It took an hour to locate the rest of the team and to give them a broad outline of my proposal. When I finished, the cabin was filled with a thoughtful, intense silence.
“Thoughts?” I prompted after about thirty seconds. “Comments, concerns?”
Devlin spoke first. “It doesn’t sound like you really trust him, Sarah. And you want to bring him on…this? With us?”
“He’s in trouble because of me and you don’t think I should help him?”
“Did I say that? Did those words come out of my mouth?” From anyone else, the words would have been harsh, but Devlin said them as a gentle rebuke. “No one’s suggesting that we leave him out in the wind.”
Beside him, absently finishing off a candied violet, Mila lazily raised a hand. “For the record, that is exactly what I’m suggesting.”
Devlin elbowed her between the ribs. “No one else is suggesting that.”
Mila didn’t show the slightest hint of emotion in response to that. She accepted the joke with her customary expressionless face and calmly returned the elbow. She must have used more force than Devlin, or perhaps been more accurate, because he grunted in a sound that was halfway between pain and grudging amusement.
“This guy…” She made a slight face. “What’d you call him?”
“Let’s go with the Mouse. It’s short for Mousketeer, and – “
Mila cut me off. “Sure. The Mouse. Because that’s not the most ridiculous thing I’ve had to call someone this year.”
“I happen to like it,” Devlin said. “Just saying.”
Mila ignored him. “So, the Mouse has been surviving on his own so far. Why does he suddenly need your help? Can’t he reach out to some other hacker – any other hacker – who isn’t busily trying to save their own lives?”
“He could,” I said slowly, “but I’m not sure if he’d want to. The Mouse is a…private person, even by our standards.”
“That still doesn’t explain why he reached out to you.”
I had an idea why the Mouse had picked me. After leaving Devlin and going legit, I’d worked with the Mouse on a few different projects and utilized his network of contacts to get my hands on some state of the art equipment. At some point in our dealings, he’d gotten the idea to ask me on a date.
Well…more than one date. Over the course of a few months, the Mouse had tried to see me in the real world at least a half-dozen times. At first, I’d found the attention flattering and, in a supreme error in judgment, I’d even encouraged his affections. Eventually, I stopped stringing him along. I’d always suspected, though, that he’d held onto those feelings.
Who I did or did not flirt with was no longer any of Devlin’s business, but something stopped me from revealing the depth of my relationship with the Mouse in front of him.
“We’ve known each other for a long time,” I said instead. “He’s the one who sponsored my membership into the Community.”
“You’ve mentioned the Community before,” Devlin said, “but you’ve never told me who or what that actually is.”
“People…don’t generally talk about it in mixed company. And, for the most part, it’s information that you wouldn’t have been interested in.”
Devlin cracked his knuckles. “I find myself suddenly interested. Maybe it’s time for you to share?”
I had my reasons for keeping the Community to myself. Problem was, there wasn’t really an easy way to explain those reasons.
In the beginning stages of our partnership, Devlin was perfectly content not knowing anything about how I acquired equipment or code, so long as my stuff worked on the job. As our relationship grew more intimate, he’d asked tentative questions, but never anything that required more than a cursory explanation. And, after we’d gone our separate ways, I’d just sort of…forgotten that I’d never gone into any detail about it.
Acceptance into the Community required three things: an impressive public display of ability, a member in good standing willing to vouch for you, and a vow of secrecy. Breaking that vow universally resulted in expulsion; in addition, the damage potential of an angry hive of pissed off hackers tended to ruin any hope of a professional career from that point on. Dodging Devlin’s questions had been about self-preservation as much as simple evasiveness.
I decided, after a moment, to hedge the truth. “Hackers, like me and the Mouse, have a sort of…message board, I guess. A chat room. I’m not really sure how to explain it in terms you’d understand.”
Devlin, bless his heart, didn’t take the slightest offense at my phrasing. He wasn’t technologically illiterate, but the finer points of my craft were well over his head and he knew it. He simply nodded, acknowledging the point and accepting my description at face value.
“I’m good in some areas,” I continued, “and not so good in others. When a job starts edging into those problem areas, I can reach out to the Community. Someone there will either know a solution or they’ll know someone who can figure it out.”
“They help for money?” Mila asked.
I nodded. “Or favors. It depends on what I need, how hard it’ll be to pull off, and what I’m doing with the knowledge” Devlin and Mila opened their mouths at the same time; I waved them into silence.. “And, before you ask, I’ve only needed their help a few times since all this got started and I’ve taken extreme caution to mask my real goals.”
“Is that going to be a problem?” Devlin asked. “Lying about what you’re doing, I mean.”
I shrugged. “If other members weren’t being a bit dodgy about their real activities, I’d be surprised.”
“So, this Community,” Mila said. “The Mouse can’t reach out to them because…?”
“If he’s telling the truth, then the Community is going offline,” I said.
“And that’s bad?”
“It’s certainly not good.”
The four of us digested that thought in silence for a few seconds.
Michel, the last member of our quartet, hadn’t spoken since I’d started my story. The Frenchman typically took a backseat in discussions like this one. His potential as a grifter, to say nothing of his skill as a driver, wasn’t enough to make up for his lack of experience in criminal affairs.
“If I am understanding you correctly,” Michel said, picking his words carefully, “this Community would be able to help your friend, if he were able to make contact with them?”
“They might be able to,” I corrected. The thought of Caelum was still there, pressing at the back of my thoughts with insistent, slowly increasing pressure.
“And your friend says that the other members are going offline?”
“Have you tried to contact them yourself?” Michel asked. “Just to see if this Mouse is telling the truth?”
“It can be…tricky to get in touch with them,” I said. “To make a long story shorter, I’d prefer to have a connection with a lot more security before reaching out.”
Devlin shifted position and scratched at his chin. He hadn’t shaved in the last few weeks, but that wasn’t a problem; he’d never been able to grow facial hair. Currently, the bottom of his face looked a little darker and the scratches were slightly more audible than they would normally have been.
“So your friend needs help,” he said. “We don’t have to be the ones who give it to him, though. Could be that someone in your Community has a solution, but that the Mouse just hasn’t asked in the right way. Or, we could find out that he’s exaggerating the problem, and that his own activities are just drawing someone’s attention.”
I frowned, even though I knew Devlin was only being logical. I could see that much in his eyes.
Sometimes, when he was on the job, he changed. Normally, he was slightly awkward, prone to using humor as an ice breaker, and honorable to a fault. That Devlin, the one I’d eventually fallen in love with, would have made a terrible criminal.
But there were other times, when the chips were down and things seemed dire, that he became…sharper? Colder? I’d never been able to figure out the right words to explain it, but I knew it when I saw it. When that Devlin made an appearance, all bets were off. He found ways into locked rooms, escaped death traps, and stared down hardened killers without blinking. I didn’t know if I liked that version of him, but I certainly respected it.
Devlin turned his attention to Michel. “How long until we reach Tangiers?”
Michel checked the time on his phone. “If we continue at this speed, perhaps twenty minutes.”
“Let’s say fifteen,” Devlin said, “and start collecting our gear. Sarah, how long will it take you to make contact once we’re off the train?”
I sighed. “There’s no way to know for sure until I’m actually on the ground. I’ve never needed to work out of West Africa, after all. As soon as I have a better idea what the networks are like, I can give you a better idea of the timetable.”
“That’ll have to do, I guess.” Devlin stood up and, a moment later, Mila joined him. She lifted the duffle bag from the seat and Sam let out a plaintive meow before ducking back into concealment.
“I’m not committing to anything,” I said, “and I’m not ruling anything out.”
Under normal circumstances, when the Devlin I’d grown to love was running things, I wouldn’t have felt the need to say anything. But with the cold, clinical, and efficient Devlin in charge, I wasn’t sure if he’d find the audacity to suggest leaving the Mouse to his fate.
“The Mouse helped me when I asked and he’s only in this situation to begin with because of me,” I continued. “I will not let anything happen to him if I can help it.”
He met my eyes and the ice receded a little from his gaze. “If he helped you,” he said, “then, as far as I’m concerned, he helped me. I just want to make sure that we’re taking every possible precaution before we start expanding our band of merry men.”
Mila lifted an eyebrow.
Facing me, Devlin couldn’t possibly see the gesture, but he responded to it anyway. “Merry people, fine, but it ruins the cadence.”
“That sounds distinctly like a personal problem,” Mila said. The barest shadow of a smile appeared at one corner of her lips. That was about as expressive as she ever got. The few times she’d showed emotion obviously enough that even I could pick up on it, she’d been either terrified or exhilarated. When Mila was scared, I made a point to find solid cover and make myself as small as possible.
When she was excited, however…well, I essentially followed the same precautions.
If there was another side to Mila, I’d never seen it. Since she’d hauled Devlin out of what should have been a death trap, she’d shown a frightening willingness to harm and be harmed, so long as it kept us away from danger. At first, she’d only been adhering to the details of her contract. Now, I wasn’t sure what kept her by our sides, taking time out of her day to train each of us in the basics of self-defense when she wasn’t hurling herself like a human torpedo at our enemies.
Devlin saw something more in her, though. He was better at reading people than I’d ever been, so I deferred to his judgment. But, just because I trusted him to a point, didn’t necessarily mean that I trusted her. I had no doubt that Mila would defend me with her life. I just wasn’t sure why.
“Some people find me hilarious,” Devlin said, deliberately seasoning his words with the faintest trace of a whine.
“Some people have bad taste,” Mila replied.
“Sarah happens to be one of those people, you know.”
Mila turned her gaze to me. “That true?”
I took longer than necessary to consider the question before I shrugged. “It’s usually easier to accept whatever he’s saying and move on. If that counts as finding him hilarious, then…”
“Betrayed,” Devlin said, increasing the whine in his words, “by everyone around me. At least you’re still on my side, right Michel?”
The Frenchman raised both hands, palms facing out, and did his best to blend into the wall behind him. “I am staying out of this,” he said. “Somehow, I do not think there is an option where I do not end up in trouble with someone.”
“You know what?” Devlin glowered at each of us in turn. “See if I remember to pick up your candy or your car parts when we get off the train.” He jabbed a finger at Mila and Michel, in turn.
Mila stepped forward quickly, eliciting a meow of protest from the duffle bag on her shoulder. “No reason to start talking like a crazy person, now.”
Devlin pointed his nose to the ceiling of the cabin and walked out of the room. Mila followed after him, her occasional entreaties punctuated by Sam’s increasingly difficult-to-hear meows.
The Blue Line, especially in the off season, had its benefits. For one thing, there was almost no one on board the train to avoid. For another, we’d been lucky enough to purchase our tickets on a route with a surplus of empty spaces. In essence, each of us got our own train car for our goods and supplies. Devlin’s was next to mine; Mila’s was after that, followed by Michel’s.
Michel stayed behind in the cabin. He waited quietly for a few seconds before speaking. “He is very good at that, isn’t he?”
I tilted my head. “Good at what?”
“Breaking the tension,” Michel said. “Sometimes, I am not sure if he even realizes that he’s doing it.”
Now that Michel had brought it up, I realized that Devlin had deliberately made himself into the butt of our jokes at exactly the right point. When he’d surfaced from that cold part of his personality, he must have sensed some of my tension. Without seeming to do anything at all, he had managed to pull the generally humorless Mila into some light banter.
What bothered me, even more than the fact that he’d just manipulated me, was the knowledge that Michel was probably right. That sort of thing came as naturally to Devlin as breathing.
“He is talented.” I gave Michel a rueful smile. “But you can’t ever tell him that or it’ll go straight to his head.”
Michel drew an ‘x’ over his heart. “My lips are sealed, Sarah.”
He got to his feet and headed to the cabin’s door, but paused before exiting. “Do you think he is a good man?”
Michel nodded again.
There were two Devlins: one that I trusted to do the moral thing and one that I trusted to make the right call. “I think he’s got honor,” I said, finally “But I’m not sure if I’d call him good. Not all of the time, at least.”
“Is there a difference?”
I opened my mouth to answer him, paused, and closed it again slowly. Was there a difference?
Michel shrugged. “It was just a question,” he said. “Something I have been wondering lately. That is all.”
He left without allowing me an opportunity to respond. Still, I spent the remainder of my time aboard the train struggling to find an answer, just for myself.
None ever came.