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Stolen Plans

G. Younger


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Stolen Plans

An Alex Turner Story

Advanced Reader Copy Edition: December 21, 2023

Copyright ©2023 G. Younger

ISBN-13: 978-1-955699-11-2

Author: Greg Younger

Editing Staff: Bud Ugly, Old Rotorhead, Pixel the Cat, Rusty, TheMikeBomb, and Zom

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the author, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law.

This eBook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This eBook may not be resold 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. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

All characters depicted in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental. Names, characters, places, brands, media, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. The author acknowledges the trademarked status and trademark owners of various products referenced in this work of fiction, which have been used without permission. The publication/use of these trademarks is not authorized, associated with, or sponsored by the trademark owners.

Table of Contents:


Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Chapter 36

Chapter 37


Notes from the Author


Conclave did prom up right. It was a formal (black tie and evening gown) dance exclusively for juniors and seniors. It wasn’t something that would normally interest Alex due to the need to rent a tux. But everyone at school was going on about how it was one of those coming-of-age events you would regret missing if you passed it up. Or at least, that was what he was telling himself as he got dressed for the dance.

Alex never intended to go because he was just a freshman. That was until Irina Mikhailov had cornered him in an empty classroom and explained that he was going to prom. She was at the time going out with Caleb Hiatt, one of the princes of Conclave, so that pronouncement confused him.

Irina was one of the few people that Alex was afraid of. Her father, Alexei, was the former Russian crime boss for Philadelphia. He was now semiretired and lived down the street from Alex. Alexei was known for being quite protective of his daughters. The other reason Alex was fearful of Irina was she was batshit crazy.

Ethan Brewer, the other prince of Conclave, had been her first victim when Alexei and his family moved to town in the fall. Ethan reminded everyone of a two-year-old Lab, full of bouncy energy and loved everybody. It was the loving part that was his undoing. It seemed that word of his extracurricular activities got back to Irina. Her mistake was thinking the two of them were serious.

It all went down at lunch as Ethan was sharing his weekend exploits with the table. Irina waited until everyone was seated, then marched in and announced, “Ethan Brewer! You’re a dead man!”

The whole lunchroom sucked in their breaths as they waited for what was to come. Alex had told him to run, but Ethan shrugged it off. What was a hundred-pound girl going to do to him? After all, Ethan was a three-sport star and outweighed her by nearly a hundred pounds.

She’d marched up to the table with Ethan on the other side. Alex, aware of Irina’s craziness from when they both lived in Philly, grabbed Nell and Ivy to pull them out of the line of fire. Ethan’s eyes nearly popped out of his head when Irina launched herself over the table with a pencil in her hand. She looked like Norman Bates in the shower scene from Psycho.

Alex could almost hear the ‘eeet eeet eeet’ as she used the pencil like it was a dagger. Ethan took three stabs before her pencil snapped as it was embedded in the palm of his hand. Everyone scrambled away because Ethan was bleeding like a stuck pig.

That was when her claws came out and raked his face. Ethan went from happy-go-lucky Lab to full-on psychotic pit bull in the blink of an eye. Alex dived over the table and tackled him before he could kill her. The scary part was that it took both Zac and Decker to hold Irina back.

“What the heck, Alex?!” Ethan complained.

“I warned you,” Alex reminded him.

“Yeah, but … I guess you did.”

The amazing part—besides Irina not getting into trouble—was that the guys at Conclave High were all stupid boys: they still wanted to date Irina. Even Alex would admit that Irina was hot, but he felt the psycho was just too much to even consider dating. Ethan had told him that the crazy was a plus behind closed doors. That made Alex shudder and wish Ethan hadn’t overshared.

So, Alex was on his guard when Irina trapped him in a classroom. He surreptitiously put his hand in his pocket where he kept his switchblade … just in case.

“You’re going to ask my sister to prom.”

“She and I are just friends. Besides, we’re too young to get in. We’re both freshmen,” Alex said, putting the whole crazy idea to bed.

“At the door, you’ll be with me, and my sister will be Caleb’s date.”

“But—” Alex began, but Irina cut him off.

“I know you two say you’re just friends, but you like each other, and I’m tired of my sister moping around.”

Irina then laid it all out for him. He was to come up with an epic promposal and make sure everything would be perfect. That included a tuxedo with no weird ruffles or colors, a corsage, and all the trappings. Alex was to take her sister to the country club for dinner and be a perfect gentleman.

If he hadn’t had a crush on Natasha, he would’ve bailed.


Alex had witnessed several lame promposals. Ethan had simply slipped a card into Sandra’s locker. She claimed it was sooo romantic. Dawn almost got a black eye when her guy dropped a teddy bear down the stairwell and smacked her in the face. That epic fail got him a resounding ‘no.’ Kaitlyn received a delivery of chocolates during one of her classes.

Alex noticed that in every case, the guys were wusses and hadn’t asked the girls to go. So, he got Nell and Ivey to help him plan it. He regretted opening his mouth not long after. They devised it to happen at lunch. All Alex had to do was show up, and they would take care of the rest.

By the day it was going down, his two friends had told everyone but him exactly what was going on. He knew he was in trouble when he walked into the lunchroom and saw a trail of rose petals leading to their table.

Zac pointed to where he was supposed to stand, and then music came over the school’s loudspeakers. It was Birthrite’s newest love ballad that was climbing the charts. Then, the baseball team marched in on each side of the trail and faced each other. They raised their bats to make an arch for Natasha to walk through.

When she came in, Alex could see how excited she was. When she spotted him, Natasha squealed, ran into his arms, and almost choked him out.

“I think that’s a ‘yes,’” Decker said, causing everyone to cheer.


The big night had finally arrived. Natasha opened the door to let Alex in. He had a corsage that perfectly matched her red dress. Irina had picked it out because she didn’t trust him to get it right. He sucked in his breath as he looked at his date because Natasha was smoking hot.

“Damn, you’re looking fine,” Alex said as he handed her the flowers, then leaned in and kissed her cheek.

“Alex. Of course, you know my sister … and this is my mom.”

“I can see where you get your looks. Nice to meet you, Mrs. Mikhailov,” Alex said.

As he was kissing her mom’s cheek, a door opened, and Caleb and Mr. Mikhailov entered the foyer. Caleb was pale and looked like he might throw up. Irina didn’t look happy as she glared at her dad.

“Come on, you’re next,” Mr. Mikhailov said to Alex.

“Mom,” Natasha pleaded.

“It’s okay, baby. Your dad just wants to have a word with your date. Alex can handle it.”

Alex wasn’t sure he wanted to go, but he allowed Mr. Mikhailov to pull him into the garage, where he found five Russian toughs glaring at him.

“For the past fifteen years, it’s been my job to keep my baby safe. That means I protect her from people like you,” Mr. Mikhailov said.

“What Alexei is trying to say is that if anything happens to his pride and joy, you’ll be taking your meals through a straw come morning,” thug number one said.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa … don’t scare the boy,” thug number two said. “What he meant to say is that he wants to make sure you show Natasha a wonderful time. What do you have planned for tonight?”

“I rented a limo, so you know someone responsible is driving …” Alex began, hoping to sound like he was going to take good care of his date.

“Hold on. Is that so you can drink or get high?” thug three asked.

“No, sir. I’m only fifteen and don’t have a driver’s license yet,” Alex said.

“Did you bring condoms?” thug four asked.

“Uh … uhm … I hadn’t really planned for that. See, Natasha and I are more friends than something like that,” Alex said.

“Is this a pity date? Is my daughter not good enough for you?” Mr. Mikhailov asked.

Alex cocked his head to the side, turned around, and began to walk out.

“Wait! Where are you going?” Mr. Mikhailov asked.

“I’m out,” Alex said as he walked back into the entryway.

He gave Natasha a sad look as he opened the front door and left. Alex sprinted to the limo and jumped in the back before anyone could catch him.

“Drive,” he ordered.


Alex directed the driver to Dawn’s house. He knew she was bailing on prom, but he still wanted to go, and she was a junior.

He went to the front door and rang the doorbell. Mrs. Porter answered the door.

“Hello, Alex, you look nice in your tux. What brings you here?”

“Could you tell Dawn that her prom date is here?”

Her mom got a big smile and went looking for her daughter.

“Oh, Da-awn,” she called out in a sing-song voice.

Dawn came out of the family room, followed by her dad. She was clearly in for the night because her hair was in a ponytail, and she wore sweats and an Oklahoma football jersey.

“What’s this all about?” Dawn asked.

“Let’s just say that Natasha’s dad is way too protective, so I bailed. I thought we could go to prom and have fun.”

“But I don’t have a dress, haven’t gotten my makeup or hair done, I—”

“Give us thirty minutes, and she’ll be ready,” Mrs. Porter said, interrupting her daughter’s verbal diarrhea.

Dawn and her mom went upstairs.

“Can I get you anything?” Mr. Porter asked.

“I could eat. I’d planned to take Natasha to dinner first, but I don’t think we’ll have time.”


Forty minutes later, Dawn and her mom found the guys eating lasagna.

“Killer gravy, Mrs. Porter. You must give me the recipe,” Alex said.

He winked at Dawn to let her know he approved of her dress.

“That’s a family secret. You’ll have to marry Dawn if you even hope to get it,” Mr. Porter said.

Dawn’s parents found themselves amusing.

“I think that’s our cue to go,” Dawn said.

Alex got up and took her hand, which wasn’t lost on the ’rents. She all but dragged him out to the limo. Once inside, he had to tell her what had happened.


The theme for the dance was ‘What Happens in Vegas.’ Kaitlyn had chosen it and shared her plans at lunch. There would be dice and card games and dancers adorned in feathers. Then she announced, ‘What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, baby!’

It took Irina all of five minutes to find them.

“What the hell happened? My sister’s in tears, and my parents are fighting.”

“Ask Caleb what your dad was up to. I like your sister, but not enough to be threatened like that,” Alex explained.

Alex was surprised when Irina scoffed and smiled at him.

“My dad is going to learn a valuable lesson. He and his meathead friends have probably been planning that for weeks.”

“I do feel bad for your sister,” Alex admitted.

Irina looked at Dawn and asked, “If I can get my sister here, would it be okay if she joins you two?”

“As long as she has fun, I’m okay. But tell her to stay home if she wants to be pissy about tonight.”

Alex liked Dawn’s boundaries because he just wanted to dance and have a good time. He was done with drama for the evening.

A half hour later, Alex and Dawn were on the dance floor when Natasha joined them. She had a big smile on her face as she hugged Dawn. He noticed that her dad had stuck his head in the door to make sure his daughter was okay. When he saw her embrace Dawn, Mr. Mikhailov gave Alex a thumbs-up and left.

By the end of the night, Alex had sweat through his shirt because he’d never left the dance floor. Having two dates was exhausting.


Alex dropped Dawn off first. He walked her to the door, and they had a quick kiss to end a nice night. When he got back into the limo, Natasha told the driver to take the scenic route to her house. Alex found himself pinned to the seat as she began to make out with him.

When they finally came up for air, Alex worried, “Your dad’s going to kill me.”

“I wouldn’t worry about that. My mom read him the riot act and explained that he had to let me grow up.”

“Driver, one more time around the subdivision,” Alex called out and kissed Natasha again.

He knew better than to take it too far. But the friends thing with Natasha might not work either.

When he dropped her off, she made it clear she was done just being friends, too.

On the ride home, Alex wasn’t sure his prom could be any better next year.


Chapter 1

FBI agent Grace Carter had opened her own private investigating and security firm, CIS—Carter Investigation and Security—in downtown Conclave. She’d located it in the town square across from the sheriff’s office on the second floor of the Grind Bar.

She was unpacking boxes when her best friend, Janice Conly, arrived. Janice had two coffees from downstairs as a welcoming gift.

“You’d better enjoy this. I just spent what it would cost if I bought a month’s worth of coffee beans at Sprouts Farmers Market and brewed it myself,” Janice grumbled.

“Quit complaining. You just got a promotion and are now swimming in it,” Grace teased.

Janice choked on her coffee at that proclamation, which tickled Grace. District Attorneys made far less and worked much harder than someone in private practice. Grace had encouraged her friend to switch, but Janice believed in her work.

For Grace’s part, she’d quit the FBI and hoped the same held true because it had been an easy decision to go private. The agency’s upper echelon had become a political animal over the past few years. It no longer resembled the organization she’d joined out of college.

For her, everything came to a head during the Moondust takedown of the Russian mob. When the Director of Criminal, Cyber, Response, and Services was made aware, he swooped in and took charge of the operation. From the beginning, he was more interested in how it would make him look than in letting the professionals do their job.

When they raided the Moondust production factory and found it empty, he’d asked for Grace’s resignation before scurrying back to Washington. Thankfully, the local FBI boss, Special Agent in Charge Thomas Wilcox, had allowed her and Special Agent Davidson to continue working on the case.

In the end, the Moondust was either seized or destroyed before it could hit the streets, and a large chunk of the Russian organization found its way behind bars.

Even though the bust was a success, how it was done left a bad taste in her mouth. Alex had provided the FBI with valuable resources and information to stop the distribution of the designer drug. He’d also been kidnapped by the Russians, and they’d physically beaten the young boy in an attempt to lure his father out of hiding.

Instead of bringing in the FBI’s tactical team to rescue Alex, they’d held off so they could arrest more of the mob. In Grace’s eyes, the FBI had traded Alex’s life for more glory. It’d worked because Special Agent in Charge Wilcox had been promoted and now worked in Washington, DC.

To add insult to his injuries, the FBI seized all of Alex’s computer equipment because they wanted the software his father had created. She still smiled when she remembered Alex’s hardware self-destructing before they could breach his security. Then, a few days later, his tracking app, which showed where the Russian phones were, had gone down.

When questioned, Alex just gave the FBI agents blank stares.

The sad part was he’d warned her the FBI would eventually come after him. She’d not believed him because Alex had been the catalyst for the big win.

All that had left her questioning working for them, and ultimately, she’d quit.

At that point, Grace had a decision to make. She ended up moving to Conclave because she felt she owed Alex. She also wanted to ensure he didn’t become jaded and become a criminal mastermind. Grace wanted to steer him toward doing good—or as good as he could be.

“Have you asked Alex to work part-time for you yet?” Janice asked, a flicker of apprehension touching her eyes.

Grace didn’t blame Janice for hesitating to allow Alex to work for her. The last time had gone badly in the end.

“He needs to keep busy, or who knows what his idle mind will come up with,” Grace reminded her.

“I know, it’s just …” Janice trailed off.

“You know what will make him happy? Have him order computers and everything I’ll need for the office.”

Janice brightened.

“You sure? Because I think he overdoes it when he buys stuff like that.”

“Tell him he can only spend this much,” Grace said as she handed Janice a list of stuff she wanted and a budget. “I also want him to come to the office and help me make it secure.”

“This will get him to think about more than his woman problems.”

Grace got a predatory look on her face. She needed some juicy gossip about Alex to keep him in line.

“He went to prom last night and had planned to take Natasha, Alexei Mikhailov’s daughter. From what I heard, Alexei tried the scare-the-boyfriend-to-keep-him-in-line ploy.”

Grace shook her head because she could only imagine how Alex would react.

“Phyllis Porter, Dawn’s mom, called me last night and told me Alex showed up at their house and took Dawn to the prom.”

“He bailed on Natasha?” Grace asked in disbelief.

“Not exactly. Phyllis said that Alexei realized the error of his ways and brought Natasha to the dance. More likely, his wife and two daughters ganged up on him, and he caved rather than face the hell they’d put him through. Anyway, Alex ended up having two dates for prom. I’ve received endless calls from people wanting details. I plan to go home and make him tell me everything when he wakes up,” Janice promised.

For Alex, this was a stark reminder of how life was different in Philly compared to small-town Oklahoma. In Conclave, the whole town knew your business, something his foster mom could appreciate.


Alex and Boomer were staring at Janice, giving her the ‘What are you talking about?’ look.

“I’m sorry, ma’am, but could you repeat that?”

“I got you a summer job,” Janice said.

“That’s what I thought you said. But I’m fifteen. My job is to go to the clubhouse, hang out with my friends, and maybe play some basketball. It’s not to work,” Alex said.

Decker had explained how his dad used child labor to run his farm. Alex had no desire to walk beans or detassel corn … whatever that was.

“You need the job to pay for a car when you turn sixteen,” Janice said.

Boomer could sense the tension between his mom and his sidekick and whined. Alex reached out and rubbed Boomer’s ear to let the pup know it was okay.

He knew his dad had given him money. Quite a bit, actually. His thought was that money was there for stuff like his first car. Alex’s problem was that Janice was the manager of his trust.

Then he had a revelation.

“What is this job?”

“You’re going to be working for Grace.”

Alex sort of thought he would help Grace out but never imagined he’d get paid for doing so. That didn’t mean he would go easily. He huffed and rolled his eyes to show his displeasure. Then he noted a twinkle in Janice’s eye; she thought she’d won.

“Fine,” Alex said to end the discussion … for now.

That resulted in Janice getting a big smile.

“Okay, so we’re going to the flea market. On the way to finding the ‘good stuff,’ you can tell me about your double date.”

‘Shoot me! Shoot me now!’ Alex thought.

Then she added, “My dad and Grace will meet you there to buy stuff for her office.”

Alex dropped his head, and his chin brushed his chest as he shook it.


“Weren’t you scared?” Maddie asked.

Alex had stopped at the Aldrich booths to say ‘hi’ to Decker, but Maddie and Tanya wanted details on how he’d gone to prom with Dawn and Natasha. He’d explained how Mr. Mikhailov had tried the dad intimidation routine.

Alex scoffed.

“I held all the cards; Natasha’s dad just didn’t know it,” Alex said and grinned. “I think Caleb might have peed himself. He looked like death warmed over when he came out from his talk in the garage.”

“What do you mean, you held all the cards?” Maddie pressed.

“How do you think the Mikhailov women reacted when I walked out?” Alex asked.

Maddie chuckled.

“Then why did you agree to let Natasha join you and Dawn?” she asked.

“You saw what Irina did to Ethan. Think what she would do if I broke her sister’s heart.”

Maddie nodded her head.

“Good move. Irina, I would be scared of.”

“Can we come swimming?” Tanya asked. “Mom bought me a two-piece swimsuit.”

Alex bit his bottom lip because Tanya was only ten.

“Did your mom buy your sister one, too?” he asked, taking half a step back in case Maddie slugged him.

Decker walked up and saw the scowl on Maddie’s face.

“Quit perving on my sister and invite us over.”

“Ivy told me I’m to pick her up at three. Why don’t you meet us at the clubhouse?” Alex asked, causing Tanya to squeal and bounce up and down.

“Go unload some kittens, or we won’t be going anywhere,” Decker told his youngest sister. After Tanya scampered off, he added, “We put her in charge of giving them away because no one can say ‘no’ to her.”

Alex completely understood that because she’d claimed he was her boyfriend, and he could never bring himself to say the words that would break her heart.

It looked like everyone was there today because Zac and Ethan found them. Ethan was bouncing around, which meant he was excited.

“There’s my boy. Bags two girls as his prom dates,” Ethan crowed as he gave Alex a high five.

“Don’t tell me this is going to be a thing,” Alex pleaded.

“Everyone wants to know how you’ll top it next year. My money is on you bringing a teacher,” Maddie said to get even with him for asking about her swimwear.

Ethan froze as his eyes bugged out of his head. Alex could see he was running through all the teachers at Conclave High to figure out who Alex’s date would be. He punched Ethan in the chest to distract him.

“What was that for?” Ethan asked as he rubbed his left pectoral muscle.

“I won’t be going to prom next year because I’ll only be a sophomore,” Alex patiently explained to his overeager friend.

No one believed him, so he flipped off his friends and went looking for Grace and Sheriff Conly.


Sheriff Conly was Grace’s first customer. He’d asked her to help him discover who on his force was bent. The former sheriff, Steve Calhoun, had run the county for many years. Sheriff Conly had inherited almost all the staff and officers.

Last fall, it had come to light that former Sheriff Calhoun, Detective Weaver, and his son Deputy Weaver had been working with Peter Donnelly. He owned Agri-Tech Fertilizer, which produced Moondust. Donnelly had hired Calhoun and the Weavers to protect the designer drug production. The Weavers had been caught, but former Sheriff Calhoun had disappeared.

Sheriff Conly had shared with Grace that he had reason to believe the former sheriff was still around and using the sheriff’s department to help with his criminal enterprises. He’d received a grant to allow him to ‘modernize’ his police force, which was the cover for hiring CIS.

Since Grace needed gear for her new office, she’d invited the sheriff to join her shopping. Alex was asked to come with them because Sheriff Conly admitted the boy knew where to get what they needed at a discount.

Alex found them at the caramel corn booth, which no one could resist. Sheriff Conly handed Alex a bag.

“Thanks,” Alex said and turned to Grace. “I understand I have to work for you this summer.”

“And it starts today,” she told him.


“I need to fit out my office with computers, gadgets, and the like. I was told you know where to get stuff on the cheap,” Grace explained.

Alex looked at the sheriff, who shrugged to let the boy know he’d been the one who told her. Alex turned to Grace and gave her a measured look as she handed him the list and his budget.

“Do I get to keep the extra money if I can get all this cheaper?” Alex asked.

Sheriff Conly snorted a laugh because Alex always seemed to figure out an angle to make some extra cash.

“How about I pay you by the hour like a normal employee?”

“How about I work on commission, and you pay me a percentage of the cost savings or the business I bring in?” Alex countered.

“Let’s start as a straight job and negotiate later,” Grace decided.

“Okay, let’s go to Reese Gilliam’s booth and get all your computer equipment first.”


Alex had done his homework on computer gear and all the peripherals. Reese could build a kick-ass system for half the cost of buying retail. The added benefit was that Reese was in town to repair everything if needed.

Once Grace was satisfied on the computer front, Alex took her and the sheriff to the electronics booth. Gina Harris spotted him with Sheriff Conly.

“I see they upgraded your minder. Are you out on probation? Or do you need me to help you with your ankle monitor?” Gina teased.

“Be nice. I’m here to buy the stuff that fell off the back of a truck,” Alex shot back.

“You’re in luck. I found some primo contraband lying about this week.”

Sheriff Conly was improving because he didn’t flinch at their back-and-forth.

Gina pulled a box out from under the counter and let Alex root through it. He pulled out a couple of small cloth bags and handed them to the sheriff and Grace.

“You both need this,” Alex said and went back to rooting around.

“That’s the newest blocker case,” Gina explained. “This case will block any signal coming into—or out of—your phone, and it will prevent anyone from hacking your device.”

They all looked at Alex, who ignored them because he’d found something else.

“Do you have the rest of this?” he asked, holding up a security camera. “It should have seven more cameras and an eight-channel DVR.”

“Good eye. I have one here and can get more if you need them,” Gina said.

“What is that?” Grace asked.

“It’s a security and surveillance system with a night vision option and video and audio capture,” Alex said.

“I’m told it uses the latest technology and that you can zoom in to see a license plate or face and then widen the image to view the entire parking lot,” Gina said. “Its software triggers recording and pushes notifications when the heat from people or cars is detected or when it recognizes sounds like a conversation. That saves you time watching endless hours of nothing. It can also identify voices by age, gender, accent, or language,” she further explained.

Sheriff Conly bought new dashcams for his department’s patrol cars. They had added driver safety features like collision warnings, lane departure, and other alerts to enhance driver awareness.

He also bought GPS trackers for those cars. The trackers would update every two minutes when a vehicle was in motion. It kept information like speed, driving behavior, and routes. They were intended for truck fleets, but Sheriff Conly felt they might give critical information about the location of his officers if they needed backup.

Alex did pick up one item for himself: a pen voice recorder. It had ink, so it could pass for a regular pen, but it would record conversations when you clicked it twice.

Grace’s parting words were for Alex to enjoy his weekend and to report to work Monday morning.


Chapter 2


Boomer was too smart for his own good, Alex decided. He’d learned that if he minded Alex, he got to go with him on his bike rides. But he was bossy enough to let Alex know that there were times when Alex had no say in the matter.

“You seriously don’t want a treat?” Alex asked the stubborn standard poodle.

Boomer sat his butt down, refusing to budge.

“Fine,” Alex huffed. “But don’t start a fuss if they don’t let you into the clubhouse or you get kicked out because you get into the pool.”

Boomer’s tail wagged because he knew Alex had caved.

Alex took the shortcut through the woods to Ivy’s house. They found her out front, waiting. Boomer rushed up to say hi.

“I only have one cookie, so you have to share with Alex,” Ivy explained.

Alex had set the price for a taxi ride at a cookie. People in Conclave didn’t go to the store to buy them; they took the time to make the most delicious cookies in the world. Boomer made a grab for the cookie as Ivy yelped. The stupid pup snatched his half by taking a bite out of the cookie.

“Just give him the rest. I’m not eating that if there’s dog drool on it,” Alex said, shaking his head.

“Sorry. I’m usually quicker than that.”

“Come on. Maddie sent me a message that they’re almost there.”

Alex leaned forward so Ivy could have the seat on his bike. Once she had a firm grip on his hips, he started pedaling. Boomer chased after them. Alex planned to tire the dog out so that he might nap when they went to the pool.

The Aldrich clan was getting out of their pickup truck just as they reached the parking lot.

“Rah! … Arg! … Boomer!” Tanya complained.

Boomer was licking her face as he wiggled like a puppy. For whatever reason, he’d decided that he liked the youngest Aldrich sibling.

“The Mighty Tigger has lost her mojo,” Ivy observed.

“Tiger,” Tanya corrected. “Alex, make him stop.”

“Boomer! Sit!” Alex ordered.

The dog’s butt hit the asphalt, but his tail continued wagging. Alex parked his bike and put Boomer’s leash on him so they could go into the clubhouse. Boomer liked little kids, but being a big dolt, he sometimes knocked them down. Alex had learned to keep him on his leash until they were at the back pool, where it was mainly teens.

“I still can’t believe they let him past the front door,” Decker said.

Alex shrugged. The first time he tried to bring Boomer in, the manager stopped him, but Boomer charmed the lady. They’d had a meeting, and now the clubhouse was pet-friendly. They all walked in, and the girl at the desk came out from behind it.

“Good afternoon, Boomer. I have your lanyard,” she said and put it over his head.

It had Boomer’s doggy clubhouse ID attached with his picture and name. It had Alex’s contact information on the back in case they got separated. Boomer seemed to know that it made him special because he looked forward to them putting it on him each time. It didn’t hurt that it came with a treat.

The guys went to the mens locker room and changed.

When they entered the back pool area, Tanya and Decker joined Zac in the pool. Alex saw that Dawn had invited her cheerleader friends, Sandra and Kaitlyn, and Ivy, Nell, and Maddie joined them. The phone tree was obviously working because Natasha and Irina showed up a few minutes later.

Alex picked a lounge chair away from the girls. That proved a smart move because the girls would all have their heads together, glance over at him, and then all giggle. He put in his earbuds and lay back because he was in serious need of some sun to work on his tan.

He was zoning out when he felt someone touch his elbow. It was Maddie.

“How bad is it over there?” Alex asked.

“Your reputation as the class stud is still intact.”

“I guess that’s good.”

“You could be Decker or Zac,” Maddie pointed out.

His friends dating Ivy and Nell had only lasted about a month after their homecoming dance. They’d all decided it was better to just be friends before they began to hate each other.

“They are pretty clueless.”

“My dad received some good news. Sheriff Conly helped him become a legal marijuana grower. The Oklahoma Medical Marijuana Authority (OMMA) has a seed-to-sale monitoring system that tracks each marijuana plant from the farm to the point of sale. Sheriff Conly had to agree to oversee our operation to certify the OMMA guidelines are being followed,” Maddie said.

“So, no more recreational stuff?” Alex asked.

Maddie shrugged.

“We’ll make a lot more money, and we’re the only farm legally able to sell in this part of the state.”

When they’d been shut down in the fall, Alex knew that Maddie’s family had been worried because of the lost income. He would have to thank Sheriff Conly for finding a way for them to recoup their losses.

“I was worried because your mom hinted that your dowry was going to be a bit light,” Alex teased.

“What about Tanya?”

“Your sister has a sweet personality. Your parents won’t have a problem offloading her when the time comes.”

“Sometimes I wonder why girls think you’re cute,” Maddie grumbled.

“You and me both,” Alex admitted.

In Philly, Alex was liked, but because of his dad’s Mafia ties, none of the girls were allowed to date him. Here, it was completely different. When he was accepted by the Wolf Pack, the three princes of Conclave, he’d been the cool new kid. Now that the pack was defunct, he was the guy the girls flirted with, but he was still not dating anyone.

Dawn had explained it to him. Because he was a freshman, none of the older girls would go out with him. The freshman girls felt he was out of their league because he hung out with people like Dawn and the other cheerleaders. Though the juniors and seniors wouldn’t date him, that didn’t mean they couldn’t torment Alex.

To be honest, both Decker and Zac would have given anything to be in his shoes, so Alex put up with the flirting and teasing.

“What are your plans for the summer?” Alex asked to change the subject.

“We’ll be busy on the farm. Along with the medical marijuana, my mom has expanded our garden with the plan to sell the excess at the Saturday farmer’s market. I haven’t really thought about anything else,” Maddie said. “What about you?”

“Janice told me I’m going to work for Grace at her new company this summer. I have to save up to buy a car this fall.”

“You’ll have to get something with a big backseat,” Maddie said.

Alex’s mind went to the gutter, and Maddie somehow read it.

“Not that, perv. You’ll need the room for when you take Tanya and all her little friends out for ice cream.”

She screamed when Alex jumped off his chair and swept Maddie into his arms.

“Alex! No!” Maddie tried as he jumped into the pool, soaking them both.

Maddie soon had reinforcements as the other girls joined in. Zac and Decker found a reason to get out of the water and the line of fire. Even Boomer abandoned him in the massively one-sided water fight.

He wore an ear-to-ear grin as he was reminded what real friends were.


Night came quickly to Conclave.

The sun hovered over the trees, then slowly dipped below the horizon. Clouds began to roll in, and the receding sun made them look ominous. They reflected a riot of colors—first red, then orange, silver, gray, and finally black.

A single crow flew over the trees and got lost in the background of black clouds. The air was heavy with humidity as rain hung in the air. A storm was brewing.

A tall, thin figure wearing a hood to hide his identity shivered because a single crow meant bad luck. As he slowly walked up the street in the upscale subdivision, he pulled out his phone and confirmed the address for Janice Conly. He stood in the middle of the road, taking everything in.

The man was pleased to see that this one had a credible security system, unlike most of the homes he passed. Sudden nervousness crept into his lizard brain. That was something he’d learned to pay attention to, so he resumed his walk down the street.

Suddenly, the security lights came on, and the largest black poodle he’d ever seen came straight toward him. He might have fled if he hadn’t seen the happy wagging tail.

Then he saw him: his son.

Alex Junior had changed. He’d grown and now wore clothes that fit his new environment. It pleased the man that his son had remembered his lessons to blend in.

“Boomer! Where did you get off to?” Alex called out.

The poodle turned around and raced back to Alex. The smile on his son’s face told the story. He was happy and safe. With that knowledge, the man got into his car and drove off as the rain began to fall.


Alex Wagner Sr., better known by his street name, Stretch, parked down the street. He cut through the side yard of a couple of houses until he found himself in the alley behind the A Salt and Battery. The restaurant was closed, but there was a light on in the back.

Stretch gave two quick knocks and then another after a pause. The door swung open, and he faced Steve Calhoun, the county’s former sheriff.

“Are you alone?”

Steve pushed the door wide so Stretch could enter.

“As promised.”

The former sheriff was a fit man of average height, pushing sixty. He could pass for younger if it weren’t for the gray hair that had started to come in and the wrinkles around his eyes. His steel-blue eyes showed a cunning that put Stretch’s teeth on edge. This was a dangerous man.

“Come into my office and have a seat,” Steve said.

Stretch followed him and did a quick visual to plan escape routes. He spotted a new router that looked out of place and suppressed a smile. It looked like his son had figured out that Steve was a person who should be monitored. Then his stomach twisted because he’d checked, and Alex wasn’t running the software since the FBI had seized his equipment. He hoped that meant Alex was lying low, but Stretch worried the FBI might have also gotten the drives with the software’s source code.

He was brought back from his thoughts when Steve sat down.

“You’re a hard man to track down,” Steve said.

“I still have a bounty on my head, so why take unnecessary chances?”

“I have my own problems,” Steve admitted. “That’s why I thought we could help each other out.”

“How’s that?”

“You’re a planner without a crew. My previous endeavors have dried up, and I have a crew that’s in need of a serious cash influx.”

Stretch leaned back into his chair and quickly weighed his options. He didn’t like working with people he didn’t know, especially crooked cops. They somehow felt they had the best of both worlds and would turn on you if they thought it would benefit them.

“I’ll pass,” Stretch said and started to get up.

“What about your son?”

Stretch began to reach for the gun in the small of his back, but Steve held up his hands.

“That wasn’t a threat. If you knew me better, you would know the one thing I don’t tolerate is going after family, women, and especially kids.”

“What exactly are you saying?”

“That if you’re working nearby, it’ll give you a chance to keep tabs on him. From what I’ve observed, he’s adjusted well and made some friends. Did you know he took two girls to prom?” Steve asked.

Stretch shook his head. Alex had changed … for the better.

“Okay. I’ll listen to what you’re offering.”

Steve got a satisfied look on his face. Stretch would have to remember that the former sheriff was used to getting his way.

“I’ve got a couple of jobs I want you to plan. After all these years, I know this county and where all the money’s hidden,” Steve bragged.


“What do you mean, ‘no’?”

“I won’t plan any jobs near where my son lives. I assume key people know who he is and what he’s capable of, and I don’t want to get him embroiled in any of this,” Stretch said.

“But there’s a new grow farm going in just outside of town, and know another farmer who has at least fifty grand in a safe that’s easy pickings,” Steve tried.

“I said ‘no.’”

“Then what do you suggest?”

Stretch considered how to explain it to Steve. Basically, he wanted to find out whether he could trust the former sheriff.

“Let’s start with something that’s low risk and see how your crew works. I’ll scout out a few jobs, and we can pick one as a trial run.”

“What’s this going to cost me?” Steve asked.

“I’ll guarantee that you make at least ten grand. I get the next ten, and we split the balance. That way, you can pay your guys off, and if it’s under twenty, I eat it.”

“I’m not doing a fifty-fifty split. My guys and I are taking all the risk,” Steve pushed back.

“We can discuss splits on future jobs based on how well you perform,” Stretch compromised.

“Like, what are we talking?” Steve persisted.

“Say I find you a way to make money on an ongoing basis. In that case, I would want a large upfront payment, and you keep the cash flow. Or if it’s a huge score with a lot of risks, then you just pay me for the plan, and I walk away.

“On the other hand, if your guys are the Keystone Cops, I get a bigger cut,” Stretch said.

“We’ll talk about it,” Steve agreed.

“One other condition. I only deal with you face-to-face, and none of your crew can know who I am. I’ll do it remotely if they need to be handheld and walked through a job.”

“Fair enough.”

Stretch got up.

“I’ll be in touch.”

He walked out and took a different path back to his car. When he didn’t see anyone following him or staking out his car, he got in and drove down the street before pulling over. Stretch got out and opened the trunk, where he kept his gear. He pulled out a signal detector and found a tracker in the right rear wheel well.

He drove to a gas station to fill up. While there, he surreptitiously attached the tracker to another car.

Former Sheriff Calhoun would need to be watched. But Stretch gave the man credit for being careful because it meant he wasn’t dealing with a complete idiot.

He was also right. This would give Stretch a chance to check in on Alex. Stretch would just have to be careful, or his son would discover him. He wasn’t ready to risk Alex’s well-being just yet.


Chapter 3

Hot white chocolate with a shot of raspberry syrup called Alex’s name. Having the coffee shop downstairs from the CIS office was a mistake because he would end up spending all his money there and be car-less when he turned sixteen.

He promised himself this would be the last one when he ordered it, but he knew better. One taste, and he made happy humming sounds as the warm, yummy goodness woke his tongue up. It put him in a good mood as he entered the upstairs office.

“Morning, Alex. You ready to get to work?” Grace asked.

He didn’t want to seem too eager, so he shrugged.

“Let’s go to the conference room and talk,” she said.

Alex followed her into a small room with a small round table, four chairs, and a whiteboard on the wall.

As soon as he was seated, Grace opened one of the folders in front of her.

“We have two new clients. The first is the Aldrich farm. They’ve been given a cultivation license to grow medical marijuana. To start, they’ve converted one of their soybean fields into growing cannabis. The state requires that they tag each plant for tracking purposes and that the field is secure.”

“Do they have a plan, or do we need to create one?” Alex asked.

“Sheriff Conly helped them get the basics but asked us to plug any holes we see. We’ll drive out after our meeting and walk the property,” Grace said.

Alex nodded his agreement, so Grace pulled out her second folder.

“Sheriff Conly has asked me to help him figure out who he can trust in his department now that his predecessor has been shown to be corrupt.”

“Does he have any idea where Sheriff Calhoun is?”

“None,” Grace admitted.

“Do we have to follow a bunch of rules, or can we just do our job?” Alex asked.

“We haven’t been asked to build a case against anyone. We’re supposed to identify potential problems and then let Sheriff Conly figure it out.”

Alex pursed his lips because she hadn’t directly answered his question. Grace waited for a beat before she continued.

“I would rather we didn’t do anything illegal.”

“Meaning?” Alex asked.

“I don’t want you to use your software to help us get the information we need.”

Alex shrugged again.

“The FBI seized my equipment and managed to destroy everything,” Alex lied.

He could see that Grace didn’t believe him, but she let it slide.

“But I might have an idea or two,” Alex added.

“We’re meeting Sheriff Conly after lunch. You might as well tell us both then because he has to approve it.”


Before they left for the Aldrich farm, Grace had Alex set up the office computers. Reese had put a rush on Grace’s order, built the machines on Sunday, and delivered them as soon as the office opened that morning.

Grace found him using zip ties to organize the multitude of wires on the last PC.

“Ready?” she asked.

“I just have to plug in the router, and you’ll have Internet.”

She waited until he switched it on. Alex checked his phone and showed her that they now had Wi-Fi.

“I’ll install the security system for the office this afternoon,” Alex said.

She doubted they needed one but knew it would drive him crazy if she didn’t let him install it. But then again, if she was going to be in the security business, it would be foolish if she didn’t have any for her own office.


Alex noted that Grace had a new black Camaro. It suited her better than the Fed cars he was used to seeing her in. He also gave her props for not painting it a girly color like Janice had done to her Corvette. No car should be pink.

On the way to the Aldrich farm, Grace gave Alex background info on the commercial marijuana business.

“Sheriff Conly helped them secure a cultivation license to eventually use 40 acres. They plan to start with a five-acre plot to figure everything out and expand from there.

“The sheriff didn’t do this to just be a nice guy. The county will tax the earnings at 4% of their gross receipts. A county consultant estimated they would collect between $3.2 million and $4 million in taxes annually from the 40 acres. The cannabis tax will be given to the sheriff’s department for an enforcement team tasked with eradicating illegal grows across the six neighboring counties,” Grace said.

“That’s smart. It’ll force users to get their weed through legal means; that way, the income will be taxed and safer.”

“That’s the plan,” Grace agreed and then continued. “Once fully up and running, it’s estimated that the 40 acres will gross over $80 million. That’s based on 800,000 plants producing almost a pound of product each.”

That got Alex’s full attention. He now knew why they would need security beyond what an ordinary farm would require.

“What do we need to secure?” Alex asked.

“There are two main areas. Of course, that includes the fields themselves, and then there’s the drying barn,” Grace said.

“Drying barn?”

“They dry the weed slowly for ten to fourteen days in a climate-controlled dark and dry place with a temperature of around sixty-four degrees. I guess this process reduces shrinkage and produces more weed weight. The Aldriches are converting one of their barns for this purpose.”

“With that kind of money at stake, I want to add security for the whole farm, including the house,” Alex said. “I know some criminals aren’t beyond using the family as leverage. We also should look into how they plan to ship the product. Having it all neatly packed into a truck would be the easiest way to steal it,” he continued, thinking through various ways someone might plan to rob them.

“Today, we’ll walk the farm, and then we’ll come back and create a security plan. From there, I want you to punch holes in it. Show me how you would rob them,” Grace said.

“I’m not doing this for minimum wage,” Alex said. “I’m not sure you can afford me.”

He figured Janice must have warned her because Grace didn’t react.

“When my dad would prepare a plan for a job, we got paid based on the potential score. We charged a hundred grand for something in the million-dollar range,” Alex added. “And this is 40 times that.”

“That seems fair.”

Alex blinked because he hadn’t expected her to agree. Then his brows furrowed because there had to be a catch. Finally, he couldn’t take the silence.

“What do you mean?”

“I think I may be charging too little.”

“Hang on, how come you get the money?” Alex asked.

“Did they pay you for the heist plans?” Grace asked, sounding way too reasonable in his estimation.

“Well, no. Sonny would receive the payment.”

Salvatore ‘Sonny’ Grande had been his dad’s boss.

“Would Sonny then hand you a hundred grand?” Grace asked.

Alex didn’t like where this was going.

“No. He had to kick some up to Mikey, and then he paid the rest of the crew, so my dad only got a piece of it.”

Michael ‘Mikey’ Mazzini was the South Philly capo.

“So your dad gave you the money left over,” Grace said. “That wasn’t anywhere near a hundred grand.”

Alex looked out the side window, not wanting to face Grace because she was right.

“I bet your dad didn’t pay you anything,” Grace added. “In my book, minimum wage would be a raise.”

When he turned back, he saw Grace holding back her laughter. She had him, and she knew it. Then she let him off the hook.

IF. And I mean if you do a good job, I promise to pay you a bonus. I value you more than just a minimum-wage employee, but I’m not making any money right now.”

“Then don’t pay me until we earn it,” Alex offered.

This caught Grace entirely off guard. Then she remembered that his dad didn’t earn unless he produced. The mafia didn’t have guaranteed salaries, 401(k)s, or health insurance, and Alex wasn’t used to a ‘regular’ job.

“What about pocket money?” Grace asked.

“I get an allowance.”

“Maybe Janice can be my foster mom, too.”

“I think she takes the money out of my trust,” Alex said, throwing water on her ‘allowance’ idea. “Plus, it comes with strings attached, like you’d have a curfew, and you have to entertain Boomer.”

“You’re right; I’ll pass,” Grace said.


When they got to the farm, Alex shooed off the farm dogs and took Grace to the house. He showed her where the cookie jar was, and she had to agree they were the best she might have ever had.

Mr. Aldrich and Maddie came in so everyone could discuss their wants.

The first stop was the five acres that had been converted into grow fields; they weren’t using the meadow where they’d had their illicit grow. It wasn’t what Alex had expected. He assumed they would plant cannabis like they would corn or soybeans. Instead, there were rows of hoop greenhouses.

While Mr. Aldrich talked to Grace, Maddie showed Alex inside the first greenhouse.

“I was told this design dates back to the 18th century when they were made of wood and glass. This version is framed with galvanized steel and covered in a greenhouse-grade plastic.”

He discovered that each one was seventeen feet wide by one hundred feet long. It had water and electricity for irrigation, temperature control, and grow lights for when it got dark.

“Do you leave the lights on 24/7?” Alex asked.

“No. If you leave the light on that long, the plants will be in a constant state of photosynthesis. They need time to rest. The lights are on sensors, so if it clouds over or gets dark, they come on. Timers are set so the lights only work sixteen hours each day. Some growers recommend twelve, but these are seedlings, and we want them to grow as fast as possible,” Maddie shared.

They controlled the temperature with fans and by raising or lowering the plastic on the sides.

“When we expand, Dad’s going to buy completely automated greenhouses that keep the temperature in the desired range and water when needed,” Maddie said.

Alex noted that the plants had a skunky odor and made his eyes itch and his chest tighten.

“I don’t know if I could handle that odor for long,” Alex said.

“It smells better than the Taylors’ pig farm.”

Alex didn’t know how to respond to that. To him, farms had too many mysterious smells for his liking. Kevin Taylor always defended his farm by saying it smelled like money to him. Alex was sure money didn’t smell like pig shit.

“Why not just grow the plants outside like you did in the woods?” Alex asked.

“By law, marijuana must be destroyed if it tests positive for pesticide. If any of our neighbors are spraying, they have to do it when there’s little or no wind, and they notify us so we can seal the greenhouses.”

Alex could understand that. No one wanted to smoke pesticides.

Their next stop was the drying barn. They’d converted one of their metal barns by sealing it up and spraying the walls and ceilings with foam insulation. From the ceiling hung nets with clips so the plants could hang.

Maddie told Alex that using this system had a lot of benefits over floor racks. With the plants overhead, they could move around in the building more easily. There was now enough space to ensure fewer problems, such as mildew and loss of terpenes and/or potency in drying. The most significant benefit was that it tripled the drying barn’s capacity.

After receiving the whole tour, Grace and Alex walked the farm and talked.

They learned one fun fact. When the Aldrich farm was up and running, their 40 acres would grow enough medical marijuana to supply the whole state.

“I think we recommend the obvious: fences, alarms, and cameras with a monitoring service,” Grace said.

“Agreed. I tried to move one of those fifteen-gallon pots, and you couldn’t steal many of them in a hurry. My guess is the fields will need just enough security to scare off the usual idiots. Probably kids wanting to score.”

“What about the drying barn?”

“Again, nuisance deterrence. It would take too long to gather all the pot and haul it out. Plus, the dogs would announce any intruders,” Alex said.

“That’s what I thought. I would probably also encourage the locals to randomly drive by. I might even start with armed security to periodically show up and walk the perimeter. That will discourage what you called the ‘usual idiots,’” Grace said.

“Is it worth stealing?” she asked.

“Hell, yes. I’ll write up how I would take it, and then we can talk about how to prevent that from happening,” Alex suggested.


Their next stop was Sheriff Conly’s house because he didn’t want to talk about his internal concerns at the station.

Alex ran across the street and let Boomer out. When the dog refused to return to his crate, Alex brought him across the street. They found Grace and the sheriff drinking coffee at the kitchen table. Alex went to the fridge and grabbed a Coors Light.

“Young man,” Grace said.

Alex looked over his shoulder and winked at his boss before grabbing a Coke.

“Grace tells me you’re finally ready to listen to me and take my list of bent cops,” Alex said.

“Remember us talking about having to follow the rules?” Grace asked.

“I have to gather the evidence myself. That is, unless you’re willing to testify at trial,” Sheriff Conly said, twisting the knife in Alex’s gut.

“I’m out.”

The adults both chuckled.

Alex glared at them both for a beat before holding up a finger to slow them down.

“Do you have any idea where Sheriff Calhoun is and what he’s up to?” Alex asked.

That removed their smirks, and everyone became serious.

“We’d heard that he was holed up in Chester, but we can’t be sure,” Sheriff Conly said.

“If you can’t have me using my software to find him, can you use it if CIS sells you a copy?” Alex asked.

Grace’s head snapped around and gave him a confused look.

“Are you sure?

“I trust Sheriff Conly not to give the software to anyone else. If he does, I’ll just use my kill switch to disable it,” Alex said.

“I can’t have it infecting non-police devices. There are laws that prevent us from monitoring Joe Public without a warrant,” Sheriff Conly explained.

“But you can monitor devices owned by your department?” Alex asked.

“That is completely legal. When I was at the FBI, they had a cyber team that audited stuff like our messages and emails,” Grace said.

“Do you provide them with cell phones, or do they use their own?” Alex asked.

Sheriff Conly got thoughtful as he puzzled out the implications of what Alex was suggesting.

“I need to find out about the cell phones. I also want to talk offline with our legal counsel before we do anything.”

Alex’s gut told him the former sheriff was still in the area, and people in the sheriff’s department knew where he was. That thought made Alex feel something he hadn’t in the last few months: he felt unsafe. Maybe it was time he loaded his software and did his own search.


Chapter 4

Alex had spent the rest of the previous day creating his plan to steal the Aldriches’ marijuana. He used the template he’d found when he stole the files from Agri-Tech Fertilizer the previous fall. Alex liked it because it filled in some of the gaps he felt his old planning system suffered.

He outlined the production process of the weed from seedling to drying and packaging to the state certification. He concluded that until it was packaged, it wasn’t worth the effort to steal it because it would be too hard to gather enough to be worthwhile.

So, he eliminated doing a heist at the farm.

He had another motivation for not wanting to do the heist there: the Aldrich family. He would never want to put them in danger.

That left the logistics of delivering the pot to the medical companies that would convert it into other products like oils or package it for sale to designated stores.

He did some research and found that a semi could haul about 9,000 pounds—the load limited by volume rather than weight. They projected a whole crop of about 800,000 pounds would take 89 truckloads, and each truck would be valued at $1 million.

On a side note, he found an amusing coincidence. Climate-controlled trailers were called reefers, an old slang term for a marijuana cigarette or joint.

Stealing a semi-trailer would be a piece of cake. Alex quickly listed a dozen plans, from compromising a driver to forcing the truck off the road. He created plans for each possibility that reduced risk and maximized the chances for success.

He then gave suggestions on how to prevent theft in each case.

Grace was reading his plans as she drank an overpriced coffee from downstairs. Alex mentally put a coffeemaker, microwave, and a small refrigerator on the list for office supplies. He calculated that it wouldn’t take long for those appliances to pay for themselves if she cut out her trips downstairs.

“I see now why we never caught the South Philly crew. This makes committing a robbery dead simple,” Grace said. “I would have never thought of your last suggestion. It eliminates all the risk for the Aldriches.”

The previous night, Alex had had a random thought before going to bed. What if the product was considered ‘delivered’ when it was loaded on the truck instead of at the destination warehouse? Let the big corporate giant, who would make the bulk of the money, take ownership and, with that, the risk. It would be as simple as defining the handoff in the contract terms. That was his ‘last suggestion’ that Grace found intriguing.

“Let me digest this. Why don’t you finish with the security for the office, and then, if Sheriff Conly hasn’t gotten back with us, take the day off?” Grace suggested.


It was a warm, bright afternoon in May, with the weather caught between late spring and early summer. Alex lay on his back, drying out in the sun. He could feel the water from his swim trickling through his hair, and his skin felt fantastic from the evaporation. His swimsuit clung to his hips.

“What are you smiling for?” Dawn asked in the chair next to him.

“It’s summer; I just went for a swim; and now I’m sitting next to the most beautiful girl in Conclave.”

“Oh, thanks, Alex,” Ivy said, sitting on his other side.

Dawn raised an eyebrow to indicate he was better off agreeing with Ivy.

The rest of the gang had other stuff to do, so it was just the three of them. Alex looked toward the clubhouse and saw a face he recognized instantly: Alexei Mikhailov.

Alex sat perfectly still, praying the man didn’t see him because he didn’t look happy. A young man appeared at Alexei’s side. He was stocky, with tattoos covering his neck and exposed arms. Muscle? Or worse, Russian Mafia?

Alexei spotted Alex and made eye contact. He crooked his finger to tell Alex to come to him.

“I think Natasha’s dad wants you,” Dawn said.

“If I disappear, tell Janice,” Alex said as he grabbed his t-shirt and pulled it over his head before getting up.

Alex followed Alexei into the clubhouse’s dining room. The hostess glanced down at Alex’s wet swimsuit and no shoes, but one look from Alexei caused her to quickly seat the three of them.

Alexei’s phone rang. He glanced at it and stood back up.

“Order what you want,” he said as he took the call and walked away.


“Dima,” the young man said in a heavy accent.

“The Reuben, burger, and fish and chips are all good,” Alex suggested as he looked at the menu.

Dima grunted, so Alex didn’t say anything else.


They were halfway done eating when Alexei returned. He looked even more upset, if that were possible.

“A DDoS attack just took down the company server. We currently can’t track or take new orders.”

Dima said a word in Russian that Alex took as a swear word.

“I should go fix that.”

As Dima left, Alexei sat down.

“I have two questions for you.”

Alex nodded to let Alexei know to ask away.

“Are you behind the hacking of our systems?”

“No, sir.”

Alexei took a beat to decide if he believed Alex or not.

“Can you help us figure out who is doing it?”

“Is it just a DDoS attack?” Alex asked.

He knew that Distributed Denial-of-Service was a hacking technique. It was where they would flood a server with fake requests to overwhelm it, crash it, and make it unavailable to other users.

“Dima found an SQL Injection attack had occurred earlier, and they gained access to our records. We found out when some of our more sensitive stuff was leaked to the press, and we were called for comment,” Alexei said.

“Why would they target you?”

“They fancy themselves eco-warriors and are convinced fertilizers are destroying the earth.”

Alex pursed his lips. He thought they might have a point, but if Agri-Tech Fertilizer were to go under, a large portion of the county would be out of work.

“What’s Dima doing?” Alex asked.

“He’s a Ukrainian hacker who came recommended. Right now, he’s fending off the attacks, but it’s taking up all his time, and we’re still down. I need this to stop, and I understand you might be of help.”

“You would need to hire CIS since I work for them.”

“No cops,” Alexei said firmly.

“Grace Carter is no longer with the FBI.”

Alexei gave Alex a stern look, but Alex just stared back at him passively. When Alexei saw he couldn’t bully Alex, he sighed.

“You give me your word she won’t be a problem?”

Alex got an amused look because he was never sure what Grace would do.

“She’s a woman,” Alex finally said.

“Well … uh … yeah, I see your point.”

Alex wanted to chuckle because the man sitting across from him had a houseful of women at home.

“She won’t rat you out.”

“If I weren’t desperate …”

“Well, that little admission means this will be pricey,” Alex warned.

The scowl that had been on Alexei’s face changed to a look of amusement.

“Are you sure you’re not Russian?”


When Alex walked in with former Russian Mafia crime boss Alexei Mikhailov, Grace’s eyes got big. It had been her job to try to put him behind bars for several years. Rumor had it he’d ‘retired.’ The Russians were owed money, so they took the Agri-Tech business from its former owner and gifted it to Alexei as his golden parachute.

She invited him and Alex into the conference room. She noted that Alex simply sat quietly as Alexei explained his problem.

When he finished, Grace said she had to talk to Alex for a minute, so they went into her office.

“He must be desperate to have come to me,” she said first and then had another thought. “Can you help him? Because I wouldn’t even know where to start.”

“I have something that’ll track the hacker.”

“Is this anything I need to worry about?” Grace asked.

“I’m not a cop. How would I know?”

She looked like she could use one of those hot chocolate drinks he liked so much—maybe with some liquor in it.

“This is easy money because Alexei is desperate. He told me they’re essentially out of business because their server is down. Alexei will pay almost anything to make it stop. He has some Ukrainian hacker trying to stop it, but I think he’s useless,” Alex shared.

“How long do you think it will take to track them down?”

“Maybe a day. If it’s going to be longer than that, then I probably can’t help, but I know someone who can.”

“So we charge Agri-Tech a premium. I’ll tell Alexei it’ll be $1,000,” Grace said.

Alex about fell out of his seat.

“That’s way too low. First of all, I prepped him, telling him this would be expensive. Think of the biggest number you can imagine, double it, and tell him that,” Alex said.

“But you just said it would only take you a day,” Grace pushed back.

“And you told me earlier you weren’t making any money. If you keep thinking in those terms, we’ll have to do a lot of work to even put a dent in your monthly nut.”

Alex could see he was about to lose her, so he pressed forward.

“You no longer work for the FBI. Honestly, they were probably underpaying you, maybe a tenth of what you’re worth. Now you own CIS, and with that comes all the overhead plus an employee you have to pay. Can you honestly say that if you only charge him $1,000, you’ll be in business very long?”

He could see that Grace hadn’t thought it through because he bet that amount would scarcely keep the lights on this month, let alone pay Alex and her.

“What do you think I should ask for, then?”

“How about a hundred K?”


“You’re right. Make it a quarter million.”

Before Grace choked, he held up a finger.

“If you don’t ask for something outrageous, Alexei won’t take you seriously. And keep in mind that he’s Russian and will want to negotiate. If you don’t start out high, you’ll be working for him for free. If he can get a discount, he’ll be happy.”

He let her absorb that, and then Alex had another thought.

“You also can’t tell him where the hacker is. His instinct will be to handle the problem himself. You saw what Sergei did to me, and we both know I got off easy. I can only imagine what he’d do to someone who attacks his business and costs him money.”

He knew Grace was well aware of how violent the Russians could be, and telling him would be a death sentence for the hacker.

Grace closed her eyes and took a few deep breaths before asking, “Do you want to be involved in this?”

“Hell, yes. It’s easy money, plus we prevent mayhem when Alexei sends his muscle to stop the attacks.”

“Okay. Let’s tell him,” Grace said.

They walked in, and Grace told him how much. He was about to explode, so Alex said, “Take the deal, and don’t insult me by negotiating. We’re not the ones who are out of business right now.”

The room was dead silent except for Alexei’s heavy breathing. He knew Alex had him over a barrel. If Alexei had time, he would have walked out.

“If you fuck me …” Alexei finally said.

“Pay the lady a ten percent retainer, and I’ll be on site in an hour,” Alex said.

“You’re charging way too much,” Alexei said as he calmed down.

“I told you it would be pricey.”

“You should come work for me. You shook me down and didn’t even have to pull a gun. I could use someone like that,” Alexei said.

“You’d have to put up with him on a daily basis,” Grace said.

“Good point.”

Alexei couldn’t help himself and beat Grace down on her price, but Alex was proud of her for fighting back. Alexei also wanted to get his hands on the hacker but finally relented. They came to an understanding that was still much more money than Grace had told Alex she was willing to take. He hoped his reality check helped her with her business.

Alex also felt more secure about their financial situation. He’d just made CIS more than Grace had earned in her last year as an FBI agent.

“Let me make a call and have the funds wired into your account,” Alexei said, getting up and leaving.

Grace looked pale, undoubtedly because she’d just faced off with a former crime boss and had won.

“I need a ride home and then to the plant,” Alex said to get her moving.


His flash memory with his dad’s software was plugged into his phone so he could upload it. When the programmer from EvilEmpire Software updated all the apps, he added this one. The guy had written it when, funnily enough, Ukrainian hackers had breached their servers and held them for ransom.

Alex’s dad had told him that the company had kept it all hush-hush because they didn’t want anyone to know what had happened. One of the pieces of software they sold was for device security, and it wouldn’t look good if word got out that they couldn’t even protect themselves.

His dad’s guy had used this app to track the Ukrainian, who was at the top of his game. Alex was sure that some eco-terrorist would be much easier to find.

When they arrived at Agri-Tech Fertilizer, Alex led Grace to the basement, where the servers were. Dima looked frustrated.

“Each time I think I’ve blocked them, they find another way in.”

“Take a breath. What’s your first priority?” Alex asked.

“To secure all the data.”

“Then isolate the servers from the network and make a backup.”

“I’m not usually in charge, but I think that makes sense,” Dima said.

While Dima got to work, Grace pulled Alex aside.

“I wanted to apologize for earlier. When I saw you walk in with Alexei …”

“That’s on me; I should have warned you. If I’d let him walk in on my dad’s crew like that, they would have had my head. I saw he was desperate and figured we could take advantage of that.”

Grace shook her head.

“You have to stop thinking that way. We’re in business to help people, not ‘take advantage’ of them.”

Alex was confused by her response.

“Isn’t that what business is all about? Finding a weakness and then exploiting it for profit?”

Grace thought about that. Before she could respond, Dima was back.

“What next?” he asked.

Alex had thought Agri-Tech’s systems team was suspect when they left the admin password on a sticky note next to the keyboard. He was shocked that a grown man and purported hacker would ask a fifteen-year-old how to fix their server. He’d heard stories of old people needing someone his age to show them how to log on and the like, but this boggled his mind.

“I need to connect to the server so my tracking app can work. Then I’ll need you to re-establish the network connection,” Alex explained, and then he had a thought. “Don’t forget to disconnect any links to the backups.”

“I knew that. Let me do that first,” Dima said as he scurried off.

“I should have charged the full amount,” Grace said when she saw Dima’s incompetence.

Alex wasn’t one to say ‘I told you so’ unless it was to bust his friends’ chops, so he let it go.

Twenty minutes later, Dima was ready. Alex nodded, and he re-established the network connection. The DDoS attack resumed. His app took about an hour to find the source of the attack. Once he had the location, he told Dima to shut down the network access.

As he’d hoped, the hacker wasn’t the smartest. Rather than using encrypted peer-to-peer communications to command the attacking botnet, they’d used a hierarchy of proxies controlled from their own computer. Alex’s software was able to trace that back to their IP address. It indicated they were just a few miles away in Chester. When he showed Grace, the FBI agent in her was back, and she was in charge.

“We’ll call you when it’s safe to go back online.”

She led Alex back to the car.


Chapter 5

Doing things ‘by the book’ sucked. It was like starting a bobsled run—hard to stop halfway down the hill.

Alex and Grace were in Sheriff Conly’s office, and the sheriff had invited Deputy Mandy Grayson to join them. She and Alex had become friends when she spied on him at the flea market during the fall.

Alex always marveled at the sheriff’s taste in office furniture. His glass-and-chrome desk was neatly organized, with most of the surface visible. It didn’t fit the persona of the rough-and-tumble professional he portrayed in public.

“What brings you two here today?” Sheriff Conly asked.

Grace shared the tale of the ongoing DDoS attack on the Agri-Tech Fertilizer server. He called it a cybercrime and was willing to ‘arrest’ the hacker. Yay, team!

“Since Chester’s across the county line, I’ll need to coordinate with Sheriff Townsend.”

“Why?” Alex asked.

“Because he’ll have to talk to their judge to get a warrant to search the house.”

Alex still looked confused.

“Remember that pesky thing I keep bringing up? We have to do this legally,” Grace said.

“That means gathering evidence that they committed the crime,” Sheriff Conly added.

“Alexei Mikhailov is not a patient man and one who’s losing money right now,” Alex reminded them.

“Then let me make some calls,” Sheriff Conly said.


Twenty minutes later, Sheriff Conly looked frustrated.

“Sheriff Townsend knows the address we’re getting the search warrant for. It’s a foster care home for troubled kids who can’t be placed. That means we’re probably dealing with a minor. The judge insists that we bring in Child Services to protect the children. Getting them there will take some time.

“The next wrinkle is that one of his detectives threw a monkey wrench into everything. He revealed that one of the kids is a confidential informant working on a narcotics case. It’s been made clear that if the hacker’s the informant, they won’t be charging him,” Sheriff Conly said.

Alex looked at Grace and saw her displeasure. He assumed it was because the boy was a rat, but then again, it could be because they would let the kid skate. The two of them had promised a Russian ex-mobster that they would handle this. Alexei might take exception to having paid them and still having the problem.

“This is why I don’t work with the police,” Alex pointed out.

It didn’t help his mood that both Grace and the sheriff found that statement amusing.


After what seemed like forever and a few messages from Alexei—which got progressively more hostile—Sheriff Conly gave the word that the raid was a go.

They’d taken two vehicles. Alex had volunteered to ride in Mandy’s cruiser; she pulled over at a park a block away from the house, next to the sheriff’s truck.

The sound of screeching tires echoed through the stillness. A black car appeared over the rise and sped up the street. It pulled into the park and came to an abrupt stop. Alex saw a balding man inside, wearing a suit and tie. The man flung open the door and wrestled with the seatbelt; once he’d unclipped it, he all but fell out of the driver’s seat onto the asphalt.

Sheriff Conly got out and met Detective LaRay.

A minute behind him was Ms. Crenshaw of Child Services.

Once everyone was there, Sheriff Conly gathered them around to go over the plan. Mandy and Alex would drive around the back to ensure no one slipped out. Alex was told he was to stay in the car until it was deemed to be safe. He would then enter and verify this was where the DDoS attack was coming from.

Alex did as he was told, staying in the car while Mandy went up the side yard and stationed herself in the back. Alex could hear Sheriff Conly pound on the front door, “Open up, police!”

A moment later, Mandy called out, “We have a runner!”

Alex spotted a tall, gangly boy running between the houses, with Mandy slowly losing ground. The kid was fast. When he got out from between the houses, the boy veered toward the police car to run up the street and make good his escape. He looked back and flipped off Mandy just as karma bit him in the butt. Alex flung the door open, and the kid plowed into it, knocking him on his ass.

Mandy pounced on the perp—Alex had heard that term on a detective show—and soon had him in cuffs.

Alex noted that the boy had clipped the doorframe with his forehead and was bleeding profusely.

Grace appeared and took in what’d happened.

“I stayed in the car,” Alex said to defend himself.

She looked at Mandy, who just shrugged as she deposited the bleeding boy in the back seat. While Mandy found the first-aid kit, Grace shared what was happening.

“No one’s answering, and the Child Services lady won’t allow them to force the front door.”

“Would it be okay if I helped?” Alex asked.

Grace once again looked at Mandy, who just shrugged again. They both knew if they went back out front, Sheriff Conly would frown upon Alex breaking in.

“Let’s check things out,” Grace decided.

Once they were at the back of the house, Grace nodded in the direction of an upstairs window.

“Maybe you could just climb the drainpipe and go through the open window up there.”

It looked like the downspout was ready to fall apart, and there was no way it would support his weight.

“Why don’t I go in through the basement window the rat scurried out of?” Alex asked.

“You can fit?”

Alex crawled through and sighed. Sitting out on the boy’s desk was a gallon-sized baggie full of multi-colored pills that Alex guessed were fentanyl. He pulled his phone out and took a photo. He then posted a message on social media using one of his fake accounts, congratulating Detective LaRay for making a massive drug bust.

Informant or not, the rat was going down.

As Alex pushed the door open to leave the room, it let out a loud, steady creak that reminded him of something he would hear in a horror movie.

In the hall, he found two younger children, probably eight or nine years old.

“The police are here,” the little boy said.

He deduced that they’d been told to never open the door for cops. He approved.

“It’s okay. Let me deal with them,” Alex said. “Is there anyone else in the house?”

“Lyric is upstairs in her room. She told everyone she wants to be left alone.”

“What about the people who run the home?”

“Miss Shelby went to the store.”

“Who was watching you?” Alex asked.

“Jamie. But when the cops came, he left us here,” the little girl said and began to cry.

He took their hands and led them to the front door. When he opened it, he held out his hands to the social worker to deal with the two now-crying kids.

“Mandy has your rat in custody. I’m assuming the hacker’s on the second floor, and her name is Lyric,” Alex said.

“Any adults?” Sheriff Conly asked.

“A Miss Shelby is at the store.”

Alex noted that Detective LaRay made a beeline to the basement.

“You better follow him. There’s a huge bag of fentanyl sitting on the desk.”

Sheriff Conly didn’t even hesitate. The fentanyl was a much more significant danger to the community than a hacker. Alex also wasn’t happy because the pills were all brightly colored like candy. It would have been easy for the two young kids he turned over to the Child Services lady to have eaten several by mistake.

While the sheriff went to make sure the detective didn’t do anything he shouldn’t, Alex went upstairs.

He found one of the bedroom doors locked, so he knocked.

“I told you to go away. If you need something, tell Jamie,” Lyric called out.

“Ma’am, Jamie’s sitting in the back of a police car, and the two children are with child services. You need to come out,” Alex said.

When she opened the door, Lyric dragged her hand through her mess of dark orange hair, fluffing it as she worried her teeth over her bottom lip.

“I like your hair color … what number is that?” Alex asked.

“Are you one of Jamie’s pervy friends?”

Grace appeared and had her ‘I’m an FBI agent’ vibe going, which Lyric picked up on.

“Shit,” Lyric said as she realized she’d been caught.


That was a preview of Stolen Plans. To read the rest purchase the book.

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