A young man climbs a building wearing strange gloves, boots and a robust exoskeleton and then suddenly falls to his death at the scene of Lara Kingsley’s latest surveillance job. And that means she has some explaining to do.
While installing a high-end surveillance system for a Chinese tech start-up, private investigator Lara witnesses a man fall to his death from a ten-story office building. Despite the strange military-grade attire, Lara has no idea she’s about to get caught up in a Top Secret Pentagon project and thrust into a deadly, international technology race. But she’s sure of one thing. The man was murdered.
Lara begins a desperate mission to prove the man’s death was a homicide. Racing to unravel the mystery, she confronts a new technological world of nanotechnology, neural implants, self-driving cars, and passenger drones. To solve the murder and stop Chinese operatives from stealing vital defense technologies from the United States, Lara must enlist the help of her AI-powered virtual assistant, her trusty sidekick, her ex-boyfriend, and an ill-tempered detective from the D.C. Metropolitan police.
Just how far will Lara go to protect U.S. national security and prevent China from gaining critical advantages on the battlefield of the future?
Project Gecko is book two in the Lara Kingsley Series, which is set in the near future and weaves together elements of mystery, techno-thriller, and science fiction. If you liked Bionic Bug, then you’ll love this latest installment of Natasha Bajema’s action-packed mystery series. Buy Project Gecko to join Lara and her team on their latest exciting adventure.
Warning: This is not your grandmother’s mystery novel.
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March 27, 2028
Brilliant flashes of lightning spread across the dark sky like a delicate spiderweb. A cascade of rumbling thunder followed the display of light. Standing on the fourth stair of the ladder, Lara stopped for a moment to watch nature’s dazzling show through the floor-to-ceiling glass windows of Wei Zhang’s office.
Lara propped her elbow on the top of the ladder and pursed her lips at the rain drops on the window. Riding home on her motorcycle in the middle of a fierce storm was not her idea of a fun time. She’d hoped to avoid the thunderstorm forecasted for the evening, but completing the job at Spectral Industries was taking far longer than she’d planned. She’d never installed such a complex surveillance system in her two-year career as a private investigator.
I should have known better… twenty-four thousand square feet.
Spectral Industries, a Chinese technology startup located in a luxury high-rise in The Wharf District of D.C., produced nanotechnologies for defense industries around the world. The CEO’s vast office suite came with some unexpected complications—a massive seawater aquarium running along the entire interior wall and a large terrarium that was impossible to move. These required some creative workarounds to install her equipment. She’d asked Vik to begin setting up the operating system only after she thought the end was in sight. But they were nowhere close to being done.
Mr. Zhang expected me to be finished an hour ago.
Lara had met the firm’s CEO, an intense Chinese man in his fifties, at a Mensa event. There, he’d explained in excessive detail the range of impressive developments taking place at the nanoscale with sizes of matter invisible to the human eye.
She was flabbergasted to learn that a single inch equaled 25,400,000 nanometers and asked him all sorts of technical questions to satisfy her curiosity. He explained that scientists can see and manipulate molecules and atoms using special instruments called atomic force microscopes. His company aimed to leverage new chemical properties at the nanoscale to produce new materials with battlefield applications.
Somehow she’d managed to impress the famously persnickety CEO and landed the job to install Spectral’s new security system. He’d offered her fifty thousand dollars plus expenses for a job that would take several days, a week at most. Plus, she could count on referrals around town if he was pleased with her work.
My favorite kind of job.
She glanced over her shoulder at Vik, who sat at the CEO’s glass desk, staring at the widescreen Retina iMac display and typing on the holographic keyboard. He’d been consumed with coding the IT portion of the system. Despite working side by side for the entire day, they had not yet spoken about their heated exchange.
“Are you almost finished over there?” Lara asked, breaking another long and tense period of silence between them.
Vik nodded, but kept his eyes on the screen. “I have to finish up a few more lines of code, and then we’re all set.” He furrowed his brow. “Do you know why Mr. Zhang is replacing his old system? I mean, the old surveillance system was pretty decent.”
“Not sure. He was really keen on adding these infrared cameras and twenty-four-seven exterior drone surveillance.”
Mr. Zhang had chosen the huge penthouse office space for its unique security features, including iris recognition scanners, purified air, and bulletproof glass windows. Everything was top of the line, including a fully automated window washing system.
The surveillance system she’d selected for Spectral was also state of the art. The IT system was protected with quantum key distribution encryption, and the cameras were capable of detecting visible light, infrared, and motion. Mr. Zhang insisted she install surveillance cameras to cover every square foot of the office suite with high-quality audio and motion sensors.
In addition, he wanted autonomous drones to surveil the exterior perimeter of the penthouse. She figured Mr. Zhang had hired her over a more experienced PI for her drone specialty. She glanced over at the untouched boxes that contained the drones.
Not gonna finish this job tonight. I shouldn’t have overpromised.
“I don’t get it,” Vik blurted.
“What don’t you get?”
Vik raised his hands in the air. “What’s with the Fort-Knox-level security? I didn’t notice anything valuable in the office suite.”
“And where’s Mr. Zhang? If he needs this place secured so tightly, why isn’t he here overseeing the operation?”
“Good question,” Lara said, surveying the office one more time. “But our job is to install the system, not ask questions. As long as we get paid, right?”
“Yeah,” Vik said, shaking his head. “It’s just odd.”
Once installed and activated, Mr. Zhang would be able to control the angle and zoom of the motorized high-definition cameras and drones from his cellphone. Lara installed a total of thirty cameras throughout the penthouse office suite, some of them hidden from sight. Whatever happened at Spectral during the day or night, Mr. Zhang would be able to see it in real time.
Maybe some of the artwork decorating the walls is worth a small fortune?
“What do you think this button does?” Vik pointed eagerly to a small red button on the underside of Zhang’s large glass desk, just inside one of its four chrome legs. His finger inched closer toward it.
Lara glared at him and snapped, “Whatever you do, please do notgo around pressing any buttons.”
Vik’s face went slack.
She regretted sounding like a killjoy nag. But after Vik took his aunt and uncle on a tour of her safe room without asking, she wasn’t sure if he understood proper boundaries. Plus, she’d given him a lecture about not touching things before they started the installation. “You know Mr. Zhang is rather particular about his stuff,” she added in defense of her sharpness.
And that is not an understatement.
Turning back to the task at hand, she steadied the power drill in her right hand and held a metal bracket in her left. The drill squealed as it sprang into action. Lara bored two holes in the wall and then secured a bracket with a couple of screws. It took only a minute before another tiny security camera was mounted in its place.
“You know what’s missing from this picture?” Vik asked.
“What?” Lara asked, a bit too sharply again. She wanted him to focus on the job.
He motioned to the aquarium spanning the entire wall. “Come on. Think about the whole James Bond feel of this office. What’s missing?” he asked again.
Lara glanced around and cocked her head. “I don’t know, what?”
Mr. Zhang’s office was sparsely decorated with modern furniture. In addition to the glass desk where Vik sat, there were three black leather chairs surrounding an empty glass coffee table and a gray couch along the back wall. Across from her stood the brightly-lit aquarium with fluorescent turquoise water. The massive tank contained a variety of exotic fish and plant life. She thought she’d even spied a small shark, but she couldn’t be sure.
Vik flashed her a goofy grin. “Uh, a white, fluffy cat and a trapdoor in the center of the room with a shark tank underneath… to go with the little red button.”
I guess the office does have the ambience of a spy film.
Lara chuckled as she climbed down the ladder. Vik turned away from her as she began gathering her tools in an effort to wrap things up. Outside, the thunderstorm approached quickly, threatening heavy rain.
“Hey, did you see these geckos over here? They’re huge!” Vik called out from across the room.
Along the wall, behind the glass desk, stood a large terrarium. She’d avoided looking at that tank all day, but not because of the geckos. She didn’t want to be reminded of her close encounter with bionic bugs in a human-size glass tank.
Glancing over, she saw two unusually large geckos of a blue-gray color with bright red spots. “They probably bite. I wouldn’t touch them.”
“This one must be fourteen inches long. I think they’re Tokay geckos. Did you know they live for more than twenty years? They’re so cute.” Vik grinned, holding his smartphone to take a picture. “According to this website, Tokay geckos have unique toe pads thatallow them to climb any surface.”He stared at his phone screen.
“Vik, can you please focus on the job?” Lara pursed her lips. “I don’t want to be here all night.” She collapsed the ladder and laid it on its side. Scanning the office, she made a mental list of tasks that still needed to be done.
“Ouch!” Vik shouted.
Startled, Lara looked over to see a gecko dangling from Vik’s finger. “Dammit, Vik…”
She strode toward him, contemplating her options. She wasn’t afraid of lizards, but didn’t want to get bitten either.
“Gahhhhh,” he moaned, shaking his hand vigorously. “It won’t let go. Get it off me! Get it off me!” He moved around frantically, but the gecko held on for dear life.
“Hold still,” she said firmly.
Vik stopped moving and held out his arm.
With both of her hands, she grabbed the gecko’s body and gently massaged it. Sensing her touch, the gecko released Vik’s finger and curved its head toward her. Ignoring its fierce eyes, Lara carefully lowered the gecko back into the terrarium and then glared angrily at Vik. “Now what did I tell you?”
“Not to touch anything.” Vik stared at his feet while sucking his finger. “Apparently, Tokay geckos can inflict a nasty bite.”
“You think?” Lara shook her head in disbelief. Several minutes of silence fell between them. Bright flashes of light and loud rumbles of thunder warned of the imminent storm.
Vik hesitated, fidgeting with the hem of his t-shirt. “Are we going to talk about earlier this week?” There was caution in his voice.
“What about it?” Lara asked.
“Well, I’m sorry I upset you,” Vik said with an apologetic look.
“Have you told your aunt and uncle the truth about your studies yet?” Lara asked, raising an eyebrow.
Vik shook his head, his shoulders drooping.
Lara frowned. “You know they’re going to find out sooner or later. It’s better you tell them now.”
Lara didn’t understand why Vik’s family kept trying to force him to be someone he didn’t want to be. They’d almost sent him back to India when he withdrew from one of the top computer science graduate programs at MIT to study criminal justice at Georgetown instead. And now they were completely in the dark about his major.
“I will tell them.” Vik paused, inspecting the wound on his finger.
“Yes. And I’m sorry for not asking your permission to bring over guests. It was incredibly insensitive of me to enter your home uninvited.”
“I know,” Lara said. With Vik working from her company office on the second floor of the townhouse, the boundary lines were somewhat blurry. “And I’m sorry I got so angry. Honestly, I don’t know why I overreacted. I have a lot of things on my mind these days.”
“Of course you do,” Vik said.
Lara’s heart softened. She could never be mad at Vik for long. But despite his apology, her stomach remained in knots. Something else was on her mind. She exhaled sharply. “You’re not really leaving me, are you?”
Vik avoided her gaze. “You know I don’t want to leave you. But my aunt and uncle don’t approve of my PI work. And I’m not sure my fiancé will either.”
Lara put her hands on her hips. “Vik, I don’t think you should cave to—”
Suddenly, a burst of light blinded her, followed by a loud crack of thunder that shook the entire building. Seconds later, everything went black. In the darkness, Lara heard a loud thud.
“What was that? Are you okay?” Lara asked.
“I’m fine. I just can’t see anything and bumped into the desk,” Vik said.
“Hold on. I have a flashlight on my tool belt.” Before Lara found it and flipped the switch, she heard another strange thud. “What’s going on over there?” She shined the beam in Vik’s direction and saw him standing behind the glass desk, sucking his injured finger.
Another bolt of lightning. Lara turned to look outside and glimpsed a dark shadow on the glass window, and let out a guttural scream. She backed up, nearly falling over the ladder on the floor. She blinked her eyes repeatedly to make sure she was seeing things clearly. Clinging to the window was the shape of a man.
Her heart pounded hard against her chest, and a rush of adrenaline coursed through her body.
Vik pointed to the window, waving his arms frantically and unable to speak. “That’s a…”
“… man,” Lara exclaimed as she attempted to gather her wits. The man, dressed in a robust black suit, was scaling the building with strange gloves and boots. Otherwise, there was nothing holding him to the building. Rain began to spatter sharply against the windows. When the lightning flashed again, she could see the man slipping a few inches. In the pale light, his eyes bulged out of his harried face.
“Lara, he’s slipping!” Vik shouted. “We have to help him!”
Lara ran toward the panel windows, looking for a way to open one of them. “Do you know how to get these things open?”
“It looks like there’s a moveable pane and a latch on the middle window a few feet to his right,” Vik said, approaching her from behind.
“Here. Hold the flashlight,” Lara said.
The man slipped further.
Her hand shaking, Lara grabbed the latch and tried to turn it. “I can’t get it open…”
“Use one of your tools,” Vik said, waving his free hand around in a panic.
Glancing down at her tool belt, Lara grabbed a pair of pliers and placed the grip around the window latch. Squeezing with all her might, she turned the latch to the open position and dropped the pliers to the ground. When she pulled open the window, a strong gust of wind and rain blew into the office.
Lara stuck her head out the window and reached toward the man. “Grab my hand!” she shouted as a loud crack of thunder drowned out the sound of her voice. He didn’t appear to hear her. “Take my hand,” she shouted again.
A man with red hair and bloodshot blue eyes stared back at her, a look of terror crossing his face. Lara waved her hand at him, trying to convince him to take it. He stared at her hand for a moment, as if considering his options. Slowly, he removed one of his gloved hands from the glass and reached for her hand. But before she was able to get a grip, he slipped another few inches out of her reach. He slammed his hand back against the glass but couldn’t seem to recover his hold.
“Vik, I need you to keep me from falling,” Lara said, leaning further out the window. “Hold my legs.”
Vik dropped the flashlight to the floor, put his arms around her legs, and leaned backwards to counterbalance her weight.
“Grab my hand!” Lara shouted to the man, her body hanging partially out the window. In that moment, a bolt of lightning struck within several feet of the building. The loud clap of thunder nearly caused her to lose her grip on the frame of the window. Despite the fear coursing through her, Lara pushed her body further out the window, balancing her hip on the sill. She grabbed his glove just in time. “I’ve got you,” she screamed, the cold rain pelting against her skin. “Give me your other hand!”
The man shook his head, his face ashen white. Then his face became calm with a sense of resolve. He released some sort of lever on the glove and slipped his hand out.
“No,” Lara screamed, anticipating his next move.
He looked up at her, water streaming down his face. His eyes were wide and haunted. In an instant, he closed his eyes and slipped out of the glove Lara was holding. Her body jerked as she released his weight. She watched in horror as his body tumbled downwards, falling ten stories and landing with a heavy thud on the cement below