“And the bad?”
“I’m getting concerned with the security of the site. Sid is ready to pull his hair out. I don’t know what to tell him.” I risked a questioning look his way. I was approaching a subject he hated discussing.
He sat back and threw his napkin on the table. “You won’t give me access to the code, Erica. What the hell do you want me to do?”
“It’s not out of distrust, Blake. We need to be in control of the code for the long-term and you know that. Yet we all remain in the dark as to why we’ve been inexplicably and relentlessly attacked by this group.”
He stared past me, avoiding my eyes and the pleading in them. An uneasy knot formed in my stomach. I hated his secrets. They ate at me like my own once used to, before I poured my heart and soul out to Blake. Revealing my past to him had lessened the burden, but I didn't know how to make him trust me the same way.
“You want my trust, Blake. This is why I have a hard time giving it so freely. You keep things from me.”
“If I’m not forthcoming with information, it’s for your own good.”
“Can’t I decide what’s for my own good? Jesus, I’m not a child.”
He muttered a curse under his breath, moved to the living room, and sank into the couch.
I chose a seat on the other couch, unsure how the rest of this conversation would go. A safer, less sexual distance might be better if we were going to accomplish anything constructive.
“You said you would fix this. You promised me. And if it's not that easy, fine, but I deserve to know what's really going on here. Maybe I can help.”
He exhaled through his nose and let his head fall back on the couch. “You already know that I was a member of M89 when I was a teenager.”
“Yes,” I said quietly.
He leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees, avoiding my eyes. “What you don’t know is that I led the group with someone else.”
“Who?” My voice was quiet and tentative. I didn’t want to give him any reason not to tell me the things I so wanted—needed—to know.
“Cooper. His name was Brian Cooper.”
I paused. “Was?”
His jaw ticked. He pushed back his dark brown hair that had grown longer since we’d met and fell unkempt across his forehead. I wanted to reach over and fix it but didn’t want to interrupt the moment.
“He killed himself.”
“Oh my God.” I touched my hand to my mouth. No wonder he didn’t want to talk about this. “When?”
“After the group was busted for hacking the bank accounts, they brought us all in. Except I’d been out of the operation for weeks. Cooper had been a friend, and when we came up with the original plan, I was on board for hacking the Wall Street guys, but then he’d wanted to start in on individual accounts. Regular people who invested their hopes of retirement with these jerks, but beyond that, had no connections to their Ponzi shit. I couldn’t get behind it so I left the group. Our friendship was over, and obviously there was bad blood between us. When the Feds started questioning me…”
A heavy silence fell and my heart twisted. Blake was inextricably tied to the circumstances that had led to his young friend's suicide.
“Fuck, I don’t know. I was young and pissed off and everything happened so fast.” He rubbed his eyes with the heels of his hands, as if trying to erase whatever visions had conjured there.
“It’s okay. Tell me.” I moved from the adjacent couch to sit next to him, wanting to be close to him but worried about what he might say. But I wanted to know.
“I told them the truth. And because I cooperated, I basically got off and the investigators put the pressure on him. I wasn’t trying to save myself, Erica. I just wanted to set the record straight. If I was going down with the ship, I wanted people to know what I stood for.”
“Baby…” The words caught in my throat.
Pain shadowed his gaze. Years of regret had kept him from telling me this the first time the site went down.
“They didn’t get far with him before he killed himself. That effectively ended the investigation. The funds were returned, and the rest of us got a slap on the wrist. Because we were all minors, they sealed the records. That's why most of what you read about me are just rumors. Only a handful of people really know what went down.”
“How did the group stay active after all of this?”
“It didn’t, but someone revived it a few years ago.”
“An original member?”
“I doubt it, but I don’t honestly know. I don’t run in those circles anymore, but based on them being a persistent pain in my ass, whoever is behind this new generation of the group is holding a torch for Cooper. They probably worship him like he’s some sort of goddamn martyr for the cause. What cause that might be is still a mystery to me.”
“Have you tried to reach out to them?”
“No. I don’t negotiate with terrorists.”
The frustrated anger I'd come to recognize whenever we spoke about the hackers replaced the pained expression on his face. Blake was powerful and incredibly talented, but these people had somehow rattled him. That they did scared me, because he might be my last and only defense against them.
“Doesn’t that seem like a hard line to take, considering how dedicated they are to ruining everything you touch?”
“We know their strategies. They’re predictable, so my team has figured out efficient ways to keep them out of our business. They’re vandals, but once you know their angle, you can outsmart them. I can’t do the same for you until you let me.”
“You’re not looking at the source of the problem.”
He sighed. “Whoever they are, they see him as a martyr. And I’m Benedict Arnold. Nothing about that will change as long as they exist.”
“I think you’re missing the point.”
“I’ll talk to Sid in the morning, all right? That’s it.”
The edge in his voice gave me pause. His vulnerability had disappeared, expertly masked behind his anger. But I knew better. He and Cooper had been friends once. Surely his death must have clung to him. Blake seemed to take personal responsibility for nearly everyone around him. I caught the reaction in his eyes when he spoke of him, but as quickly as he'd opened up, he’d closed himself off again.
I wanted to kiss him then, coax out the man I loved and soothe the pain that still lingered within him. I reached up tentatively and cupped his cheek in my palm. He turned into my gesture, placing his hand over mine and turning my palm up to kiss it gently before pulling it down onto the couch between us.