Martine Cadet hadn’t left her apartment in over two years. The day she decided would be her last excursion into the outside world had filled her with relief. She was no agoraphobe, but she was, for all intents and purposes, wheelchair-bound. The autoimmune deficiency that had made her a sickly child and hobbled her to a clumsy and embarrassing walker in her early twenties had finally built up to such an excruciating level of pain in her legs that she could no longer attempt to stand.
Thank goodness her Uncle Pierre could not see her in her pathetic condition. Her letters home to her Haitian guardian were filled with nonsensical pleasantries and half-truths. She knew it would break his heart if he knew that the baby he had raised was living in such a pitiable state.
He was her only remaining family, her parents having died in a tragic propane explosion while on a small boat outing. It had probably been her sickliness that had discouraged them from taking their two-year-old along.
She’d missed them quite a bit when they’d failed to return, or at least so her uncle had always told her. Her memories of her parents had to come through him. Martine’s mother had been his beloved sister, and he was determined that Martine should hear every story he could remember. He’d also renamed the child so that they could share the same family name of Cadet.
Unfortunately, her parents had not lived long enough to give her any siblings. While they might have provided some familial comfort, the real loss was the fact that they would likely have provided a bone marrow match to cure Martine’s wretched condition. She was somewhat in the same circumstance as the seventy percent of other needy patients waiting for a bone marrow donor. But in addition, the combination of a Haitian mother and a Dutch father gave her potential donors a very specific genetic makeup that had proved nearly impossible to find.
Pierre Cadet was a grizzled bachelor fisherman who took care of the young child as best he could. But after ten years, he was also hit with a debilitating illness. Not knowing how long he would live, and doubting his ability to take care of the child, he’d reluctantly sent her to live with her Dutch grandmother, who resided in the New England beach town of Oyster Cove.
Grandma Yara was a sweet old lady, but her English skills were marginal. She and Martine had a peaceful relationship that was filled with impromptu sign language and companionable silence.
When the old woman died five years later, Martine was about to start the last year of high school and was vehemently opposed to the prospect of a foster home. But after her grandmother’s body was taken away in the middle of the night, and the burial service attended only by herself, a much more appealing possibility presented itself.
Martine had told no one of her grandmother’s death. She’d returned to school and waited for the powers that be to take her away. Miraculously, they never had. And two weeks after her grandmother died, Martine suspected that they never would. Somehow, she had fallen through the bureaucratic cracks and no one had realized that a seventeen-year-old high school senior was living without guardianship or supervision.
Her grandmother’s pension checks continued to arrive, which Martine kept dutiful note of, with every intention of returning them after she was safely eighteen years of age. She lived on her grandmother’s savings, made her own meals, and washed her own clothes. After all, she was practically an adult. Why draw attention to her situation and be placed with questionable strangers?
Official papers came from the school, and her grandmother’s signature wasn’t at all difficult to forge. Her grandmother had never been chummy with the neighbors, having been something of a hermit herself, content with her gardening, quilting, and Dutch novels.
Martine developed a very secretive life and did everything to minimize contact with all others who might prove to be dangerously inquisitive. And she pulled it off, for an entire year, until she reached her eighteenth birthday. Then she notified the authorities, sent back the pension money, and arranged for the transfer of her grandmother’s estate to herself, as specified in the will.
But right about that time, the pain in her legs worsened noticeably, and the medical prognosis was terrifying—that she would be in a wheelchair within two years. By sheer determination, she was able to extend that date, with three years using a cane and two using a walker, before she finally succumbed to her pain and the chair. Not exactly the electric chair, but she had long regarded it with a similar amount of dread.
During her years using the walker, she was increasingly unsettled with the stares and pity that accompanied her every public appearance, to which the chair added a frustrating lack of access to a multitude of public areas. Yes, it was a thorough relief the day that she decided to turn her back and retreat from the world.
She not only wanted to be free from the world’s pity, but also from the general annoyance of . . . people. Martine realized that few would understand her attitude, but she couldn’t help it. She just didn’t really like people. They were loud, especially children. They were rude, bickering, gossiping, and back-stabbing.
Oh, perhaps her impressions were clouded by the cutthroat world of American high schools, but her exposure to the adult world had provided an equally dismal picture. The evening news was filled with corruption, violence, and selfish confrontations. Any walk down Main Street was accompanied by angry impatient car horns, irritating cellphone fights that no innocent stranger should have been subjected to, spoiled nagging kids begging to have their every whim indulged, and the burdens people imposed on one another, usually in the name of family. At least her life had avoided that shackle.
Perhaps her aversion to human contact had something to do with her early lack of parents and siblings. And as attached as she had been to Uncle Pierre, he was so often on his boat making a living, leaving her in the care of local sitters. Perhaps it had to do with her hermit year of living alone after her grandmother had died. Perhaps it had a great deal to do with disability. But the upshot was, Martine was more than happy to lead a solitary life, free of human demands, complications, and entanglements.
Her apartment was spartan, functional, with a large bed in the middle of the living room, equipped with guardrails, and plenty of room around it to maneuver the wheelchair. Her desk and two guest chairs were alongside the window, whose curtains were often drawn. It gave the apartment the feel of a cave, which suited Martine just fine.
As long as the grocery store and takeout restaurants delivered, it was a way of life that could be continued indefinitely. Any need that she had for companionship, news, novelty, or amusement could be handled by her trusty computer. It was also the means by which she made a living.
Speaking of which . . . on this early summer day, she reacted to an expected knock on the door and buzzed the visitor in. It was Tessa Graham, her latest client.
Tessa’s husband was not such a nice guy. In addition to having several affairs, he spoke to Tessa roughly and often insulted her in front of their mutual friends. Divorce had not yet been discussed between them, but it was only a matter of time. And when it did arrive, Tessa had no reason to doubt that her husband would prove to be petty, stingy, and vindictive. She was entitled to half of his assets. But he would undoubtedly only reveal a fraction of them. That’s where Martine came in.
Tessa was a forty-five-year-old woman, still youthful, but anxious and agitated. She was well aware that by the end of this day, both her marriage and her time in Oyster Cove might come to an end. It was actually her second visit to Martine that day – the first had been to drop off her husband’s laptop so that Martine could assess the situation.
“So, what’s the good news?” Tessa asked, more poking fun at her own hopefulness than actually hopeful.
“Oh, plenty of good news, so I hope you packed your bags. Apparently, your husband is something of a real estate mogul. He’s got investment properties in Greece, Belize, Panama, Ireland, and Thailand. Oh, I see that’s news to you. Boat in the Caymans. Big, big boat.”
Tessa shook her head in disbelief. “How did I not know about any of this?”
“Because he’s good at hiding things. But I’m better. Did you know that you had Netflix?”
“Oh, yeah,” Tessa said in confusion. “We’ve had that for years. I miss the old video stores though.”
“Ted started buying Netflix stock in 2010. And he entered it at just the right time. He’s only put in ten thousand, but it’s worth over eight hundred thousand now.”
Tessa’s jaw dropped open, and she slowly made her way to the nearest chair. “What . . . do you think the courts would give me any of that money?”
“The courts will give you half the money. No ifs, ands, or buts. First of all, you’re entitled to fifty percent of his assets. And just to make that super clear, your name is going to be listed as an owner of all the stock. We’re also going to scan your signature and include it on all of these documents.”
“But . . . but . . . is that legal?”
“It’s totally illegal. But it will be untraceable. And it will be insurance that you get the settlement that you’re entitled to. Did you or did you not support your husband for four years of college and two years of business school? All right then. I don’t want to hear a peep of guilt coming out of you. All we’re doing is making sure that he doesn’t weasel his way out of what he owes you. Now, did you check out the bank statements?”
Tessa rifled through several pages of bank statements, getting increasingly agitated. “I knew about the Chase, but not the Bank of America or the Capital One. I feel like such an idiot.”
“Here’s what we’re going to do. Your name is going to go on the Bank of America and the Capital One accounts. That will all be in place by this afternoon. Then you go to the bank, on your way out of town, and withdraw, oh, say, half of each balance. That’s going to be a very easy thing to explain in divorce court. That you took the half that you are entitled to because you needed something to live on while the settlement details are being hashed out.”
Tessa brightened. “Holy cow! It’s so much money. I can’t believe I’m going to have so much money.”
“Your soon-to-be ex is not going to believe it either. Do you think you’ll miss Oyster Cove?”
“No, I never want to lay eyes on Ted or his friends again.”
“Where to?” Martine inquired, almost enviously.
“Palm Springs. My little sister lives there with her husband. I’ve been out twice, and I like it a lot. And I’d be able to buy a house outright, wouldn’t I?”
Martine nodded. “Hot summers, though.”
“Oh, summers in Seattle. I have a cousin there. And they have the nicest cabin on the San Juan Islands. They go pretty much every weekend. Oh! Oh! Maybe they’d let me have the cabin during the week, and then when they use it on the weekend, I can house sit for them back in Seattle.”
“I think you’re really going to enjoy being divorced,” Martine noted. “Shall I go ahead and get your name on all of this stuff?”
Tessa nodded defiantly. “I’m absolutely going to enjoy being divorced.”
“I’ll get started then, and we’ll get his laptop back on his desk way before he gets home from work. This won’t take more than an hour. Here are some printouts for your signature.”
It actually only took about forty minutes. Tessa left gratefully, clutching her husband’s computer—another satisfied customer. Martine was also rather pleased with herself. All in a day’s work for Oyster Cove’s most talented hacker.
Martine was well aware that most people would take issue with the pride she felt in her hacking skills. The public’s image of hackers is pretty dismal and somewhat deserved. But not all hackers are cut from the same cloth. There is, in fact, an official distinction between different categories of hackers—black hat, white hat, and Martine’s style, gray hat.
The black hat hackers are the ones who give all hackers a bad name. They are the ones who steal identities, steal money, wreak havoc, and pile more vacation fun on your credit card in one weekend than you have in the past five years.
Then there are the white hats, the good guys. They actually provide a valuable service in the world and make a comfortable living from their moneyed clients. They help companies find their cyber security vulnerabilities and then plug up the leaks and fortify their systems against all potential threats.
Those clients could be fun to find. The hacker chooses a likely potential customer, breaks into their system, and sends the most sweetly-worded email about how they might as well hand out wads of cash on the street because their system is so vulnerable. Perhaps they could use the assistance of a competent computer professional. Most companies are simultaneously alarmed and grateful and eager to patch up any frailties in their networks. Martine had scored quite a few customers using that particular ploy.
And then there was the nebulous area of the gray hats. This involved quite a bit of illegal and illicit activity, though generally guided by ethical principles. The manipulation of Ted Graham’s assets was a perfect case in point. He was not the first impending divorce case that Martine had handled. It was always a similar story though, trying to hide assets from spouses who had put them through school, or raised their children, or even nursed them through a near-fatal illness.
Martine’s work often confirmed her worst opinions of humanity. Ted Graham was a snake. Twenty years of secrecy and cheating would have ended in a thieving divorce. And though Martine was on Tessa’s side, she had been a blind fool far too long. No, neither her clients nor the targets of her surveillance did anything to contradict Martine’s low opinion of the human race.
She had certainly met her fair share of dodgy characters. She had actually felt a bit threatened by one of them this past year, a restaurant owner by the name of Joel Isaac. He was furious that a notorious Yelp reviewer had panned the service in his restaurant and complained about the quality of the food.
“‘Bland sauce’, he says. So why doesn’t he do me a favor and not come back to my bland sauce restaurant? But he comes back. ‘Too spicy. Ridiculously, painfully spicy. Not at all tasty. I should’ve stayed home and popped in a frozen dinner, rather than pay for this fast food.’ I don’t know what I ever did to that guy to deserve this, but I know what I’d like to do to him. I’d like to show him exactly what you get playing around with someone’s blood, sweat, and tears—all of their income, all of their investment. I’d like to show him exactly what he’s taken from me. My restaurant is empty now, night after night. So I need to know exactly who this guy is. I need you to tell me who The Destroyer is, and then I need to have a little conversation with him.”
Clearly, Mr. Isaac was out for blood. He’d sounded so angry and so menacing and so dangerous that Martine could clearly see that providing him with the identity of The Destroyer would probably result in bloodshed.
He wasn’t the only one who had approached her trying to find out the identity of this gleefully negative Yelp reviewer. His nickname, The Destroyer, had been created by Oyster Cove’s restaurant owners, who were the primary targets of his inflammatory and damaging reviews.
Although Martine refused to take any of the customers who were anxious to uncover The Destroyer’s identity, she couldn’t help but indulge her own curiosity to uncover his name. It was Theodore Kingston, the well-to-do owner of a yacht rental company. Whether he was a perfectionist or a troublemaker was unclear, but he found fault in almost every service provider and meal. Even when there’s absolutely nothing to complain about, this contrarian imagination would come up with something.
There was one restaurant owner whom Martine had felt compelled to help, probably because Rachel Hemmings wasn’t as interested in uncovering The Destroyer’s identity as she was in getting rid of one of his untrue and very damaging reviews.
“Capers! Those weren’t mouse droppings. They were capers, and he knew it! That’s the kiss of death for a restaurant. You mention anything like mice, rats, or roaches, and it’s all over. Everyone assumes that he knows what he’s talking about. I had an inspector over after that. Nothing. There are no living creatures in my establishment. Unfortunately, that includes human beings. He got rid of all of my customers. With a lie. Ruined my dream. With a lie.”
That was a case that Martine had no trouble intervening in. Sure, it was illegal. Blah, blah, blah. But she’d had no qualms about deleting the lie and giving Rachel another shot at her dream. Gray hat.
Of course, work like hers had to be done on the down-low. Still, there was no way that word wouldn’t get around town about a very skilled and potentially useful hacker. There was also no way that she could have avoided coming to the notice of the Oyster Cove Police Department. She wasn’t quite sure how many times they had come undercover in their entrapment attempts. Most of the time, they requested something so immoral and outrageous from her that she sent them packing, as she would if they were ordinary citizens making the same requests.
But when Martine was actually able to tell that they were undercover cops, she couldn’t resist. She would agree to take the case, and agree to take their money, and then create some benign, entertaining virus for them. These viruses didn’t accomplish what they had requested, but instead showed them clowns piling out of a clown car, or various animal species befriending one another—you know, those cute YouTube videos. One time, she’d sent them to a Chinese fortune cookie site to receive their succinct words of wisdom for the day.
She always ended with a jokey virus and a special message for the cops. “Officers, I hope you’ve appreciated the special gift from me to you. Now go get yourself some doughnuts. You fellas work way too hard.”
They always had to come back sheepishly to retrieve their payment. After a while, they just learned to leave her alone. After all, how many times does anyone want to write up that report? And the hacker was in a wheelchair, for heaven’s sake. Not to mention, she was always two steps ahead of them. Best to leave well enough alone.
While grateful for their incompetence, Martine’s alienation from others continued to grow.
She did have one regular customer who, as a general rule, didn’t get on her nerves. His name was Jeremy Todd. He was a young public defender and would probably win the award for the least annoying person that she knew. Hopefully, she wasn’t swayed by the fact that he was inordinately cute—’cause that would just be shallow. And besides, he wasn’t available. And even if he were, Martine grimly understood that the wheelchair and her illness had cut off a multitude of options in her life, most notably love and romance.
Jeremy had a very interesting love life. Or at least a very interesting girlfriend, which she never tired of goading him about.
“I can’t believe you’re dating the mayor. What on earth does she see in you?”
“Rugged 007 good looks. Einstein genius. Charisma for days.”
“All of that is such blatant nonsense that normally, I would have to conclude that you are just filthy rich. But you’re not. I’ve seen your bank account.”
Jeremy’s mouth dropped open. “You have not.” But he didn’t sound so sure.
“I have to do background checks on all of my clients. I have to make sure that you are who you say you are. You don’t want your secrets out? Hello! That’s kind of what I do. And bank statements are generally a window into a person’s . . . arteries. But no need to be embarrassed. You’re in remarkably good shape for a man who eats as much takeout Chinese as you do. Didn’t anybody ever teach you how to cook?”
“As it so happens, the mayor is very fond of Chinese food. That’s right. And you are a piece of work.”
“Sorry. Too much time on my hands, I guess.”
Jeremy had never heard the full story of why Martine was in a wheelchair. He had always assumed that she had been in some kind of accident and might be completely paralyzed from the waist down. But recently, once or twice, he had seen her leg move. It seemed to cause her quite a bit of discomfort. And though he hated to intrude on her privacy, he also needed to know if there was anything he could do to help.
“Promise not to get mad.”
“At you? I don’t know. You do have some pretty annoying tendencies. What’s up?”
“What’s wrong with your legs? And yes, I know it’s none of my business.”
She should have been annoyed. But it had been a long, long time since anyone had expressed a personal interest in her. And she had peeked at his bank account. Maybe she owed him one.
“I need a bone marrow transplant. And I’m a really hard match. My parents forgot to have a few more siblings who would’ve made really useful donors. So, things just got worse and worse. And here I am. And this is the way things are.”
Jeremy’s mind was racing. “Transplant. Huh. I think I know where you might be able to find exactly what you’re looking for. Maybe a bit more than you’re looking for.”
“A bone marrow match? For me? What makes you think you could even begin to locate such a thing?”
Jeremy shrugged cockily. “I know a guy.”
“And he’s . . . a wizard?”
“Why don’t you sit tight, and I’ll look into it?”
“Oh, sure. I’ll sit right here. Won’t move until you get back. Promise.”
Jeremy flinched. That wasn’t quite what he’d meant to say. But if his “wizard” transplant doctor could change her life, then all would be forgiven.