I feel a hand shake my shoulder. I try to snuggle deeper into my blanket groaning a protest. The hand shakes me harder.
"Go, 'way…" I mumble softly.
A warm female voice seems to float above my head.
"Come on, Max. I need you wake up."
"Fife moore minutess…" I slur.
I vaguely hear shuffling and then a small crash followed by a string of obscenities. Then, something bright hits my eyes. I squint my eyes tighter and try to pull away from the light. I hear a concerned voice.
"Is he okay?"
"He's fine, just hard to wake him. Did I not tell you the kid sleeps like a rock?"
"Here give me that. You're going to blind him."
Someone slides their hands under my shoulders propping me up. Their hand is frigid and the sensation snaps me awake. My eyes fly open and I let out a gasp. I look around to see Lisa and Marcus giving me curious looks.
I tilt my head confused. "What's going on?"
Marcus lets out a chuckle and Lisa smiles.
"You were muttering like a tick, dude," says Marcus.
Lisa frowns at her brother. "Did you sleep okay?" She turns her attention back to me.
I ignore her question. "What? What time is it?"
"It's almost noon, little man," Marcus interjects.
My eyes widen in shock. "What?!" I screech in alarm. "No, no, no...I wasn't supposed to lay down for just a few minutes…Why didn't you wake me sooner?! I still have half a box of stuff to go through!"
"Max, relax. Honey, you're fine. Besides it was my call," Lisa says gently.
"Max, when did you go to sleep?" Marcus asks leaning against the counter.
"Umm, like 4am...I think...I don't really remember…"
"Exactly, you were exhausted and don't worry about the logs. It's been taken care of. We need you back to full strength and that includes getting lots of rest. If that means an extra few hours then so be it. We are still a few hours away from Chicago, but we decided to stop for something to eat. You hungry?" Lisa asks her eyes searching my face.
"Wait hold on a minute. You said the logs have been taken care of…"
"Yes, Marcus finished them about two hours ago."
"I thought he was driving? But, if he's here, then who's driving the camper?!" I gasp out.
"Golden Coin. He and Marcus switched out driving four hours ago. Are you sure you're okay? You're kinda freaking me out, Max. What's going on?"
I look up eyes flickering between Lisa and Marcus who now are both staring intently at me. "Sorry. I...I'm fine...I guess I'm just not quite with the land of the living." I rub a hand over my face and then look up at Lisa. "You mentioned food?"
Half an hour later the four of us find ourselves at a small diner called Rookies. The place was already packed with the lunch hour rush, but Lisa found us a table in one of the back corners.
I hadn't had a decent meal in a while, so I thoroughly enjoyed looking over the menu. There were so many good options, but it in the end I settled for a good ole cheese burger and fries. Our server, a girl in her mid-twenties, took our orders with ease before returning with our drinks. I order a Sprite, anxious to get some caffeine in my system. Sluggishness still tugs the back of my mind as if my brain cells were trekking through mud.
Marcus and Lisa were discussing their orders when I look up to see Golden Coin studying me from across the table. I hate to admit it, but he seems even more intimidating than Devin or Barnes. Guess that was why his role screamed intelligence. His gaze locks onto mine, but I don't flinch away. Something churns in his mind as his brain unscrambles the puzzle pieces known as my face. I am no mind reader, but I knew something ate away at him.
"You have a question." I say flatly.
"How old are you, kid?" He asks quietly.
I smile. That's what he wanted to know? "I'm 14."
He nods. "How long have you been with Devin?"
I had no idea where these questions were coming from or why, but there was nothing to be alarmed by, yet. "I met him about three years ago. I came across some of his friends who picked me up and brought me to him."
"Hmm, I see. You're lucky to have these two watching your back," He jerks his head toward the direction of Marcus and Lisa.
I smile. "You have no idea."
"A bit of a trouble maker then?"
I roll my eyes. "Something like that."
We carry on casual conversation Lisa and Marcus joining after they decided on what to eat.
My mouth began to water as I smell the meat cooking from the back. As I wait for my food I discover something new about Golden Coin. His real name was Jack Brigger. A man of many talents and faces apparently. He starts to share some of his more recent operations. Over the last few years, he had overseen and coordinated several raids on government property from data breaches to new technology. He explained strategic movements to Marcus and Lisa perked up with interest when he mentioned a new method of hacking into modern day databases. It was beyond me, but I was content watching my friends enjoy hearing his experiences.
Golden Coin looks over at me about to ask a question when our food arrives. We spent the next few minutes in silence savoring each bite of our meals. We were all famished and it was nice taking a break from traveling for some fellowship and food.
Lisa said we were still two hours out from our destination and Devin wanted to have the group meet up once more before we met the client. This would be my first time meeting face to face with a client. I was usually kept away at home or in the background sorting out more files. I only knew the clients code names based on their files so it would be a nice change putting a face to a series of letters and numbers. Made it more human.
I look up from my plate to see Marcus on his phone. A frown creases his brow.
"What is it?" I ask before I can stop myself.
Both Golden Coin and Lisa turn toward him hearing my question.
"The news is crawling with the story of an explosion that took out a high stakes gang in South Dakota. Cops were going to hit this morning, but the place had been taken care of. Apparently there are no survivors as of yet, but they are still combing the wreckage." Marcus continues to scroll. "No lead yet on how it happened or why but they say they have an idea on who did it."
"Who?" I ask half afraid to know the answer.
"They think it was an inside job. Apparently, one of the gang members was apprehended with a truck load of materials near the border of Canada."
That was music to my ears.
"So are we in the clear?" Lisa asks fork paused midway to her mouth.
"Looks that way," Marcus lowers his voice. "Even if they find the two bodies we dumped there is no connection between us and them."
"They didn't even know me," Golden Coin says setting his napkin down. "I had been on their scout team going by the name of Chester. Those packing up the facility were low leveled gang members. Guys that are called in to help pack up a place that needs to disappear. I'd say we're fine, but keep an eye on it in case something else develops. I'm sure Devin will want to know."
We go back to eating, but the mood shifted. We all knew the price if we were caught. It was unlikely we could be traced back to the crime scene, but today's forensic teams were better than ever. We had to keep moving. We finish eating and Marcus goes to pay the bill.
Back on the road, I find myself sitting across the table from Golden Coin who reads something on his tablet. Lisa had somehow found a couple of books for me, so I picked up one of them. They had been used pretty well as several of the pages were worn and bent. It was a mystery novel of a family who disappeared from their seaside home one evening and the only witness was an old fisherman. I liked to read because it kept my mind busy and able to focus on something.
I turn the page only to feel the hairs on the back of my neck standing up. Lifting my gaze, I see Golden Coin peering at me. Again. He had set his tablet down and now had settled to just sit there and watch me. I suppress a laugh. This was apparently his greatest past time. I set my book down cocking an eyebrow.
"What?" I ask a little annoyed.
"How are you feeling?"
"Feeling? About what? The operation? I think it went smoothly. It was quick and efficient. Just like Devin wanted," I knew exactly where this was going and I didn't like it.
"Max," he lowers his voice. "That's not what I mean and you know it."
I sigh. "Do I?"
He narrows his eyes at me.
I drop his gaze and stare at my hands that shake slightly.
"I'm fine. Just peachy."
I groan. This was a battle I wasn't going to win. I knew he would keep pressing. Damn that intelligence background.
"Marcus told you. Didn't he," I say looking up at him.
"No. I watched you in the compound. You moved stiffly even for sneaking around. You're injured."
I roll my eyes. "It's nothing. Just some sore ribs and a bruised ego."
"Look kid, I don't want to pry, but I know where you're coming from. You don't have to act so brave all the time. Trust me. I've learned it the hard way."
I shift uncomfortably in my chair. "You do?"
"Yes. Many years ago. I was around your age actually."
"What did you do? To...umm...get away from it?"
"I had to accept help. It was scary, but worth it in the end."
I nod understanding. "I know, but I...I can't. I mean I live with him and he's the boss. I can't risk anyone stepping in to help. He could hurt them or worse. I could never live with myself if something happened to them…Lisa and Marcus are all I've got..." I pause my voice cracking. "He could make our lives a living nightmare."
Golden Coin strokes his chin. "Hmm. I see. You know, Marcus and Lisa really care for you. I can see it in their eyes. You're family to them. And if I've learned anything, family sticks together."
I give him a half smile. "I know, but it's not that simple." I pause. "Marcus has tried to confront him, but Devin doesn't care. No one dares go against him. He'd see it as a betrayal. We all know where that led last time." Buried ten feet under. Never to see the light of day again.
We sit there in a heavy silence. I decide to change the topic.
"So, are you going to stick around for a while?"
Golden Coin nods. "That's the plan, kid."
"So, do you know what the plan is besides the new meeting when we get there?" GC asks.
Now it was my turn to be surprised. "Marcus, didn't inform you?"
"No, he was a little busy waking someone up," he smirks.
I feel my cheeks heat up. I really need to set an alarm next time. "Well, I know we are going to meet up with our client known as RZL1. We will be meeting them in person. Some criminal boss or something. I've never met a client face to face, but I guess today will change that. Whoever it is even Devin seemed a bit unnerved."
"Yes. I might of overheard him and Marcus discussing it."
GC chuckles amused. "Eavesdropping, huh?"
"Let's just say Devin doesn't exactly have an inside voice. But, don't tell him I said that!"
"Of course not. Wouldn't want to step on his ego. Devin's a good leader, but I don't approve of some of his methods. So, after meeting with the client then what?"
"We'll exchange products and leave to the next place that demands our services. If something has changed, we'll find out soon."
I nod. Then my eyes drift to Golden Coin's left wrist. There was a strange tattoo on it. "So, at lunch you told us of some of your past operations. How did you learn all that stuff?"
Golden Coin sighs softly and I was afraid I asked something I shouldn't have. "I had a brother who worked for the government. Private sector. He was a private investigator. I might of picked up a few things."
"Really? That's cool. What's it like..the government?"
"Well, I actually don't know. To me it just sounds like lots of rules and laws. My brother and I have never seen eye to eye." GC leans backward in his chair pausing for a moment. His eyes drift across the room as if he was seeing something, but no one was there.
Something was wrong. "If you don't want to talk about it, that's okay." I say quietly.
"No. It's fine. It's just a long story. Maybe someday I'll tell you about it. However, I can tell you it involves a lot of fun devices."
"Really? Like what?" I ask before I can stop myself.
He laughs. He holds up a finger before reaching into his pocket and pulling out a small case. He extracts a dark pair of sunglasses. "Like this."
I give him a confused look.
Putting them on, he clicks a button on the side. I hear a soft release of air and then a buzzing noise. A device the size of a beetle pops out and hovers in front of my face. I jerk back suddenly.
"What is that?"
"Let me introduce you to SALLI." As if hearing him the device's two blue eyes blink at me.
"SALLI?" I say incredulously.
"Yes. She stands for Survellience and Listening Logging Intelligence."
"Wow. So what does she do?"
"SALLI can get into nearly any building undetected. She is my mobile partner as my eyes and ears. She is cloaked with the latest tech to bypass 95% of today's security systems. I have a friend who works for the government security sector technical section that assists me with the latest hardware upgrades."
I hold out a finger and the device lands on it. "Can she see me?"
"Of course, she can. Not only that but she can even read your pulse."
I freeze looking at GC. "No way! How?"
"Company secret," he smirks at me.
"That's freaky and awesome at the same time. So, you can tell if someone is panicked or scared or calm. Right?"
"Yes, she has both visual and auditory systems that record everything. She can hack computers, send out temporary EMP's and so much more."
"Dang. Lisa would love this device. You better keep an eye on it or she'll try to dismember it from the inside."
GC lets out a hearty laugh. "Sadly, I agree with you. Maybe, when you're older I could teach you some of what I've learned over the years. You're an on the ground kind of guy, yes?"
"Yep. Being 14 has its advantages. People tend to overlook kids so when I need to scope out an area, I use the excuse 'I got lost'. Curiosity you know."
"You know it was curiosity that killed the cat?"
"Yeah, but I'm not a cat. I'm a game changer."
Golden Coin snorts. "Ha, you've got spunk kid. I'll give you that." SALLI lifts from my finger and GC places her back with the glasses.
"Thanks for showing me SALLI."
"Sure thing, kid. I need to get some rack. I'll see you later." Golden Coin nodded and then disappeared into the back bedroom.
I settle back down with my book, but my mind drifted to our future meeting. Something felt off and my gut told me it wasn't good. If there was one thing I had learned in my 14 years, it was the gut never lies.