After we reached the station in Tangiers, each member of our little team went off to handle business in their own way.
Devlin set out to find the local underworld bosses, to shake hands and introduce himself, in case something happened to force him into action. Of course, we were currently trying to lay low, but our best intentions hadn’t succeeded in keeping us away from the road to hell thus far. It made sense to take every possible precaution now, before we found ourselves battling with another of the Magi’s agents while simultaneously offending thieves and scoundrels whose assistance we could have used. Besides, we hadn’t touched base with the underworld since landing in Africa. There might be information we could use to accomplish our greater goal or, failing that, whispers that might provide a little illumination to the Mouse’s problem.
Devlin had a way of soothing concerns and forming fast friendships, even with people who had every reason to dislike him, so his assignment had been a natural conclusion. He and I had barely talked about it: we disembarked from the train and Devlin, after passing off his luggage to Mila, had set off in a seemingly random direction. As far as I knew, he’d never been to Morocco and he certainly didn’t speak any of the languages. Still, I didn’t harbor even a moment’s doubt in his ability to end up where he needed to be.
It had taken some argument to convince Mila of her task’s importance. As far as she was concerned, protecting the team was her primary goal and she couldn’t very well do that if we split up. She didn’t relent until Michel, of all people, pointed out how depleted her store of weapons had become since the last job. While Devlin contacted the sneaky side of the criminal world, Mila would reach out to her contacts in the mercenary world. She was still in good standing with those types of people and her association with Aiden only gave her increased bargaining power.
Putting aside the fact that she’d parted ways with the madman some time before joining up with us in London and ignoring that Michel had done his level best to run the man over, she’d be able to get her hands on additional hardware. Again, not that we had any intentions of needing weapons, but we all agreed that guns were the sort of things we’d rather have and not need, instead of the reverse. To that end, she hired out several burly porters to carry the majority of our luggage with her. I assumed she planned to use the luggage as a means of transporting illicit goods around Tangiers, but I didn’t ask her and Mila didn’t offer that information.
None of us knew the city and, as we also didn’t know how long we’d been basing ourselves out of Tangiers, Michel had delicately suggested a scouting mission. There were the official roads and directions that I could look up, but there would also be shortcuts and back alleys known only to the locals. Knowledge of a convenient side street or an abandoned garage could mean the difference between life and death, success and failure.
I found his initiative encouraging. More than once in the last six months, I’d been impressed by his ability to adapt to changing circumstances without cracking under the stress. If my first job had been anywhere near as stressful as the London affair, I suspected that I would have chosen to use my skills for something considerably more legal.
Not Michel, though. No, he’d listened to our employer lay out the nearly non-existent odds for success, and then thrown his hat in with us anyway. That decision straddled the line between brave and foolish, teetering in one direction or the other, depending on the day.
When the other three members of my team set off to see to their own duties, I found myself standing alone at the train station within fifteen minutes of our arrival. I knew what my job was: locate a wireless connection with strong enough network security that I could reach out to the Community. There wasn’t really an easy way to do that, although there was a simple one.
Sighing, I shifted the weight of my shoulder bag slightly and set off in the direction of the markets. For the moment, I’d turned my phone into a packet sniffer. Any hotel or motel that transmitted their data without encryption or security would automatically be ruled out. If I drew near any location where my basic intrusions were blocked, my phone would vibrate and I’d know to give the network greater scrutiny at my earliest convenience. Luckily, I could already see that there were plenty of open air cafés and restaurants. It wouldn’t look out of place for me to stop, order some food, and surreptitiously borrow someone’s wireless connection.
I walked down the market street, trying my best to look innocent and unimportant, but a surprising number of people shot me confused or irritated looks. It took me a second to realize why. Most of the women – virtually all of the women, in fact – on the street wore colorful scarves, tied up into elaborate knots, to hide their hair. I had made no such concession. My frizzy explosion of light brown hair was plainly visible to anyone who cared to look.
I should have expected that and come prepared. But our business in the Sierra Leone hadn’t necessitated a personal appearance on my part and I hadn’t been able to go shopping. So much for blending in.
Cringing internally, I ducked off the street in search of a clothing shop. I had remembered to convert some of our limitless expense account into local currency, thank God, so I didn’t have any difficulty purchasing a basic white hijab and throwing it over my head. The women on the street outside had styled their scarves into fashion accessories with colorful patterns and creative knots. No amount of time spent hiding inside the shop was going to give me anything even close to their level of skill.
The shopkeeper lifted an eyebrow at my hasty cover-up, even as she took my money.
“Tourist,” I said, as though that explained everything.
The shopkeeper’s quizzical expression didn’t waver for a heartbeat. I forced myself to smile back, smothering a quick flash of irritation. Devlin would have been able to talk the woman into providing pointers. Hell, if it had been him in my shoes, he probably wouldn’t have needed to even pay.
With my hair covered, I went back to the market street and allowed myself to feel the city’s aura. Port cities were traditionally hubs for criminals and my ilk, but Tangiers was a world unto itself. The culture of the place went beyond the rainbow of head scarves and hijabs. Decades spent as a crossroads between the Jewish, Muslim, and Christian worlds had given the city an ecclesiastical air. Four different languages – English, French, Spanish, and Arabic – flew from one side of the street to the other as merchants hawked their wares to tourists and locals alike at top volume. And, behind the temporary stalls, the architecture of the stone building was characterized by wide arches and open spaces, allowing me a pristine view of the intricate patterns in the courtyards of houses and businesses.
It was a lot to take in. It was so much to take in, in fact, that I almost didn’t notice the Lady.
She sat alone at an outdoor cafe, idly sipping some beverage from a teacup. She stood out from the crowd in her shimmering black skirt, legs crossed at the knee so that just the right amount of skin was visible: nothing scandalous, but enough that men gave her second and third glances as they passed. A single lock of copper hair spilled out an elaborately tied head scarf.
She looked directly at me and didn’t betray even the faintest note of surprise or shock. Of course she wasn’t surprised. Why should she be? It wasn’t as though she’d picked our location out of thin air, after we’d gone out of our way to be as random and unpredictable as possible. For her, I imagined that this surprise drop-in didn’t even constitute the most unusual thing she’d do this week.
The giant man I’d seen with her in London, David, was nowhere to be seen. With the general tumult of the market, that wasn’t surprising. David could be anywhere close enough to intervene without necessarily being visible. If anything, that made him more dangerous.
The Lady was dangerous in a different way. As far as I knew, she carried no weapon on her person. She rarely ever raised her voice above a soft purr. Every movement she made was elegant and graceful. Despite that, her eyes were sharp, discerning, and absolutely frigid.
I knew nothing about her methods or origins, but she had somehow clawed her way to the highest echelons of the criminal underworld with the sole goal of dragging down another organization with international reach: the Magi. Every dollar the Lady amassed was bent to that one task and she’d burned through a staggering amount of capital to conscript me and the rest of the team as her ‘agents.’
In a fit of pique, I almost walked past her without stopping. At the last second, I changed direction and walked across the streets to the café table. The Lady greeted me with a polite incline of her head and sipped from a cup of tea.
“Miss Ford,” she said in her musical voice. According to Devlin, her accent was some mixture of the major European countries that he couldn’t pin down, but I didn’t have his ear for dialect. To me, she just sounded strange: not like a non-native speaker, so much as a non-human speaker. “I hope that your time away has proven pleasant. Vacations can prove quite essential when it comes to keeping one’s head clear.”
“It’s not really a vacation if you’re constantly on call.” I sat opposite her, at the exact moment that a waiter returned to deposit a second steaming cup in front of me. “This is mine?”
“It seemed likely that you would find your way here at some point or another,” the Lady said. One corner of her mouth turned slightly up in a sardonic half-smile. “There are many hotels along this street, after all. Some of those hotels might even provide the security you’re seeking.”
With great effort, I managed to keep my displeasure from showing too much in my expression while I sipped the tea. “Mint?” I asked, hoping to change the subject and put her off balance for once. “That’s an odd choice.”
“Why do you say that?”
“It’s a symbol of friendship here,” I explained. “Doesn’t really seem like that’s your thing.”
The Lady tilted her head. “I believe that only applies if the beverage is shared between two or more people. Otherwise, it is a beverage like any other. One of your favorites, in fact.”
There seemed to be no end to the information at the Lady’s fingertips, ranging from the home addresses of drug kingpins all the way down to my pants size. I scowled at the cup and returned it to the table. “You’re not drinking the same, then?”
“Chiba,” she answered and took another sip. “A bit sweet for my tastes, although it does have its charms.”
I looked around at the busy noonday market crowd. The hot Moroccan sun bored down on us, slowly broiling every inch of exposed skin under its rays. “Well, it’s a little bit early for me to start in on the hard liquor, but to each their own.”
The subtle smile dried up and disappeared. “Jet lag.”
“Ah.” My issues with the Lady’s notwithstanding, I wouldn’t wish severe jet lag on my worst enemy.
“At any rate. There is business to discuss.” The Lady took another long drink before reaching into her purse to retrieve a manila envelope. She placed it carefully on her side of the table and then, after allowing a suitably dramatic moment for contemplation, pushed it slowly over to me. “Your next assignment.”
I made no move to open the envelope. “Assignment?”
“Job, if you prefer. I understand you prefer that particular parlance.”
“What I’d prefer is –“
I cut myself off as David materialized out of the crowd. A man that big simply had no business being stealthy, as well. He drank from an oversized bottle of water, sweat staining the armpits of his tan suit, and approached the Lady from behind on her right side. She didn’t turn to acknowledge his presence, and she couldn’t possibly have heard him over the din and bustle of the market, but she smiled slightly as he took his customary position.
“You were saying?”
“I have my own problems right now,” I said. “We’ll pick up the trail after we take care of those.”
“Miss Ford,” The Lady began, then stopped. She seemed to consider her words carefully. “I am well aware of the difficulties that your friend is facing.”
I refused to give her the satisfaction of seeing any shock on my face. I took a sip of tea to mask any micro-expressions and assumed a perfectly conversational tone. “How long have you known about the Mouse?”
“In general?” She shrugged. “I am aware of many denizens of your Community, in a purely professional sense. Specifically, as he relates to you? Fairly recently.”
“And you knew about his…problem?”
“I didn’t know until shortly before your communique,” she said. “Although I have had suspicions about recent activities in that arena.”
“So it’s real? He’s telling the truth about the Community?”
The Lady turned to David and asked him a question in Arabic. I was fluent in a few languages and merely proficient in others, but Arabic was one that I had no experience in. I had little doubt that she had picked that language on purpose.
David listened to her question, checked something on his phone, and shrugged. The Lady turned back to me. “As far as my sources are aware, yes. Contacts within the Community are drying up and going dark. They have been for about six months, in fact.”
Six months. That would have been right around the start of this whole thing. If the information the Lady’s sources gave her was accurate – and I had no reason to think otherwise, all things considered – then someone had been casting a much wider net than originally assumed. They weren’t just targeting the Mouse for my indiscretions; they were targeting everyone who might possibly be involved in our little war.
I swallowed a nervous lump. Every time I thought I understood how far the Magi were willing to go in order to keep a hand on their own power, I found myself confronted by the real scale of it all.
“How confident are you in those sources?” I asked.
“As confident as I can reasonably be,” the Lady replied. “There is always some room for error, of course, but I have no cause to doubt them.”
There was another question on my mind. The shadowy figure from 2006, the vengeful and destructive hacker who the Mouse had obliquely referred to during our last chat.
“Is he back?”
Even without context, the Lady apparently understood my meaning. “I don’t know, Miss Ford.”
Despite the heat, a wave of chills traveled from the base of my skull all the way down to my tailbone.
The Lady visibly gathered herself and smoothed her features back into the languid, somewhat haughty mask she always wore. “Thus,” she said, “your new job.” She tapped the manila folder on the table with one perfectly shaped fingernail.
I opened the folder and scanned its contents. There weren’t any photographs or names in the dossier; instead, there were only three sheets of paper filled with online handles. The list was single spaced, with wide margins, and tight black script covered every inch of the every page.
“What are these?”
“Victims,” the Lady said. “Whatever activity is taking place in the Community, these are the individuals who have been targeted and removed from play.”
I blinked and read the list again. There were handles listed here that I recognized. HelenofTroy, Quark, JimmyNeutron…all hackers of exemplary skill who’d been involved with electronic buggery for years, maybe decades.
“And what do you want me to do with this, exactly?”
“Not just you, Miss Ford, but your team. And I should think that it’s perfectly obvious what I’m asking of you.”
Her tone rankled my nerves, but that didn’t mean she was wrong. I had known. I’d just been hoping she’d prove me wrong. “Find a connection,” I guessed. “If possible, figure out whether or not there’s someone specifically targeting these individuals and take them down.”
The Lady nodded. She finished her drink and placed it on the very edge of the table. David stepped forward with surprising agility and snatched it out of the air before it could fall.
Why would she care about a cup from a random café? Was that her teacup? Had she really brought her own special teacup to this clandestine meeting?
Did she really have special teacups?
Devlin had been the Lady’s point of contact for most of our jobs, thus far, and he’d complained before that every meeting with the Lady gave far more questions than answers. I was beginning to suspect that he’d given this irritation more diplomacy than it deserved.
“If we take care of this after I see to my friend,” I said, “are you going to pull some sort of leverage to force us to take on your job first?”
The Lady smiled. Her teeth practically gleamed in the sunlight, but there was no warmth to be found in that smile. She stood up from the table – David mirrored the action, stepping back just enough that the distance between him and his…whatever she was…didn’t change – and leaned slightly over the table. More of her hair spilled out of the head scarf.
“I imagine,” she practically purred, “that you will find a great many reasons to deal with both problems at the same time.”
My phone vibrated in my pocket: the signal for wireless security that I could use to contact the Community. I glanced down reflexively and, when I looked back up again, the Lady and her giant were gone, vanished into the crowds of tourists, natives, and marketplace workers.
I shivered again. Then, given the choice between sitting there in awe of my mysterious employer or seeking out information that might help my friend, I steeled myself, removed a laptop from my bag, and got to work.