a meeting on our schedule with him tonight, down at Johnny Utah’s.”

“Cancel it. Doesn’t matter anymore.”

“This guy sounded pretty upset.” Jake needed some resolution. “His name’s not on our official list of customers, so I don’t know how—”

“I gave him your name.” Donovan held his cufflinks up at a new angle.

“You gave him my name?” What was Donovan up to?

“Don’t worry about it.”

This set alarms jangling. Donovan might have taken Jake in under his wing, but he had the uncomfortable feeling of a big brother, like the one that used to hold Jake’s head underwater in the bathtub when he was little. For the hundredth time he felt the impulse to quit, but there was no way he could get this kind of money elsewhere.

“Okay,” Jake replied, unconvinced, “if you say so.” He could do his own research. Just then he saw someone he wanted to talk to walking by outside. Jake excused himself to Donovan, “Just a second,” as he jumped up and opened the conference room door. He stretched his hand out. “Mr. Viegas,” Jake said, projecting his voice.

Vidal Viegas, the chief operating officer of Bluebridge Capital, turned to Jake and blinked, his watery left eye drooping from some long-ago illness. Bluebridge was doing an audit on Atlas’s accounts today. Viegas looked more clean-cut than Jake remembered, his hair thicker. They’d met a few times over the years, but Viegas was a financial superstar now—no longer the obscure university professor he used to be. Maybe he didn’t remember Jake.

They stared at each other. Jake’s hand hovered in space between them. He was about to pull it back when Viegas finally took his hand.

“Ah, yes, Mr. O’Connell. How are you?”

“Good.” Jake gave two firm shakes, then Viegas’s hand slithered out of his. “Have you heard from Sean lately?” Jake asked.

Another pause. “No, I haven’t.” Viegas flashed a weak smile. “Please, excuse me.” He turned and started for the front. Another man, limping, walked beside and behind Viegas, following him.

Jake watched them go. On the wall of plasma TVs lining the front of the office, Senator Russ talked on CNN. It was coverage of the presidential debate on the conflict in the Middle East. Eleven weeks to go until the election, and Russ was twenty points ahead. Jake closed the door and sat back down with Donovan.

“It’s those bastards at Bluebridge who are setting me up.” Donovan thrust his chin at the disappearing silhouette of Viegas. “They’re paying big money to back Russ in the elections. Something weird is going on there. How do you know Viegas?”

“Through Sean. You remember Sean Womack?”

Donovan scowled. “Of course.”

“Viegas was his thesis advisor at MIT.” Jake turned his Silver Eagle dollar coin over and over in his pocket. An old habit.

“Viegas was Sean’s thesis advisor?” Donovan hissed. “He never told me that—”

“You still talk to Sean?” Jake asked. He hadn’t talked to his old friend himself in months, but there were more pressing issues. Jake took a deep breath. “Look, we need to talk about this SEC investigation. I want to know what I should do if they come for you. I’m worried.”

“Me too,” Donovan sympathized.

But Jake knew he wasn’t. Not really.

Jake had ranked Donovan a half-Ted psycho the moment he walked into Jake’s bar for the first time; his well-oiled smile and piercing eyes were dead giveaways. Right now, Donovan’s eyes did their best to project concern and sympathy, but Jake imagined what was going on behind them.

To a psychopath, there were no dark clouds, only silver linings. There were no moral hazards, only opportunities. Even with an impending arrest and possible jail time, Donovan was probably thinking he’d get a movie deal when he got out in a few years, cement his fame as the Lion of Long Island. People saw Wall Street executives being dragged away in handcuffs after stealing the life savings of millions of retirees and asked, “How could someone do something like that?” when the real question was, “How couldn’t they?”

Donovan’s phone buzzed. He looked at the message on it. Jake watched him clench his jaw, a vein popping out in his neck. He was only a half-Ted. He felt some stress.

Jake stared at Donovan for a long second. “Anything I should be worried about?”

Donovan paused, then looked Jake in the eye. “This is going to sound nuts, but they have audio recordings, even video, of me saying and doing things that I…didn’t…do.”

It was odd that Donovan kept insisting he was innocent. The lies were usually casual—obvious, even. So why keep up the pretense? Most of the time Jake could parse what Donovan was up to, but not now.

“Between you and me, I’m no angel,” Donovan added. “I’ve done some stuff that’s a little off the books to get this place where it is.” His pasted-on prep school accent was sliding into his old Bronx slang, a sure sign of agitation. “I’ll admit to that, but not this stuff they’re trying to stick on me.” He slid a memory key across the table to Jake. “Put this in your pocket.”

Jake picked it up, held it between his fingers like it was radioactive. “What the hell is it?”

“We ain’t got much time. That text I just got? They’re on their way.”

“I can’t have anything to do with this.” Jake put the memory key down, pushed it back across the table. “I’ve got a family to protect.”

Donovan laughed. “How do you think you got this job?”

An ominous current slid down Jake’s back.

“Your friend, Sean, he helped me out. So I helped him out. Hired you.” Donovan pushed the memory key back to Jake. “There are encryption keys on there for some locked accounts. You keep that safe. We’re in this together.”

A commotion erupted in the front of the office. Through the smoky glass walls of the conference room, Jake saw a group of men massing at the front, one of them holding a piece of paper above his head. They wore bulletproof vests and spoke in loud voices. After more angry shouting, the secretary at the front pointed toward the conference room. The men in vests advanced toward Jake and Donovan, handcuffs out. Jake looked Donovan in the eye and grabbed the memory key, stuffing it into his suit vest pocket.

Donovan straightened his sleeves and admired his diamond cufflinks again, nonplussed. “You take care of that, Jakey.”