For a hacker of some renown, a very successful art thief, and the youngest daughter of a family whose wealth is measured in billions, I’ve always been a terrible liar. Some people are blessed with poker faces like statues and minds tuned to the purpose of adaptation, but not me. No, I’ve been an open book since birth, easily read by anyone who cares to look. With time and a lot of practice, I’ve managed to pull out a few key deceptions when it counted, but for the most part? I quite literally cannot lie to save my life.
It was one hell of a weakness for someone trying to avoid the attention of a global criminal syndicate.
My ex-husband, Devlin, sat across from me in the spacious train cabin, idly scrolling through the news. He was one of those lucky people who could weave a complete fabrication in an instant and somehow make it convincing. Good thing, too, since we would never have worked as a team otherwise.
As the ground level specialist, so to speak, his talent for prevarication was necessary on a regular basis. My emotions and the relative difficulty one would have in discerning them didn’t really matter. Devlin dealt with people, places, locks, vaults, and the like. I handled the computers, the networks, and – on very rare occasions – the engineering requirements for the jobs we pulled. It was why we’d started working together in the first place, so many years ago, after all.
He glanced up and caught me looking at him. “Everything okay?”
I blinked, felt warmth rushing into my cheeks, and coughed nervously. “Anything happening that I should know about?”
Devlin shrugged. “Nothing you don’t already know. There are a few papers talking about the ‘sudden influx of cash’ we arranged in Macau. No one’s picked up the story about the arms dealers, yet.”
“I wouldn’t be surprised if local governments are actively suppressing that. No one wants journalists asking to know how well armed those dealers actually were.”
“It would have been nice if we’d known how well-armed they’d been,” Devlin said, frowning slightly.
“Next time you talk to our employer,” I said, “be sure to let her know that you’d appreciate more intelligence, moving forward. Tell me how that goes.”
His frown deepened, but he didn’t respond.
It had been six months since the events in London, when Devlin had blown into San Francisco like a hurricane, freshly sprung from prison and seeking revenge against the man who’d sent him to jail in the first place. In the face of a dozen very good reasons to send my ex-husband packing, despite knowing that he represented nothing so much as pure chaos, I had decided to go with him. Maybe it was the cryptic email, sent via my own servers; maybe it was the fact that Devlin would almost certainly have wound up dead without me as command; maybe it was something more.
I didn’t really know what had made me hop on a flight. But I’d done it and it hadn’t been very long until the world stopped making sense. It had been insanity in London, from start to finish. It had been more dangerous than any job I’d tackled before my early retirement from the game.
It had been exhilarating.
Now, the one-off job had become something more. By undermining and eventually destroying the premiere drug lord in the greater London area, we’d made ourselves into targets. It was no longer about succeeding in a single heist, and getting away with the loot before anyone could point a finger; we had a mission, now, delivered straight to our doorsteps by a woman whose name we didn’t even know.
“Alright. I made a miscalculation,” I admitted, after letting Devlin stew for a few seconds. “I should have assumed that the gunrunners would have had government connections. How else could they get their hands on that kind of hardware and at that rate?”
“Other than the obvious way?”
“Yes, other than them. A direct link leading back to them would have been too much to ask for.”
“Because it can’t ever be easy, right?”
I snorted. “If it was easy, you wouldn’t trust it.”
Devlin wrinkled his nose and shrugged again. “Fair enough, I guess.”
“And now that I’ve admitted that I’m not omniscient,” I said, “let’s start talking about how I’m so much more beautiful, charming, and intelligent than you.”
“Don’t forget humble,” Devlin said. “Can’t forget that.”
“Of course not. I was just waiting for a more suitably dramatic moment.”
Devlin just rolled his eyes. “Does this mean you have new information to share with the class?”
“Spoilsport.” I stuck my tongue out at him. “As it turns out, I do have some new information. Not as much as I’d like to have, but it’s not nothing.”
“Well, now I’m curious,” Devlin said.
I detached the laptop screen from the keyboard and passed it over to him. While he skimmed over those documents, I checked my phone for new emails or text messages. Nothing new. That made me feel a little uneasy. Our employer wasn’t shy about getting in contact with us when some new tidbit of intelligence fell into her spiderweb.
We hadn’t heard anything from her since heading into West Africa. The intelligence she’d passed on had been customarily vague: a few aliases, photographs of key individuals from several months back, some banking accounts. With that meager start, we’d managed to identify a triad of arms dealers in the area, foment a minor revolution within their ranks, and redistribute a fair measure of power back to the people.
That was a good day’s work, by almost any measure. Almost any measure. Unfortunately, in the chaos of the small-scale civil war, the arms dealers’ collected data had quite literally gone up in smoke. Devlin had only been able to scavenge a few hard drives from the bombed out wreckage and I’d been poring over those bits and bytes for almost two weeks now.
Two weeks without additional guidance wasn’t out of the ordinary. For the most part, our employer gave our little team a fair amount of latitude to uncover clues and work towards our shared goal on our own terms. It was, however, unusual for us to effectively have a two week vacation.
Taking time off from the job felt strange, when it really should have been perfectly natural. Before Devlin dragged me back into the game, I hadn’t taken on an illicit contract in years. Now that I was back in the thick of it, though…well, I wanted to be working. Activity was infinitely preferable to inactivity. Without something to occupy my attention, I found myself alone with my own thoughts and no one wanted that.
“What do you think?” I asked, when Devlin finished reading and passed the tablet back to me.
“Looks like money was getting transferred away from the arms dealers in the last couple of months,” he said.
“Away from them, yes, and then into several shell companies. I’ve had a few web crawlers digging up information on the business names I’ve managed to recover, but it’s mostly just smoke and mirrors.”
Devlin nodded thoughtfully.
I pulled up a different window and passed the tablet back to him. “At first, I thought it was just business as usual. Tributes and bribes being paid out as needed, money transfers to keep the trail as diffuse and difficult to follow as possible. But the sums weren’t adding up and the amounts kept changing.”
“You said you thought it was business as usual. Does that mean you have a different idea now?”
“I do. I don’t think it was regular taxes, so to speak; I think our infinitely mysterious enemies were deliberately withdrawing funds to pay for a particular service or item.”
He frowned. “That matches up with the financial information we managed to retrieve in Macau, doesn’t it?”
“More or less.” He handed me the tablet again, which I tossed onto the seat beside me. “They’re borrowing money from several different subordinates, to make it impossible for any one party to figure out that they’re even collecting more money than usual.”
Devlin perked up. “You had my curiosity, but now…”
I stopped him with a raised finger. “When did you have time to watch that?”
He shrugged. “What else am I supposed to do while we’re waiting? I’ve been trying to catch up on all the movies I missed.”
That…made a weird amount of sense. Two and half years worth of missed pop culture references was probably a special sort of hell for Devlin. I resolved to sprinkle as many lines as possible into our conversations before he could fully catch up.
“What I’m trying to tell you,” I said, “is that I think the Magi are shopping around for something they can’t just purchase and that they really don’t want anyone to know they’re even paying for.”
“Experimental technology?” I suggested. “Military interventions? Major world leaders? I don’t know how one goes about buying a President, but it’s always a possibility.”
“Or,” Devlin said, “they could just be looking for information. If there’s anything we’ve learned over the last few months, intelligence is probably the most valuable thing out there.”
I pursed my lips. “If we’re right, though, that might end up giving us a new angle to exploit.”
“If we can figure out what they’re after,” Devlin said, “then we can get to it first. Just like with Hill, except with infinitely more of an opportunity to actually plan.”
With effort, I squashed the momentary flash of irritation. I’d planned a whole presentation, designed specifically to be impressive, and he’d just plucked my train of thought out of the air, probably from some micro-expression.
“It’s just something to think about,” I said.
“So what? We wait until they make a move?”
“Letting your opponent make the first move tends to triple your mortality rate,” I said. Devlin didn’t seem to get the reference and my mood lifted a little. “Unfortunately, though, I’m not seeing another option. Until we get further information from our employer or something changes in the criminal underworld, we’re pretty much at a dead end.”
Devlin sighed. “At least we get to enjoy a beautiful view while we wait.”
I turned to follow his gaze, looking out the train window and out onto the African countryside. It was a great view. Trees were coming to life in the distance, leaves the same shade as new dollar bills set against the rich brown ground beneath and behind them. There weren’t many flowers, but the ones that existed provided a much-needed splash of color in all the right places. At our speed, I couldn’t track any one image for very long before it was replaced by another, but the montage was impressive.
After the business in Freetown, a group vote had been taken to determine our next destination. We certainly couldn’t have stayed in the general vicinity of our latest crime scene. At the same time, if our employer found information relevant to our ongoing quest or if I uncovered the location of some other data cache where more knowledge might be stored, we’d need the ability to move quickly and decisively. After much debate, we collectively decided to stay in Africa for the next few weeks and chosen Tangiers as a temporary hiding place by throwing a dart at a map; not too far away from the Sierra Leone, yet not so close that any remnants of the arm dealers’ organizations would likely be able to find us.
As an added layer of protection, I’d purchased several plane tickets to different locations under a variety of our more commonly used aliases. If someone was following our trail, they’d end up with nothing to show it for their efforts but frequent flier miles. And, while they were wasting their time in the air hunting shadows, the team would be putting hundreds of miles of valuable space between us and our pursuers.
A new branch of a luxury train line, headed exactly where we wanted to go, was just a lucky coincidence to all that planning.
The Luxury Suite, aboard the Blue Line, was like nothing I’d ever ridden on before. I was no stranger to first class surroundings. Lord knows I’d found myself bored numb at enough hotels and resorts while my parents handled international business deals over the years. But trains had never really been my thing. They were nice enough methods of travel, if one were pressed for time and lacking in options, but I couldn’t imagine a way to make what was effectively a box rocketing along at high speeds comfortable.
I’d been wrong, apparently. The cabin resembled nothing so much as a lavish hotel room, complete with cushions like oversized marshmallows. The train provided its own wireless connection – one with good speed, too, even if the network security left a lot to be desired – and the food was top notch. They didn’t keep a supply of Diet Coke on hand, unfortunately, but I’d anticipated as much before setting foot in West Africa to begin with. An entire suitcase, filled with two liter bottles and lined with ice packs, was hidden underneath my seat where Devlin couldn’t see it.
From the way his eyes occasionally flickered toward my feet, then away, I was almost certain he knew about the sodas anyway.
“Here’s a question,” I said.
Devlin lifted an eyebrow.
“Why exactly are you in my room right now?” It wasn’t exactly a room, and I knew that, but it was difficult to think of the spacious sleeping quarters as a cabin. That word just felt small.
“Well, we were talking about our spoils from the last job, so…”
“We just started talking about that,” I said, interrupting him. “But you’ve been here for what? An hour? Two?”
A hint of shame crept into his expression, but he managed to keep himself from looking outright embarrassed. “I got bored,” he admitted.
“No more movies to catch up on?”
“Plenty of movies,” Devlin said, “but I’m getting tired of sitting in the cabin by myself.”
“What about Michel?”
“Today, he’s busy. Said something about wanting to speak with the engineer on board.” Devlin shrugged. “Personally, I think he’s just hanging out with Mila again.”
It was my turn to lift an eyebrow. “They’ve been spending a lot of time together, haven’t they?”
“Their training sessions do seem to be a little more frequent,” Devlin said, “especially after she covered his bets in Macau.”
“I don’t know that I’d call a bareknuckle brawl ‘covering bets,’ but maybe I’m just old fashioned like that.”
Devlin adopted a sage expression. I didn’t doubt for an instant that he’d specifically designed it to irritate me, since irritation was the exact emotion I felt rising. “It is a new world,” he said solemnly, “and we must only find a way to live in it.”
I responded to this piece of wisdom by throwing a pillow across the cabin and hitting Devlin square in the face. “Why don’t you go find a way to live on your own couch?” I suggested.
When Devlin stood up, halfheartedly lobbing the pillow back in my direction, I felt a stab of surprising regret. My heart hadn’t really been in the rebuke. Staring at computer screens was all well and good when there was something actually happening. His presence, even in silence, had been preferable to isolation. I’d assumed he’d be able to read that in my expression.
“I’ll leave you to your work, then,” he said. “You’ll let me know if something else comes up?”
“Yeah.” I swallowed, suddenly nervous. “And, uh…maybe we can watch something together later. When I finish with this, I mean.”
His eyes lit up and he took a second before responding. “That’d be cool,” he said, transparently tamping down his excitement. “You know where I’m at.”
Devlin left without saying anything else. It was a good thing that he left at that exact moment, because the smile I’d been trying to suppress wrestled its way past my defenses and spread across my lips. He was such a dork, sometimes. It was hard not to find it adorable.
I stepped down hard on any emotions that might have followed that last thought. It had taken me months after the divorce to start thinking of Devlin as my ex-husband and years before I could think of him as a potential colleague. I wasn’t going to let six months on the road throw all of that progress away. Just because we were working together didn’t have to mean that I’d forgiven him.
I tasked some of my web crawlers to inform me of suspicious spending from any of the numbered accounts we’d identified, but not yet eliminated. Not every morsel of information we acquired necessitated immediate action. Devlin wanted to take out as many of the Magi’s agents as we could, but Mila had made a very convincing argument against asserting our abilities against everyone who crossed our paths: there was a fine line that needed to be kept in mind, after all.
If our strikes were too quiet, then we’d never manage to shake up the Magi’s criminal empire enough to collect whatever fell free. Too loud, and they’d almost certainly take an interest in the ‘unconnected calamities’ that befell their myriad businesses. If anything, it’d be ideal if we could manage to attack them on several different fronts, at the same time: even more noise and disruption, without the risk of drawing the attention of entities capable of assassinating British nobility on a whim.
The problem with that was as obvious as it was unavoidable. The Magi had agents everywhere. Who would voluntarily sign up for our Quixotic quest and the immense danger it represented?
As if summoned by my own musings, a tiny notification began to flash at the bottom of my laptop’s screen. It was a chat request from an occasional ally, coworker, and rival. My relationship with the Mouseketeer was complicated, but most similar relationships in the Community were. Working with someone on a piece of code one day, only to take a contract to defend against that same virus later, made for endlessly shifting alliances and battle lines.
My old online frenemy had gone to ground months ago, right before I’d decided to join Devlin on his fool’s errand to London. If he was reaching out now, it was possible that he’d gotten over his skittishness. If he could be convinced to help us…well, there were possibilities there. Few people possessed the Mouseketeer’s ability to ferret out identifying information from databases, to draw connections where other people only saw static; with him running down the trails we uncovered with every new success, the amount of time it’d take to find the Magi’s real names would be cut in half, maybe in thirds.
I answered the message with two quick clicks of the mouse.
And, for the rest of my life, I’ll always wonder what would have happened if I’d simply ignored it.