When agoraphobic genius Salem Wiley lands her dream job as an FBI cryptanalyst, she vows never to return to the witch hunt underworld, where ancient secrets encrypted by hunted women have the power to rewrite history. Her resolve disappears when sweet Mercy Mayfair, the child she is pledged to protect, is kidnapped. With the help of the enigmatic Agent Lucan Stone, Salem is forced to code hunt in Ireland, England, and Scotland to keep the girl alive. As the clock ticks, she must face the terrible truth that there is only one way to free Mercy: crack the unbreakable code of Stonehenge.
“She was a witch, a’course.”
Salem’s head snapped up so fast that loose curls tumbled over her eyes. “Excuse me?”
Pivoting her neck like that exploded the pain, shooting hot needles down her arm and toward the cell phone she’d been peeking at. Bel’s encouraging words—pretend like you know what you’re doing! everyone else is faking it too—had soothed her as she’d fought the cottony panic of imposter syndrome. That comfort was now shoved aside, the unpleasant thump of Muirinn Molony’s words echoing off the rustic cottage walls.
“A witch. My grandmother.” Mrs. Molony, several times a grandmother herself, smiled, revealing tiny twisted teeth.
A kettle bubbled behind her. Its steam perfumed the air with cinnamon and sage.
Salem guessed the woman didn’t receive many visitors on this lonely County Wicklow road. In fact, she’d assumed that’s why Mrs. Molony had phoned the UN’s threat line, her tip forwarded to cryptanalysts at the FBI. Forced Bedside Interrogations is what Agent Len Curson, Salem’s partner for the day, labeled these visits. The bootless errands had spread like a virus since the UN had advertised its line, which was dedicated to taking non—immediate threats related to the upcoming International Climate Change Summit. An environmental treaty was on the table, one requiring G20 countries to radically divest from fossil fuels.
The accord, if signed, would disrupt the global economy like a dropkick to an anthill.
The threat line had been overrun with calls.
“Many women were considered witches back then,” Mrs. Molony continued, her smile still in place. “At least that’s what they were called by those who didn’t understand the country ways. Really, my mamó was a midwife, not that it would have mattered, would it? Nurse, healer, cook. They were all labeled as witches. You sure I can’t offer you a spot of tea?”
The woman had spoken as one long word, her accent thick. Salem was still trying to catch up. “Your grandmother was a witch?”
Mrs. Molony exhaled a gentle disgust. Och. She stood, her head nearly brushing the low ceiling. “It’ll be easier to show you, won’t it? Here’s a bit for you before we tramp outdoors.” She offered Salem, not Agent Curson, a plum—sized sachet of herbs. It was string—tied in a scrap of blue cloth dotted with red flowers. “Protection against evil.”
Salem glanced at her partner as she tucked the aromatic bundle in her parka pocket. Judging by his sour expression, he was more certain than ever that they were on a snipe hunt. He brushed imaginary dust off his ironed jeans and followed the woman outside her cottage. Salem took up the rear, allowing her initial shock at the mention of witches to pass. Mrs. Molony had been referring to country superstition, not a dark conspiracy.
Salem followed them both outdoors, inhaling deeply of the scent of wet campfire. Chickens burred and clucked at her feet, scratching at the rain—softened earth. The weather had changed three times since she’d left the Dublin airport. Most recently, a coy sun was elbowing out the drizzle, its fairy light dancing with shadows at the edge of her vision. The play of bright and dark suggested movement where there was none, causing her to stare too long into the misted thickets and dripping brambles that defined Mrs. Molony’s yard. Beyond the hedgerow grew a vivid field of red poppies that mirrored the tiny blooms on the fabric of the sachet she had been given. The flowers were framed by a sea of emerald green Salem had yet to grow accustomed to, the lush, high hills of Ireland appearing liquid and timeless.
Agent Curson had driven the forty—seven miles to Mrs. Molony’s cottage. When he’d entered the directions into the GPS, Salem had studied the sky rather than swallowing an Ativan. She found she didn’t need her medicine, not here. Something about Ireland tugged at her gut in the most peculiar way, comforting her by bringing her home to a place she’d never been. As unsettling as the sensation was, it was better than anxiety, and she was grateful for the reprieve. She’d thought she had her agoraphobia under control when she’d agreed to join the FBI, but then she’d been assigned to London, and suddenly Minneapolis was forever away and the world too large.
The agent recruiting her had been insistent. Your country needs you. Your cryptanalysis will save lives.
Reluctantly, she’d joined the top—secret Black Chamber.
The covert branch had been dreamed up in 1919, when the US State Department and the Army proposed a peace—time cryptanalysis department. The organization initially disguised itself as a commercial coding company and set up stakes in New York City. The front office produced toll—saving telegram abbreviations for businesses while the back office cracked the diplomatic communications of the world’s most powerful nations.
Secretary of State Henry Stimson had shut it down in 1929, famously declaring that “gentlemen do not read each other’s mail.” Gina Hayes, the first female president of the United States of America, felt no such compunction. Her first unofficial act after taking office in January had been to revive the Black Chamber as a clandestine arm of the FBI.
Not counting the recruited codebreakers, fewer than five people knew.
The Black Chamber 2.0 was licensed to operate across international boundaries in service of Americans. They were to serve as the United States’ conduit to Five Eyes—the intelligence alliance among the US, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Australia, and Canada that allowed the countries to spy on one another’s citizens, sharing relevant SIGINT: impending terrorist attacks, assassination plans, destabilizing movements.
Len Curson and Salem Wiley were the first Black Chamber 2.0 analysts hired; another ten had followed. The middle—aged Curson was the only one who came to the table with field experience. The other eleven analysts had been speed—trained at Quantico. The battles that decided the fates of nations were now waged in cyberspace, physical soldiers replaced with computer warriors.
Nonetheless, the new hires needed to know how to defend themselves on the corporeal plane. During her sixteen weeks at Quantico, Salem had learned the proper use and maintenance of firearms, close space defensive tactics, survival skills, and intelligence gathering. She’d been at turns terrified and exhilarated during the training.
Her first, agoraphobia—stoking assignment upon graduation? Work with Five Eyes agents in London to intercept and decode every threat arriving in advance of the Climate Change Summit. The conference was drawing leaders from all over the world, including President Gina Hayes, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, leaders of NGOs and progressive organizations, professors and researchers, and internationally famous artists and activists.
Not that Salem would see any of them.
Since she’d been stationed in London, she’d been chained to a cubicle, tasked with sifting through piles of dead—end codes and paper tiger threats while simultaneously charged with developing a quantum—based SIGINT intercept program. After a full day of coding and cracking, if she had the energy, she’d trudge to the onsite gym to lift weights before tromping upstairs to the gray temp barracks and a private room not much bigger or brighter than her cubicle. Then she’d wake up and start all over again.
She loved the work.
She hated being so far from home.
She’d also developed an antagonistic relationship with her computer chair. It was an old model designed to wheeze up or down and that was it. No matter how she messed with it, the angle was wrong. Her elbows either hung too low or were stretched too high, and the arm rests irritated her after twelve hours in the chair.
Hence the Gordian knot swelling in her neck.
When Agent Curson, a twenty—five—year veteran of the FBI and a trained linguist, had requested Salem on this field job, she’d been almost relieved to escape that Iron Maiden of a computer chair, even though it meant flying in a four—seater plane across the sea to Dublin, a journey that would have been unthinkable this time last year.
Agent Curson had imparted that a Mrs. Muirinn Molony had phoned the threat line. She’d claimed she’d received an airtight tip from a relative that President Gina Hayes would be assassinated at the upcoming environmental summit. She insisted she needed to speak to agents in person, to show them the danger. That lives were at stake.
The one qualification she demanded? These agents must be able to crack codes.
Agent Curson had devoted the hour—long drive from the airport to Mrs. Molony’s Blessington cottage to complaining about what a monumental shitcan time—waster this visit was sure to be, his grumbling interspersed with travel suggestions should Salem ever return to the area, including a recommendation that she visit St. Brigid’s Cathedral just up the road.
Salem had granted him half her attention. The rest of her was marveling at Ireland’s atmosphere, a steely gray sky studded with jagged, wet clouds, the heavens seemingly close enough to whisper a secret. She’d been in Europe less than a month, her first journey off the continental United States. What if there were more places out there that felt as right as Ireland?
The squawk of a chicken snapped Salem back into the moment.
Mrs. Molony was tightening her apron as she led them behind her house. “The coded message is just ahead.” She raised her voice to be heard over a rustle of rain—scented wind rattling the branches. “It’s after I uncovered it that I had the dream about the shooting of your president. Straight from the mouth of my dead mamó.”
Agent Curson tossed a glance over his shoulder.
Told you so, it said. Snipe hunt.
Salem stepped past her partner as they crested a small rise, determined to treat the lonely woman with respect. So what if Mrs. Molony had a fanciful imagination? She’d gotten them out of their cubicles and into this green countryside under a sky that felt like an embrace. “You weren’t actually informed of a threat, Mrs. Molony? You dreamt it?”
“Aye, at first.” She had a humping walk, as if one leg was shorter than the other. She limped through the hedgerow and over a line of stones. “Then the visions came. I see them eyes open or closed now, I do. I wouldn’t have wasted your time otherways. Right around this bend we go, to my mamó’s grave.”
They stepped toward a clearing surrounded by knobby, gnarled trees that cast skeleton shadows over the earth. Salem smelled it before she saw it: fresh—dug dirt, loamy and alive in the middle of the glade. Nearby but separate, a weathered headstone was perched at the top of five feet of sunken earth.
Salem shuddered. One grave old, one grave new. Except the new hole was round and not yet filled in. The final resting place for an ailing pet?
Mrs. Molony nodded. “Here’s where I was talking. The well I was to dig. That’s how I uncovered the urgent message that brought you here.”
Salem’s instant relief—the fresh hole wasn’t a grave—made way for curiosity. “You dug a well by your grandmother’s grave?”
The woman shrugged. “That’s where the water is.”
Salem didn’t meet Agent Curson’s glance. Instead she smiled encouragingly at Mrs. Molony and began planning the story she’d relay to Bel. Bel, who’d threatened to drug Salem and tattoo loser on her forehead if she didn’t take the Black Chamber job, who’d joked that it was easier to land dates in a wheelchair because all the women she met wanted to mother her, whom Salem could not imagine life without.
Salem was smiling when the bird swooped at her. “Gah!”
She swung wildly at the air, ignoring Agent Curson’s startled bark of laughter. The magpie flapped and screeched before landing in the nearest tree.
Salem straightened her jacket and glanced around, heart thudding with surprise and embarrassment. Mrs. Molony was staring at her, her rheumy eyes suddenly clear, her gaze sharp and deep.
Salem’s stomach clenched in response.
A ripple passed across Mrs. Molony’s lined face. She pointed a bent finger at Salem and then the bird. “Tip your hat at the magpie, or you’re destined for a life of bad luck.”
Lady, you don’t know the half of it.
But Salem made a saluting motion with an imaginary hat.
Agent Curson coughed.
Mrs. Molony’s smile returned just as a cloud scudded over the sun. She indicated the pocket Salem had tucked the sachet into. “That’s all right, then. You’ll want to wear those protection herbs at your belt. That’s what the string is about. And now, here’s what you come for.”
She stepped to the fresh—dug hole and indicated that Agent Curson and Salem should do the same. “When I first laid eyes on the symbol, it put the heart crossways in me. Thought it was a wee set of graves right next to me mamó’s.”
Agent Curson reached the hole first. He grew bedrock still.
Salem stepped beside him, drawing the sachet out of her pocket as she moved. She followed his gaze, her breath turning to dust.