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Guess Again

FBI Special Agent Hunter McCrary hasn't appreciated anything Russian since a legendary KGB assassin known as Dark Swan killed his dad during the Cold War and left a black cloisonn� swan pin at the crime scene. But when a hacker breaches the security of a government communications line, Hunter needs the computer expertise of the Dark Swan's American daughter, Lynzee Beryl, an MIT professor whose fascination with all things Russian stems from her lost childhood. He suspects the hacker is Lynzee's Russian ex-lover and hopes to use her as bait, but the spunky prof makes it hard to keep his mind on the job when she manages so effortlessly to slip past his defenses.

A Hard Shell Word Factory Release


Nora Santella

     Nora Santella, a Jersey girl who now resides in America's heartland, earned a bachelor of journalism degree from the University of Missouri and has worked as a newspaper reporter and corporate business communicator. She is a past editor of the Romance Writers of America's national magazine, Romance Writers' Report.

Reviews

"Rife with spectacular twists, subterfuge, and staggering revelations, Nora Santella's Guess Again is a nonstop powerhouse of intrigue. Riveting, this splendidly penned work is guaranteed to keep readers breathless and guessing until the end. Highly recommended!"

Susan Bodendorfer -- editor/publisher Bodendorfer.net


"I am not a fan of the television show Alias, however my husband cannot get enough of it. As I began reading Guess Again, I realized that this is a story that will have huge appeal with Alias fans. Intrigue and passion join seamlessly on every page. Fans of spy/intrigue stories will thoroughly enjoy Guess Again."

Tracy Farnsworth -- Round Table Reviews


"This is romantic suspense! An exciting, riveting, edge of your seat story. I couldn't put it down, even for a coffee refill. Nora Santella pulls the reader along through the fast paced world of artificial intelligence, and probes into the middle of an espionage plot so detailed the reader will be looking over their shoulder for the KGB or the FBI."

Mary Ann Carman -- The Romance Studio
Excerpt

Chapter 1


LYNZEE BERYL wanted to force the intruder out, but she had to find how he'd broken in first. The hacker's shenanigans inside the mainframe computer had produced a frenzy of debate among her colleagues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. So far, the keyboard jockey's tampering had proven more mischievous than malicious, but that didn't comfort her. His electronic clues suggested that she, rather than the school, was at risk.

She chewed on her bottom lip as a cartoonish program activated across the computer screen. Flying pitchforks bedeviled a very unDisneylike female wizard for about ninety seconds before it dissolved without a trace. Then the machine flashed urgently.

This is personal. Had she stepped unknowingly on a colleague's toes during the last staff meeting? Or, worse yet, had she captured the imagination of a nemesis from outside the academic world when she'd appeared as a guest speaker?

In vain she tried to access information from her data files, but like an obstinate child, the system refused to respond. The more she considered her opponent, the more his technique seemed eerily familiar. If only she could pinpoint the memory, she could better tackle the problem. This could take hours. Damn him!

As the acknowledged wonder-worker in the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, one of the nation's most advanced computing centers, Lynzee made sure harmless viruses didn't lose their innocence. Her talent served as a continual source of challenge to MIT students. But she couldn't begin to guess the intentions of the latest Top Dog wannabe. She didn't like what she did know, however. Hackers held the power to destroy documents. The mere suggestion of such an act could make the strongest computer "tech" shiver with dread.

Like it or not, she needed to open this Pandora's box. Squaring her shoulders, she typed a manager's password on the keyboard. The computer displayed the results of its self-diagnostics across the screen. Everything appeared to be in working order. She waited next for the prompt to tell her that the system stood ready to accept commands. It never came. In its place stood a pulsing message that jolted her: "Beware of tiger barbs, Angel."

"Yuri!" Her fingers gripped the computer mouse in alarm while her pulse escalated. Leave it to Yuri to identify himself in a way only she alone could recognize. After four years of silence, he's trying to communicate with me. Why? What does he want? She tried to relax by stretching her tense arms above her head and shaking her rigid hands vigorously. I mustn't freak out.

"You need to take a break, Professor Beryl," Margaret Crandall interrupted. She eyed Lynzee with the impudence of an all-knowing Buddha. "You're strung high as a kite. Besides, the perfect antidote waits in your office. When are you going to take advantage of my favorite male reporter?"

Lynzee managed to smile weakly at her secretary's blatant attempts at matchmaking. "You need to learn how to resist Trey's charm. He's an old hand at buttering you up for printable news from the AI Lab."

"It's not information he wants."

Lynzee chuckled for an instant. "You read too many romance novels, Margaret. Trey and I are just friends. Cross my heart. It's my daughter he adores."

Margaret's expression mirrored her disbelief. "That reminds me. Your baby-sitter phoned earlier."

A new wave of panic washed over Lynzee. Tovah! Yuri must've found out somehow about his daughter. The awful possibility threatened her. What if Yuri tried one of his clever tricks on the artless Mrs. Gibson? Lynzee wouldn't put it past him. The man had always been dangerously arrogant. She must warn the baby-sitter.

"Did Mrs. Gibson leave a message?" Even to her own ears, her voice sounded strained.

"She wanted you to know Tovah has a fever, but no other symptoms yet. She'll call you back if anything else develops."

Lynzee sighed. "Thank God," she murmured, turning from Margaret back to the computer screen. "Would you please tell Trey that I'll join him in a few minutes?"

"Of course. I'm good at putting people on hold indefinitely. It's not like he made an appointment." After a short pause, she added, "All right. You're not laughing. What's wrong?"

Lynzee continued to gaze uneasily at Yuri's cryptic message. "I've detected an unauthorized entry into my data files. I need to check it out before I see Trey."

"Another student prank, no doubt."

While the sound of Margaret's high heels clicking against the floor grew distant, Lynzee pondered the tiger-barb warning and tried a different tactic with the computer. A detailed listing of files in the computer's root directory scrolled onto screen for her review. She studied the data, noting the exact time when Yuri broke into the system. Several maneuvers later, she realized he hadn't tampered with her files. The evidence puzzled her. It made no sense. Why had he exerted the mental effort if he hadn't intended to do harm?

Checking her watch, she noted that she needed to run. The longer she made Trey wait, the more she'd arouse his investigative reporter instincts. She signed off the computer, picked up her corduroy jacket and left the AI Lab.

Walking down the narrow, windowless hall towards her office, Lynzee recognized the haughty profile of Andrei Kobrin amid the gathering near the lounge where their colleagues often took breaks. The Russian professor was currently on staff at MIT through an international education program. Although he stood ramrod straight in his $2,000 suit and Guccis, his presence still brought the image of a kinked Slinky to mind.

"Good day, Professor," he greeted in accented English. "I've waited to see you."

Andrei's green eyes locked onto her as she stopped beside him. She managed to sheath her annoyance from view as his gaze stripped the silk blouse and trousers off her body.

"Why?"

"I understand there's unusual excitement in the AI Lab."

"Yes." She chose to concentrate on the different shade of green in his eyes rather than the hunger in them. He radiated a vital power that could be attractive if he didn't use it so contemptibly. She decided he had to wear contacts to achieve that emerald-eyed effect.

"You are the computer wizard on staff. Is an electronic flu ravaging our system?"

"Flu?" Momentarily confused, she frowned, then decided to hedge. "Not exactly. I suspect it's nothing more than a prank. Some students like to show-off more than others."

"I assume that's not a problem as long as they don't have a background in defense and intelligence issues." He pointed to the USA Today clutched in his hand. "I just read a news story about an American student jailed in Russia. The FSS suspects that he may have been in Russia training to be a spy. But they arrested him instead on a marijuana charge after their agents found five grams in his apartment."

She was more than happy to forget about Yuri for a minute. "The FSS? What's that?"

"Russia's Federal Security Service. It's the successor agency to the infamous Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti, better known as the KGB."

"I detect a note of cynicism in your tone, Professor. Aren't you impressed by a decade of half-hearted reforms under the post-communist regime?"

"Democracy skates on thin ice in Russia." Anger flared for an instant in his eyes. "How easy it is for an Amerikanski, untouched by the heavy hand of Stalin, to accept the Western concept that progress, however slow, is inherent in the affairs of mankind." He kept his voice neutral, but his well-carved lips curved into a sardonic smile. "From the Russian perspective, history moves in a circle, not in linear fashion. Freedom is relative. Destroyers can come anytime."

She felt her face pinken. Previous conversations with Andrei had been brusque or businesslike, never fervent. "I apologize for broaching a sore subject." She realized that her innate curiosity about all things Russian didn't give her any right to interrogate the man, so she offered what she hoped would lighten his vexation. "My Russian parents immigrated to the United States before I was born."

"An American-born Russian?" His look was sharp, assessing. "Unlike you, my dear, I have been reared in a complicated society that nurtures despotism. Quite frankly, I often wonder if Russia can ever escape its master-slave mentality."

She sensed a forbidding coldness hidden beneath his polished surface as he spoke. Despite the natural wariness she felt for him, his dour observations fascinated her.

"If you'd care to discuss oligarchs or how crime and corruption fray the very fabric of Russian life," he continued, "perhaps you would agree to have dinner with me this evening."

Lynzee recalled her meeting with Trey Petersen as her gaze drifted from Andrei to catch sight of the reporter pacing outside her office down the hall. "I'm sorry. I can't. Perhaps some other time."

"There you are, Lynzee," Trey called out. "I can't wait around here much longer, so I'd appreciate a few minutes of your time."

"Excuse me, Professor," she said, her feelings for the Russian more ambivalent than ever. Maybe it all boiled down to a case of having Yuri on the brain, but Andrei sure reminded her of him in ways she didn't want to pinpoint. "I've an appointment to keep."

"Do svidaniya."

His Russian good-bye triggered an odd sense of déjà vu for Lynzee as she hurried away. She didn't like the idea that Andrei knew ways to get under her skin.

"Waylaid by the charming Bolshevik," Trey observed dryly when Lynzee joined him. His liquid baritone voice was one any radio personality would covet. "No doubt you debated the rise and fall of the Russian Empire."

Trey's nonchalance didn't fool her. She recognized bait when it dangled on a hook.

He led the way inside the office, past a smiling Margaret. Lynzee followed, closed the door and walked to her desk. She laid her jacket carefully across the back of her chair and sat down.

"I wasn't expecting you," she said, watching him study the blustery October scene beyond her small window. She could understand why Margaret had so often described Trey as "gorgeous." The man's dark features and athletic build would make an impression on susceptible females.

He turned to focus his brown eyes upon her and flashed a boyishly disarming smile. "I stopped by to give you a gift for Tovah." He handed over a child-sized book. She read the cover title, The Wild Swans, and thumbed curiously through the illustrated Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale; it was one she'd never read as either a youngster or an adult.

"Thank you." She glanced up as he plopped down on the edge of her desk. "I'll read it to Tovah this evening."

"Why don't we three have dinner together? My treat. I'd enjoy reading Tovah's bedtime story."

She pondered the idea at length and said, "Why are you doing this to me? Quite frankly, it makes me feel a bit uneasy. You know I hate to be used, Trey."

He'd conscience enough to look guilty. "The book wasn't a ploy. I did buy it for Tovah earlier this month. I wouldn't offer dinner if I didn't want to be with you."

Her sigh broke the uncomfortable silence. "I believe you. Now, what really brought you here? You're not the type to sit waiting in anyone's office without good reason. What have you heard?"

Trey leaned forward. "I was told there's a skillful intruder enjoying an intellectual joyride at the expense of MIT. Then Margaret happened to mention when I stopped by that you were in the AI Lab checking out an unauthorized entry into the computer system."

Lynzee digested the breadth of his knowledge before speaking. "Is my secretary your source?"

"No." He seemed affronted by the idea. "Absolutely not."

"Thank God. I'd hate to have to fire Margaret. So, what do you plan on doing with this news tip?"

"Write a story, of course, if the facts merit one. Is it true that someone planted a virus?"

"I don't think so. I didn't see any files disappearing. If it is a virus, it's fairly benign at this point."

Trey's gaze sharpened. "But what if it turns virulent?"

Lynzee shrugged. "I'd have to find a vaccine before it spreads from program to program, computer to computer, system to system."

Trey regarded her soberly, as if contemplating the wisdom of his next move. Finally, he stood up, slanting his body forward as he pressed the palms of his hands flat against the desktop. "Hackers today are into computer files they have no business seeing."

Lynzee met his intent gaze. "I won't argue that point. I don't think anyone working in the Lab could claim to have never entered someone else's files. Breaking passwords is an initiation ritual around here. For many, it's their first baby step into the world of computer creativity."

Trey drew back and straightened his tall frame. "Fascinating." A note of challenge underscored his satiny voice. "Sometimes it's permissible to look at files; sometimes it's forbidden. But what about the rights of privacy? How does the computer community define ethics?"

Lynzee lifted her head higher. "Ethics can be debated everywhere in our society, including the computer world."

"But what keeps computer wizardry under control? Do any rules exist among hackers?"

"If there is a code, it's 'thou shalt first do no harm.' Some hackers, though, get trapped in their desire to play God. They are seduced by the power of the game. The line between what's fun and what's wrong blurs for them. These hackers turn into techno-bandits, using their computer genius for crime."

Trey made himself comfortable in a wooden chair as Lynzee's phone rang. "Go ahead. Pick it up. I'm an uninvited guest taking advantage of your time and the call could be important."

Lynzee answered the phone. The ever-efficient baby-sitter, Mrs. Gibson, reported Tovah's temperature had risen significantly.

"Will you be able to leave the office on time this evening? Normally Tovah doesn't complain or cry, but the fever seems to be making her fussy. She might rest better for you."

"I'll make every effort to get home quickly, Mrs. Gibson. Thank you for the update."

"Oh, one more thing. Someone was in your apartment today."

Lynzee stilled. "What for? Who was it?"

"A man from building maintenance. He had to check your ceiling. A water leak was reported in the apartment above yours."

Not a break in. Lynzee sighed "oh" with audible relief.

"I know you're busy, dear. I won't keep you on the phone any longer. Good-bye."

Lynzee glanced at Trey as she hung up.

"What's wrong?"

"Tovah is sick. It's times like this when I hate being a working mother."

"Is there anything I can do to help?"

"No, but thanks for the offer." She fiddled with the phone cord. "So, are you going to write a story about the AI Lab incident?"

Trey's cagey expression betrayed his intent before he even responded. "I think the real story here is you, my friend. Let me interview you for the newspaper."

"No! I don't want to see my name in print. Ever."