Dignity (The Breaking Point #2)

by Jay Crownover

Noe

I was going to do something I swore to myself I would never, ever do again in my life . . . ask for help.

I’d learned early in life that the only person I could rely on, the only person who would never let me down or disappoint me, was me. No one else had my best interests or wellbeing in mind. I was the only one who cared if I made it through each day and into the next. I didn’t need anyone. I’d been doing all right on my own while surviving some pretty shitty circumstances for a long time. I watched my own back and called all my own shots. That was the way I liked it, the way I needed it to be. But right now, I was scared. Terrified really. I was also smart enough to know that I was in way over my head.

I needed help and there was only one person I felt comfortable enough asking to yank me out of the murky, dangerous mess I’d waded into.

It didn’t make sense because we’d only met once. Oddly enough, in that brief encounter, he had called me a thief and a bitch. He wasn’t going to be happy to see me. In fact, there was no guarantee that he was going to agree to get me out of the bind that had me so wound up that I couldn’t even move, but I had to ask. I needed someone on my side, someone else needed to know what was going on. In this moment, my mind was telling me that someone was him.

I was afraid to show my face. Afraid to come out of hiding. Afraid of every dark corner and every shadow that lurked in the back alleys I called home. I was afraid that I’d finally gone too far, something I never really thought was possible before now. People were looking for me, and while I was notoriously hard to find, they seemed to have eyes everywhere and enough money to pay people to look in the places I normally hid. I was no longer invisible. No longer overlooked and dismissed like most homeless and displaced people were. The streets were never safe, but now, day in and day out, I was actively being hunted. There was a price on my head and everyone in the Point was looking for a payday.

The last time I’d been at this fancy townhouse complex on the outskirts of the Point, I’d been using a lock picking set to jimmy the front door open so I could rob a guy blind. He had come looking for me, and I didn’t like it when people I didn’t know tried to find me. Especially guys like him. I really didn’t like it when people had money, drove nice cars, had obvious free time to blow at the gym, and were as good with computers and tech as me. Everything about him rubbed me the wrong way, and when I heard he was trying to find me, I wanted to make sure he never made that mistake again. I didn’t want to be anywhere on his radar even though he was a huge, gigantic blip on mine. He pinged and beeped alerts all over the place long before he dragged me down to the Lock and Key to meet with his enigmatic boss.

I’d never had the opportunity to meet Snowden Stark before he came looking for me, but I knew all about him. Everyone in the digital underground did, and not because he was tied into some shady business dealings with Race Hartman and Nassir Gates, the undisputed golden king and dark knight of the Point. The two of them ruled this broken kingdom and it was no secret that Stark was their tech wizard. He was the one who made magic happen. Even before he sold his soul to the highest bidder, he’d been into some questionable practices behind his keyboard. It was rumored that he was the one who had hacked the state’s police database and sent the names, addresses, and mug shots of each and every possible sex offender to all the parents in the Point. Not the registered, supposedly rehabilitated pedophiles, but the ones who had gotten away with their crimes. The ones who hadn’t managed to get caught yet.

The watch list was long and terrifying. The list made its ways through schools and was talked about for weeks on the news. People were torn between fury at the invasion of privacy, since the names on the list belonged to people never convicted, and relief that the bad guys had names and faces before they could offend, or offend again. It was always trial by fire in the Point and nobody was really innocent until proven guilty. They were always guilty, and most of the time, they didn’t get caught. There was little the police could do without solid proof and witnesses. Stark didn’t operate that way. No one seemed too concerned when the people on that list started dropping like flies. Vigilante justice was nothing new in the Point. In fact, it was often the only kind of justice this place saw. Sure, some of the people with their name on Stark’s hit list left town and disappeared on their own, but it was common knowledge that most of them were run out of town by Nassir, and those who didn’t want to go disappeared another way. A more permanent and bloody way that involved shallow graves dug under the moonlight.

My favorite Stark story floating around was the one where he’d grounded an entire fleet of aircraft when his airline lost his luggage and proved less than helpful when it came to locating it. He jacked their entire system for two days, only relenting when his bags showed up in pristine condition. Of course, no one could ever prove it was him, but Twitter and the dark corner of the web—the figurative watercooler for hackers—were flooded with speculation. Everyone was impressed by him, and a little scared. Even the guys who made the Darknet . . . well . . . dark.

When he was a teenager, he supposedly hacked the un-hackable Department of Defense, just to prove he could. I heard he ended up in a federal prison for a year or so for that little act of defiance, but no one could actually verify it because he’d disappeared and any records that might have proved it ceased to exist. Years later, when he came back to the Point, the rumors about his time away and illegal acts were less outrageous, but no less persistent.

He hacked his college’s sexual assault complaint database and released the names of all the attackers who were never brought to justice. Everyone who had been named over the years, but had been excused or had their stories swept under the rug by both the school and law enforcement, was put on blast. Their faces were plastered on digital billboards and scrolled across the bottom of the news ticker bar. Their crimes spelled out in excruciating detail for the entire Point to see. It was another digital hit list, and once again, the eyes of Lady Justice remained blindfolded when the people behind the names started disappearing and turning up in the county morgues.

It was clear Stark didn’t like it when justice was overlooked and he didn’t mind a challenge. He had contacts on the Darknet, and some were digital versions of the men who ran the Point. Through cyberspace, they sold humans, sex, drugs, guns, murder . . . anything illegal and unsavory. Stark didn’t approve of some of the more chilling reasons people trolled the dark recesses of the Internet so he went out of his way to shut them down. Chat rooms dedicated to child pornography and pedophilia were annihilated and sites dedicated to human trafficking were mercilessly shut down. He was a one man wrecking ball and no one tried to stop him.

I was hoping both of those things would work in my favor as I prepared to beg and plead with him to pull my ass out of the proverbial fire.

I knocked on his door this time . . . like a normal person.

I shifted uneasily in my well-worn combat boots and ran my sweaty palms down the front of my freshly washed cargo pants. I made an effort to clean up before coming to see him. I didn’t want to show up unwashed and filthy, like I normally was. I needed him to take me seriously, and I figured if he were distracted by my smell and ratty hair, it would be counterintuitive to my endgame. Since I slept on the streets and in shelters most of the time, it paid off to be gross and unapproachable, but Stark didn’t live wild like I did. In fact, aside from his dealings with Race and Nassir, he didn’t have much to do with the Point. His only connection to this place was his longstanding friendship with Race. They went to high school together before Stark was taken away by men in dark suits with serious expressions. He seemed insulated from the violence and vitriol that came out of the place I called home. From what I knew, he kept his heavily tattooed hands clean of actual blood, just dabbling in digital carnage and warfare. I had no idea if he really knew what it was like out there in the real world, but I needed him to get a clue real quick. I needed him to understand that messing with someone’s life online had very real consequences. I still had no idea how my identity had been leaked to the guys looking for me, but they knew exactly who I was, and I knew what they could do with that knowledge. That’s why I was scared, standing on his doorstep, shaking, and willing to do whatever it took to guarantee his help.

I was lifting my hand to knock again when the door was suddenly flung open. Of course he knew I was there. When I broke in weeks ago, I’d had to bypass a security system that rivaled the NSA’s. He had cameras everywhere. He saw everything and everyone that was trying to get close. It wasn’t a simple case of breaking and entering; I’d had to work my way inside the labyrinth and was lucky I made it out in one piece.

I let out a yelp as my momentum pitched me forward, hands landing against rock-hard muscle as I braced myself against his chest. It was easy to forget how big he was. Massive all around. Tall, strong, and covered from his neck down in colorful, bold tattoos. His dark hair was cut short, showing off the multiple silver and diamond studs that dotted his ears and the tiny scar that curved across his temple, which left a startling straight line of white on his scalp. He had what looked like a barcode of some kind inked behind his ear and I wanted to ask him what it meant.