“Look directly at the camera please. And stick to the script.”
It was the Greek who spoke, the one they called Apollo. Everyone in Group 99 had a Greek codename, which they also used as their handle online, although members came from all over the world. Apollo was a real Greek, however, and one of Group 99’s founding members. The group traced its beginnings to Athens, and the euphoria following the election of the country’s most leftwing premier to date, the union firebrand Elias Calles. Perhaps for this reason, the Greek codenames had stuck.
Bob Daley and Hunter Drexel both disliked Apollo. He was arrogant and had no sense of humor, unlike the rest of them. Today he was dressed in black fatigues with a knitted balaclava covering his face.
Playing soldier, Bob Daley thought. The big man on campus.
It was pathetic, really. What were these kids going to do when they grew up? When the whole Group 99 adventure was over? When Apollo was caught, as Bob didn’t doubt he would be eventually, he’d be looking at serious prison time. Had he even considered that?
“My name is Captain Robert Daley,” Bob began. Looking right at the camera he delivered his lines perfectly. The sooner this was over, the sooner he could get back inside the cabin to his warm bed. Even Hunter Drexel’s snoring was preferable to being out here in the snow, jumping through hoops for this muppet.
When he finished, he turned and looked up at Apollo.
“Very good,” the balaclavaed man replied.
“Am I done now?”
Through the slit in his mask, Bob Daley saw the Greek smile.
“Yes, Captain Daley. You’re done.”
Then, with the camera still rolling, Apollo pulled out a gun and blew Bob Daley’s head off.
SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 22, NINE P.M.
ALTHEA WATCHED ON HER laptop screen as the bullet ripped through Bob Daley’s skull. She was sitting with her long legs crossed on the suede couch of her $5-million apartment. Outside, snow was falling softly over Central Park. It was a beautiful winter’s night in New York, clear and cold.
Captain Daley’s blood and brain tissue splattered across the camera lens.
How wonderful, Althea thought, a surge of satisfaction flooding through her, to be watching this in real time, from the comfort of my living room. Technology really is quite amazing.
She reached out and touched her screen with her perfectly manicured fingers, half expecting it to be wet. Daley’s blood would still be warm.
Good, she thought. He’s dead.
The Englishman’s body slumped forward, hitting the forest floor like a sack. Then Apollo walked towards the camera. Pulling off his balaclava, he wiped the lens clean and smiled at her.
Althea noticed the bulge in his pants. Killing clearly excited him.
“Happy?” he asked her.
She turned off her computer, walked to her refrigerator and pulled out a bottle of Clos d’Ambonnay, 1996. Popping the cork, she poured herself a glass, toasting the empty room.
“To you, my darling.”
In a few hours, Captain Daley’s execution would be front page news around the world. Kidnap and murder had become commonplace across the Middle East. But this was the West. This was Europe. This was Group 99, the Robin Hood Hackers. The good guys.
How shocked and appalled everyone would be!
Althea ran a hand through her long, dark hair.
She could hardly wait.
THIS IS A NIGHTMARE.”
Julia Cabot, the new British Prime Minister, put her head in her hands. She was sitting at her desk in her private office at 10 Downing Street. Also in the room were Jamie MacIntosh, Head of MI6, and Major General Frank Dorrien. A highly decorated career soldier, Dorrien was also a senior MI6 agent, a fact known only to a select handful of people, which did not include the General’s wife.
“Please tell me I’m going to wake up.”
“It’s Bob Daley who isn’t going to wake up, Prime Minister,” Frank Dorrien observed drily. “I hate to say I told you so.”
“Then don’t,” Jamie MacIntosh snapped. Frank was a brave man and a brilliant agent, but his tendency to assume the moral high ground could be extremely wearing. “None of us could have predicted this. This is the E bloody U, not Aleppo.”
“And a bunch of teenage geeks in red-balloon hoodies, not ISIS,” Julia Cabot added despairingly. “Group 99 don’t kill people. They just don’t!”
“Until they do,” said Frank. “And now they have. And Captain Daley’s blood is on our hands.”
It was hard not to take Bob Daley’s murder personally. Partly because Frank Dorrien knew Bob Daley personally. They’d both served in Iraq together, under circumstances that neither Julia Cabot nor Jamie MacIntosh could imagine, never mind understand. And partly because Frank had warned of the dangers of treating Group 99 as a joke. These groups always began with high ideals and, in Frank’s experience, almost always ended with violence. A splinter group would rise up, nastier and more bloodthirsty than the rest, and end up seizing power from the moderates. It had happened with the communists in Russia after the revolution. It had happened with the real IRA. It had happened with ISIS. It didn’t matter what the ideology was. All you needed was angry, dispossessed, testosterone-fueled young men with a thirst for power and attention, and in the end bad things, very bad things, would happen.
MI6 had been sitting on intelligence for weeks about where Captain Daley and Hunter Drexel might be being held. But no one had acted on it, because no one had believed the hostages were in serious danger. Indeed, when Frank had proposed sending in the SAS on an armed rescue mission, he’d been shot down in flames by both the government and the intelligence community.
“Have you lost your mind?” Jamie MacIntosh had asked him. “Bratislava’s an EU country, Frank.”
“So we can’t send our troops into another sovereign nation. A sodding ally. It’s out of the question.”
So nothing was done, and now hundreds of millions of people around the globe had seen Bob Daley’s brains being splattered across a screen. Celebrities who only last week had been lining up to be photographed with red balloon badges on their dinner jackets, in support of the group’s lofty aims of economic equality, were now scrambling to distance themselves from the horror. Kidnap and murder, right here in Europe.
“I understand you’re angry, Frank,” Julia Cabot said grimly. “But I need constructive input. The Americans are screaming blue murder. They’re worried their hostage is going to be next.”
“They should be,” said Frank.
“We all want to get these bastards.” Cabot turned to her intelligence chief. “Jamie, what do we know?”
“Group 99. Founded in Athens in 2015 by a group of young Greek computer scientists, then rapidly spread across Europe to South America, Asia, Africa and around the globe. Stated agenda is economic, to address poverty and the global wealth imbalance. Loosely classed as communists although they have no stated political, national or religious allegiances. They use Greek codenames online, and they are very, very smart.”
“What about their leaders?” Cabot asked.
“One or two names have cropped up. The guy codenamed Hyperion we believe to be a twenty-seven-year-old Venezuelan named Jose Hernandez. He’s the fellow who leaked the private emails of the former Exxon boss.”
“The chap with the transsexual mistress and the cocaine habit?” Cabot remembered Group 99’s sting on the hapless oil executive. Despite the CEO’s resignation, hundreds of millions of dollars had been wiped off the share price.
“Precisely. Ironically Hernandez comes from a wealthy establishment family. They may have helped him avoid detection by the authorities. But part of the problem is that there are no clear leaders. Group 99 disapproves of traditional hierarchy in all its forms. Because it’s web-based and anonymous, it’s more of a loose affiliation than a classic terrorist organization. Different individuals and cells act independently under one big umbrella.”
Cabot sighed. “So it’s a hydra with a thousand heads. Or no heads.”
“What about funding? Do we know where they get their money from?”
“That’s a more interesting angle. For a group that purports to be against accumulated wealth, they seem to have a lot of cash washing around. They invest in technology, to fund their cyberattacks. It’s an expensive business, staying ahead of the game against sophisticated systems at places like Microsoft or the Pentagon.”
“I can imagine,” said Cabot.
“We also believe they are behind various multimillion-dollar anonymous donations to both charitable groups and leftwing political parties. Numerous sources have pointed to a female member of the group, an American, as both one of their largest donors and a driving force in Group 99’s strategic objectives. You remember the attack on the CIA a year ago, when they published a bunch of compromising private emails from top Langley staffers?”
The prime minister nodded.
“The Americans believe that was her. She operates under the codename Althea, but that’s pretty much all anyone knows about her.”