We weren’t planning on an extended stay in Tangiers, but we also couldn’t carry on the conversation we needed to have on the street. I used some of my converted funds to rent out the nearest bed and breakfast – the entire bed and breakfast, to the surprise of the proprieter who quickly left the property – as a sort of makeshift base. It wasn’t as good as the Brooklands, but I doubted that I’d ever find another hotel quite as accommodating or another concierge with even a measure of Sophie’s skill. ‘Good enough’ would simply have to do.
Michel and Mila arrived at around the same time, casually joking back and forth. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that Michel was casually joking, while Mila wasn’t actively dissuading his efforts. Either way, there was a growing camaraderie between the two of them. I’d only noticed it recently; Devlin insisted that he’d seen it coming from the earliest parts of the London job.
Devlin waved a hand in the air until they noticed him and angled in our direction. Without looking away from the two, he murmured under his breath, “Honest answer: what do you think about that?”
It didn’t take a rocket scientist to understand his meaning. “What’s there to think about? If they’re into each other like that, then…”
“They aren’t into each other like that,” Devlin interrupted. “Well, they’re not interested in the same way, if that makes sense.”
“That’s the exact opposite of making sense.”
He sighed, but kept smiling at our approaching teammates. “I’m pretty sure that Mila isn’t interested in sex. Like, at all.”
I opened my mouth to respond, then closed it when I realized that I didn’t actually have anything to say. Not interested in sex at all? It had been some time since my last intimate encounter and it wasn’t exactly a motivating factor in my day to day life, but I was still interested in sex.
Devlin shifted slightly and I took note of some of the extra muscle he’d packed on since London beneath the thin fabric of his linen shirt. His own training with Mila was definitely paying off. Between the increased muscle definition from Mila’s bi-weekly sparring sessions and the weight loss he’d incurred while in prison, he looked about ten years younger than he actually was.
My mouth went suddenly dry and my thoughts began to run off on their own. I wrestled my wayward impulses back under control and found something interesting in the marketplace to look at. “What makes you say that?” I asked.
“Just a hunch,” he said. “I know Michel’s got a thing for her, but I don’t want there to be any tension between the two of them if things don’t work out.”
I raised an eyebrow, even though I still didn’t trust myself to look directly at my ex-husband. “Of course,” I said, lacing the words with as much sarcasm as I could muster, “people are clearly incapable of working together if their personal relationship comes to an end.”
Devlin scoffed at that. The noise was loud enough to be heard over the general din of the marketplace. “The two of us are hardly the average case and you know it.”
I did know it. For some reason, I just didn’t want to admit it.
Michel saved me by jogging ahead of Mila, entering the courtyard, and raising his voice to be heard, despite the distance. “Ah, mes amis!”
He wore the same clothes from the train, although he’d added a weather-beaten straw hat to the ensemble. Michel’s happiness was something I’d grown to rely on since London. For someone thrown from the shore immediately into the deepest parts of the criminal underworld, he bore up remarkably well. He met every challenge with unfailing optimism and rose to the occasion like a natural born thief.
“Where are our bags, Michel?” Devlin asked. “There were some souvenirs I was really hoping to hold onto.”
Michel rolled his eyes but Mila, approaching from behind him, was the one who answered. “Decided to go with a less expensive route,” she said.
Mila motioned to the crowd behind her. The front rank parted, revealing several dark-skinned teenage boys who alternately carried, dragged, or pushed our collected luggage forward.
“I just picked some other people to help, is all,” Mila said.
She pointed to the empty courtyard and the youths hurried to obey. They found spots for each piece of luggage in short order, before retreating back to their place by Mila. She removed her wallet and peeled off an American hundred dollar bill. The teenagers practically salivated as she held it in the air in front of her.
“This is for all of you,” Mila said. “Got it?”
The children nodded eagerly. Some of the bigger boys nodded a little too eagerly.
Mila didn’t hand over the money. “I’m serious. Get some food, buy something for your families. But you all share this or I’m coming after you. Personally.”
Another round of nods from the teenagers.
“Don’t know how long we’re going to be here,” Mila continued, “but we might need help packing up again, maybe in a hurry. Is there any way I can get in touch with you boys if I need to?”
The boys looked at each other and said a few quick words in Arabic. One boy, a little older than the rest, stepped forward. He wore a pair of oversized aviators that obscured the majority of his face. “I have a phone?” His voice went up, as if it was a question, and the words were heavily accented.
When he produced a phone that had been obsolete for the better part of a decade, Mila plucked it from his fingers, examined it carefully for a few seconds, then threw it behind her. It clattered to the courtyard stones. “Sarah?”
I’d been watching the interplay between Mila and the street kids with interest, trying to learn more about our bodyguard by watching how she treated others. When she said my name, I pulled my thoughts back to reality. “Hmm? Oh. Right.”
I went over to the pile of luggage and rummaged around until I found a relatively small carry-on. Concealed within a hidden pocket, there were three burner phones I’d been holding onto in case of an emergency. They weren’t top of the line, like the encrypted phones the team used, but they’d at least been created within the last technological generation.
I gave the phone to Mila who, in turn, gave it to the older boy. “You keep this on you,” she said. “And come when I call. Don’t tell anyone about me and my friends, be quick, and you can keep it. Plus, you can get another one of these.” She waved the hundred dollar bill around for emphasis.
The older boy looked left and right, searching the expressions of his friends for some sign of agreement. I didn’t see anything but he apparently found what he was looking for, because he returned his eyes to Mila and nodded once, decisively. “Okay.”
She put the money in his hand and flicked her wrist dismissively. “Alright. Get out of here, then.”
The boys shot off like arrows, weaving a path through the busy marketplace, without another word.
“That was kind of you,” Michel said, when the children were no longer visible.
Mila snorted. “They’ll probably just get into a fight over the money before they get any actual food.”
“Then why would you give it to them?”
She shrugged. “Maybe they don’t fight,” she said. Her stance told me that she had no intention of elaborating on that point any further.
Mila was a strange one. Every single time I thought I understood the stoic woman, she revealed another layer of her personality. First, when I’d learned that, in complete defiance of logic, she was a devoted cat owner. Second, when I’d finally cottoned on to her borderline addiction to sweets. And now, to learn that she was a fan of children?
I didn’t know what to think about her. I suspected that was probably the point.
Devlin showed no signs of surprise, however. He’d likely guessed something similar shortly after meeting Mila, in the first place.
“So,” Mila said, settling into a seat that gave her an unobstructed view of the market, “what’s going on?”
“The Lady has decided that we weren’t working hard enough,” I said, “so she dropped by to give us a new job.”
“On top of the situation with your friend?”
“And what about the Community?” Devlin added. “Did you get in contact with them?”
“One question at a time, one question at a time.” I held up both hands, palms facing out. “Mila, I suppose you could technically describe this job as adjacent to the situation with my friend. Devlin, I did manage to talk to some of the higher ranking members.”
“Any good news?” He asked.
I responded with a flat look.
Devlin’s face fell. “Are things at least at or around the level of terrible we already thought?”
My expression didn’t change.
He sighed, pinched the bridge of his nose for a few seconds, then let his hand fall limply to his side. “How bad is it?”
“The Community is under attack,” I said. “Might be the Magi, might be…someone else.”
I shook my head. “I’m not keeping a secret from you or anything like that. It’s just very…complicated and confusing. I’d rather not say anything until I know more.”
Devlin considered that for a few moments before nodding. “If you’re sure it isn’t going to affect whatever we have to do next, that’s fine.”
In point of fact, I was becoming increasingly positive that the events of 2006 would affect things, moving forward, but I didn’t know exactly how to say that. Devlin didn’t have an appropriate frame of reference to understand the threat that Caelum had posed…the threat that he quite possibly still posed. If the Magi had found some way to point him in the direction of the Community, it was only a matter of time before metaphorical blood started to spill.
“I’m as sure as I can be,” I said, picking my words very carefully. Then, I changed the subject. “But that’s just a part of it. The remaining members of the Community that I was able to get in contact with only gave me a week to find the Mouse before they start arming themselves, digitally speaking.”
Mila shrugged. “You were just talking to him yesterday, weren’t you? What’s the big deal?”
“That was only because he reached out to me,” I said. “In the past, whenever he got spooked about something and decided to hide, it was a waste of time to even consider finding him.”
“And now you’ve only got a week to do something your entire Community hasn’t been able to do for…what, six months?”
“That’s about the size of it, yeah.” I offered Mila a weak smile. “But I’ve got helpers.”
“And the folder,” Devlin added. He gestured to the manila folder, where it lay on the table in front of us. “Whatever it is.”
“I know that part, actually. These are some of the people that have been doxxed in the past few months.”
I sighed. It was going to be a long week if I needed to stop every few seconds to explain some piece of technical jargon. “Basically, the people whose private identity – like Irene, for me – has been linked publicly to their real identity.”
Devlin pursed his lips. “They got their covers blown, then? Why not just make new covers?”
“You can do that, because clients and other criminals actually meet you. It doesn’t matter what name you’re using because, whatever that name is, you have enough credibility to command a measure of respect. Doesn’t work that way online; it certainly doesn’t work that way in the Community. As soon as you’re doxxed, your entire online career is as good as over.”
I struggled to put it in terms he’d understand. “Everyone’s work has a certain signature. There are techniques I’ve perfected that no one else does at my level; the Mouse uses algorithms to track data that I’ve never really been able to figure out; Helen – the hacker we used to lock down the Museum of London, remember? – has some proprietary way of controlling so many zombie computers that she refuses to share with anyone.”
He nodded and motioned for me to continue.
“Now, even if I changed my name to…I don’t know, Rosa Parks…I’d only have my privacy back until I used one of my signature techniques on a job.”
“At which point,” Devlin said, “everyone instantly realizes that Rosa is the same hacker as Irene and you’re right back in the same position again.”
“Exactly. If you get doxxed, you can either start from scratch or get out of the game entirely.”
“Probably can’t even do that, if you’ve made any enemies,” Mila said. “Take away someone’s ability to defend themselves, put them in the light of day…that kind of thing tends to have a fatal resolution.”
“Precisely my point,” I said.
“So?” Devlin asked. “Do we have a plan? Maybe even just the outline of a plan?”
I’d learned a very simple and very essential lesson over the last six months: there was no plan detailed enough to account for the inherent chaos that surrounded Devlin and everything he did. That was a good thing when it came to disrupting the machinations of our opponents and pulling off impossible feats under the noses of our targets; it was the worst sort of inconvenience when I tried to craft a cohesive plan for the future.
Instead of railing at Devin’s nature and wasting time we simply didn’t have, I’d elected to go with the simplest possible outline. “I’m operating under the assumption that these names,” I tapped the folder, “are people the Magi uncovered while they were looking for the Mouse. Presumably, they were following some sort of lead and not just lashing out at random.”
“And if they were lashing out at random?” Mila asked.
“Then we’re screwed, barring divine intervention,” I said. “So I’m going to choose optimism, for the moment.”
She accepted that response with a slight shrug.
“Anyway. What I want to do is comb through these names as fast as possible. Maybe we can figure out what trail the Magi were following by looking at who they ran into along the way.”
“And then?” Devlin asked.
“If we’re lucky, one of us will find a clue we can use as a lead on the Mouse: where his physical person is, what work he’s been doing, how he’s financing himself.” I knew I was casting a wide net and I could tell by the looks on the team’s faces that they knew it too. “If this doesn’t work, then I’ll have to do something I really don’t want to do in order to keep the Community from basically dashing their brains out against the rocks.”
“What is that?” Michel asked.
“I’ll have to meet the Mouse in person,” I said.
Devlin sat up straighter. “Sarah, if you do that, then -”
I cut him off. “Yes, I know. I’ve got a recognizable face and a very recognizable family. Showing up in person will absolutely give the Mouse more leverage over me than I could possibly have over him. But if that’s the only chance we’ve got to stop the Community from stirring the hornet’s nest?”
“Then you’ll do what you have to do,” Devlin finished.
He obviously understood the logic, the unfortunate inevitability. But his eyes were full of warmth and concern, not ruthless practicality. I was speaking to my ex-husband, not the master thief.
“It’s the exact play you’d make, Dev,” I said, lowering my voice and touching his arm. “And it’s only a last resort.”
He still didn’t seem convinced. I wondered why I was even bothering to get his approval. It was my name that I’d be risking with an in-person meeting, not his, and it was my friend in danger.
“I can’t stop you,” Devlin said. His voice was so soft that I had to lean in to hear him clearly. “If you’re sure you want to put yourself in that kind of danger, then…”
“I don’t want to do that,” I interrupted, “trust me. It’s just something I want to keep on the table.”
“Alright.” He took a deep breath, straightening his back and squaring his shoulders. “Alright. But we only have to deal with that possibility if we can’t find another angle in that folder?”
He reached out and took the folder, then began passing out sheets to Michel and Mila. When they’d received their share of the work, both of them gathered up their luggage from the courtyard and hurried away, in the direction of the bedrooms.
Devlin held a full third of the papers close to his chest. He nodded to me and started to get his own luggage in order.
“Wait a second,” I said. “What am I supposed to do?”
One corner of Devlin’s lips curled up in an expression that was somewhere between a smirk and a full blown smile. “This? This is grunt work. We’ll get started on the paperwork; can you try and find a digital trail to follow? I figure we can attack this problem from multiple angles.”
At Devlin’s suggestion, I remembered the encoded image the Mouse had sent me hours before. I hadn’t checked to see if any of my programs had deciphered the code yet. It was possible that the Mouse himself had sent me the linchpin clue and, in the rush of the Lady’s arrival and the tense conversation in SvS, I’d simply forgotten to examine all available evidence.
“I’ve got some leads I can look into,” I said.
“Excellent, dude. Totally gnarly.”
I rolled my eyes, even as I viciously suppressed the urge to grin. “We’re on the clock, Ponyboy. Get to work.”