For at least the fifth time since fleeing the bombed out ruins of our last job, I found myself lamenting the lack of proper equipment. I hadn’t even had the opportunity to check with Devlin about the local underground, to see if someone in the area might potentially have something a little more powerful than a basic system anyone could pick up in the electronics section at Wal-Mart.
Even if he had found someone, though, I probably would’ve had to examine the goods personally. He was learning some things – albeit, at a snail’s pace – but he wasn’t quite up to the task of selecting my components.
I put a mental pin in that, resolving to find a better way to transport my electronics in the future. As long as we were working as the Lady’s tools, it didn’t seem like we’d be in any one location long enough to set up a proper safe house. Without that, I’d always be stuck using whatever I could throw into a carry-on. The tools I’d kept my hands on would do just fine for light work.
With my equipment arrayed before me on a mixture of low chairs and coffee tables, I logged into my email server and transferred the Mouse’s image file over to this laptop. I’d already figured out the method he used to hide information, so it only took a minute or two for me to reach the same encrypted puzzle.
Avis, the little girl we’d rescued in London, would probably have been able to figure out the code within minutes all on her own. I, however, wasn’t a mathematical prodigy, so I tasked a program to run through some of the most common algorithms and put it out of my mind for the moment.
My laptop wasn’t powerful enough to crunch too many numbers at the same time and there wasn’t any way of knowing if it would take ten minutes to decrypt the Mouse’s little puzzle or ten hours. I needed something to else to fill the time; otherwise, I’d just be staring at the computer, wasting valuable time that could be spent planning..or reading…or doing anything other than idly counting the seconds.
Devlin had already gone through the news, but I used one of the tablets to scan through a few local papers, just in case. For six months, I’d committed a small measure of each day to this task. We were working as subtly as possible, considering our goal, but a certain amount of press was inevitable. I couldn’t do anything to stop the spread of information, but I could at least keep an eye on it.
Our involvement in London had been overshadowed by the rather spectacular death of Hill, the city’s premiere drug lord. In Macau, the papers had been mostly interested in the sudden disappearance of several influential officials, in the wake of an explosive redistribution of wealth. The South American cartels hadn’t merited any real mention which…actually made sense. None of the government agencies involved would want to advertise how little they’d done to accomplish the greatest bust in recent history. Better to let the arrests speak for themselves.
Looking over the articles from the past two weeks, I saw that Devlin had been right: it would have been impossible to completely ignore the violent overthrow of three arms dealers, but that didn’t stop journalists from downplaying the story as much as possible. Either the local reporters weren’t very good at their jobs or they got their marching orders from someone with metaphorical skin in the game. Whatever the case, it seemed that all of the major papers were doing their best to treat the mess we’d left as nothing noteworthy.
I was fine with that, although I knew that Devlin would be a little irritated by the lack of acknowledgement. He wasn’t one of those thieves that felt compelled to leaving calling cards at the scene of his crimes, thank God. I would have nipped that in the bud a long time ago. But he did have a streak of ego that made itself known at inopportune times. Sometimes, it meant that he insisted on giving someone a fair chance instead of striking from surprise; sometimes, he refused to take the expedient route in favor of the more difficult option that allowed him to hold onto his honor; sometimes, he wanted people to know what miracle he’d pulled off, often under the noses of his marks.
A lifetime spent as an heiress better seen than heard and years as a hacker had taught me a different lesson. The job you pulled off without people knowing about was the best one possible. Before joining with Devlin, I’d siphoned literally millions of dollars from corrupt non-profits and foundations and only a few of my targets had even the vaguest idea that I’d done anything at all.
Sufficed to say, I wasn’t going to lose any sleep if the papers weren’t speculating about my team and what we may or may not have done to assist in the downfall of the weapons traders.
Idly, I wondered how Michel and Mila would feel about the lack of coverage. For all intents and purposes, Michel didn’t have a footprint in the criminal world to be concerned about. He’d joined up with us without really knowing what Devlin and I did, professionally speaking. He probably wouldn’t care either way.
Mila would presumably feel the same, if for different reasons. Neither I nor Devlin knew the full story about her time before joining up with us, but it was generally agreed that she’d been involved with some bloody business. She was too comfortable with violence, too willing to suggest a lethal solution for a problem, for someone who’d never killed before. Anyone who worked in that field for long either learned to be pragmatic or fell to someone else who had.
We constituted an odd group: a thief, a hacker, a driver, and a bodyguard. Years ago, when I’d been at the height of my criminal career, I would have scoffed at the idea that any team constructed so haphazardly could have any sort of success.
And, years ago, I would have been wrong.
The laptop chimed three times in rapid succession and I pulled myself out of my ruminations. According to the notification on the screen, none of the common algorithms had provided a satisfactory solution to the Mouse’s encrypted puzzle. I pursed my lips together, both in thought and in irritation. There were literally an infinite number of possibilities and the Mouse hadn’t given me anything to go on. I’d only figured out the hidden encrypted data because I knew how his mind worked. Exactly how did he expect me to figure out an algorithm with no key to speak of?
I fished around in my luggage for a Diet Coke, popped the top, and sipped while I pondered. I probably could email the Lady and ask to make use of Avis’ services. She might even consent to the request, although I knew she would never give us the tiniest hint where she’d stashed the girl after spiriting her away from our custody.
Two reasons stopped me from writing that email.
First, there was no telling what the Lady might do with any information I gave her. She was…well, if not quite honorable, she was at least very predictable. If she could squeeze the Mouse for a single iota of information she could use against the Magi, she wouldn’t hesitate to exploit him. It was equally likely that she’d want him as a member of the team or that she’d want to just make him bait. I wasn’t quite ready to put that question in front of her, just yet.
The second reason was far stupider. The Mouse had sent this puzzle to me, expecting that I’d be able to figure it out. The possibility of admitting, even if only to myself and the Lady, that I wasn’t smart enough to crack the Mouse’s code on my own stuck in my throat. Sure, my skills had a limited field of focus, but within that area of expertise? I refused to give up without exhausting every possible option.
I bent over the laptop and racked my brain for clues. What secrets could be left within the innocuous photograph? Surely there had to be something contained within that I was overlooking. Perhaps there was another file hidden on a different layer that served as a key?
I checked that. No luck.
Maybe the email address he’d sent it from, then? He almost never used the exact same address twice, yet he’d reached out with a close variant of one I recognized. Maybe he’d chosen that name for a reason to indicate…what, exactly? Too many possibilites to consider there, so I shelved that thought for later.
Maybe the exact date of the first time we’d spoken over that particular channel? An algorithm we’d designed or simply been using at the time? Or, perhaps, maybe I was supposed to change every letter in the email address into a number, plug that in, and see where it led to me?
For four hours, I tried every possible angle I could imagine and made exactly no headway. When I finished my fourth Diet Coke in as many hours, the same encrypted wall of information stared back at me from my laptop screen, taunting me in its complexity. I wanted to sweep the entire laptop from the makeshift desk, then step on the plastic shards, but I restrained the urge. Instead, I tucked it under my arm, got to my feet, and resolved to take a walk. Maybe fresh air would provide me with a little insight.
I didn’t make it much farther than the courtyard, though, before I saw something that brought me up short. Mila sat on a low wall, looking out onto the street and absently chewing on some sort of stuffed pastry. She seemed lost in thought and, as I turned to look in the same direction as her, I could understand why.
Tangiers at night was a different beast than the city during daylight hours. The market, which had been raucous and packed before, now appeared solemn; not abandoned or empty, so much as subdued. Street lights – a thing that, for most my life, I’d simply taken for granted – weren’t in great abundance, so the stars were much more visible than I was used to. And the same mishmash of languages that I’d found so confusing at first now seemed slower, more melodic, than it had before.
It was a view that spoke perfectly to anyone who needed to think about Things, whatever those Things happened to be.
Mila appeared to be considering weighty Things. I approached her from behind. To my own ears, my feet made almost no sound on the stone courtyard, but she spoke up before I made it three steps. “That’s a bad habit,” she said.
I froze. “What is?”
“Sneaking up on people,” Mila said. She tore a bite out of her pastry and spoke around it. “Or, more specifically, trying to sneak up on people.”
“I was not trying to -”
I stopped myself from finishing the thought. Had I been trying to catch her off guard? Mila was always so poised and collected, whereas I could only pretend to have those traits. And the only reason that lie held up at all was because I was generally miles away from the action. It would have been nice to see if, even if only for an instant, Mila ever allowed her guard to drop.
Of course, I should have known that I wasn’t going to catch her flat-footed.
“Needed some fresh air?” I asked, hoping she’d allow me to change the subject.
Mila shrugged. “Needed something to eat,” she corrected.
I glanced around at our immediate surroundings. Mila normally carried a specially outfitted duffle bag with her when she wasn’t on the clock, but there was no indication of the bag right now. “Where’s Sam?”
“Sleeping. I wasn’t going to wake him up for a food run.”
I took a seat next to her and we sat there in silence for a few seconds. Surprisingly, Mila spoke first.
“How long did you stay away?”
I blinked. “Stay away from who?”
“Not who,” Mila said. She gestured at the air around us. “This. How long did you stay away from all of this?”
It still took me a second to connect the dots. When I understood the question, I sighed and slid off of the low wall so that my back rested against it. “A couple of years, after Devlin and I split up. Why?”
“Because I’m trying to figure out the two of you,” Mila said.
“What’s there to figure out? We were just two crazy thieves who got married too soon, got a divorce, and now find ourselves working at the behest of an elusive woman with impeccable fashion sense and her personal Jolly Green Giant.” I shrugged. “Really, it’s a tale as old as time.”
Mila snorted. She slid down, joining me on the ground. “I’ve been doing this for a long time,” she said. “Worked with a lot of different people. A few thieves, too. This is the first crew I’ve been with…long-term, I guess.”
I nodded quietly. Crews like ours tended to have short shelf-lives. Strong personalities did not lend themselves to cohesive units, after all.
“Never met anybody like him, though,” she continued.
“Don’t tell him that,” I said. “He’s already convinced he’s the greatest thief that ever stole.”
Mila rolled her eyes and took another bite of her pastry. “Not because he’s that great at this. I mean, he’s got skills, but that’s not what I meant.”
“What did you mean, then?”
“He loves this job,” Mila said. “I don’t think he could walk away, even if he wanted to. But you just left it all behind you at a moment’s notice. So I’m trying to understand how the two of you stayed together as long as you did. Seems like one of you would have to make a hard choice, sooner rather than later.”
She didn’t make it a question. That was good; I wouldn’t have answered if she had phrased it as an interrogative. Only Mila, almost blind to the subtle nuances of other people’s emotions or relationships, could possibly have hit so close to the reason Devlin and I had finally split. If Michel had gone digging, he would have noticed the expressions shifting on my face as I tried to find the perfect balance between disinterest and wistfulness. Mila, however, had just blundered right on through, heedless of any emotional scar tissue she might be poking at.
In a way, it made the intrusion easier to deal with. She wasn’t poking around in my past love life for her own pleasure or even her own amusement. She was just following a thread as far as it logically could go.
“That’s a little personal,” I said, as delicately as I could manage. “If you wouldn’t mind, I’d rather not talk about it.”
Mila, bless her heart, didn’t take the slightest bit of visible offense. She shrugged, finished off the remainder of her pastry, and then got to her feet. “Alright. You having any luck working this problem on your end?”
It took me a moment to shift mental tracks. “A little bit,” I said, “but I’m at kind of a dead end now. Do you mind I talk this out with you?”
Mila raised an eyebrow.
I took the question in her eyes for what it was. “Normally I use Devlin for this. You don’t have to provide any sort of commentary; it just helps to speak the issues out loud. You’ll just be a sounding board.”
She shrugged. “Go for it.”
I climbed back to my feet and began pacing in front of the low wall. “So. Before we got off of the train, the Mouse sent me an email.”
“What was in the email?”
“It was just a picture,” I said. “That wasn’t the really important part. There’s this…method of hiding data within otherwise innocent files, so that someone suitably interested can see information where anyone else wouldn’t see anything out of the ordinary. Still following?”
Her eyebrows came together slightly, either in thought or irritation. I wasn’t sure which.
Still, I kept talking. If I’d found a way to offend her, I’d just have to apologize with some local sweets later on. “Right. Well, I figured out where the extra data was hidden within the picture, but it’s encrypted and I can’t figure out how to decrypt it. There weren’t any instructions in the email.”
Mila chewed over the question, quietly contemplating how best to respond. “Are you sure,” she said finally, “that he didn’t send you the decryption key too?”
“Trust me, I already checked that email and ran it through several programs designed to locate hidden tags. There wasn’t anything there but the picture.”
“The picture, then?” Mila suggested. “What was it?”
“Just a picture of a kid at Disney World. It wasn’t anything special. Mostly, it was just a joke that would only make sense to someone who knew the origins of his alias.”
She shook her head. “So you got this picture from the Mouse. And it was something you would expect to come from him, with information hidden in exactly the way you’d expect him to hide it?”
I nodded. “That sounds about right.”
“If it were me,” Mila said, “that’s exactly how I’d hide something else, then.”
“What do you mean?”
“People only look as far as they need to, in order to find what they’re expecting. If you’re looking for a code, you’re going to find a code and then you’ll stop looking. Think about it; that’s pretty much what we did to Hill, isn’t it?”
She had a point. The kingpin had expected an assault on his stronghold, so we’d given him exactly that. While his attention had been focused on the enemy making the most noise, Devlin – with an unexpected assist from our mutual friend Alex – had been able to steal our target in broad daylight without getting caught. By drawing the eye in one direction, we’d been able to pull off an impossible task without bothering to hide what we were doing.
I thought back to the conversation with the Mouse. He’d sent me the email and the accompanying image and I’d immediately recognized the telltale splotches of steganography. That had always been the Mouse’s go-to method of hiding data in plain sight.
I blinked. It was his typical methodology. I knew about it because of the time we’d spent in communication with each other; presumably, he’d worked with other people who would also know to look for the same signature. And, if he had gone to cover so deep that no one in the Community would be able to find him, he couldn’t very well rely on the same tricks anymore.
Right there in the courtyard, I went down to my knees and reopened the laptop. It booted up quickly, returning to the decryption program I’d left open, as well as the encrypted information itself. I closed that window. Behind it, there was the picture of the boy at Disney World, with the older man and Goofy in the background. I closed that window too.
That left me with nothing except the original email itself. It had been sent from a burner address, which I’d paid very little attention to at first. Any hacker worthy of entry into the Community, let alone one who warranted admittance into the most secretive and exclusive tiers, would likely go through dozens of burner addresses in a few weeks. I hadn’t though to give the address anything more than a cursory glance.
Now, I leaned closer to the screen and gave the email address greater consideration. It only took me a few seconds before I realized what I’d missed the first time. The Mouse had sent the image from dartagnan900fY@gmail.com. A familiar prefix, combined with an unusually specific alphanumeric sequence.
‘Goofy,’ in hacker parlance.
“Sarah?” Mila sounded slightly less imperturbable than normal. “What is it?”
I slapped myself in the forehead, ignoring the brief flash of pain the hit caused. “Instead of making the trick too difficult for anyone else to figure out, he went the complete opposite direction,” I muttered.
“I’m sure that makes sense to someone,” Mila said, “but I’d really appreciate it if you’d explain it to us laymen.”
Us? I glanced up from the laptop and was surprised to see that Devlin had stepped outside, as well. Had Mila gotten his attention somehow?
I didn’t know and, in the throes of discovery, I didn’t much care. Now that I understood the real trick, it was easy to guess what the Mouse had intended. I’d been so concerned with my own assessment that I’d been resolutely pursuing the wrong trail the entire time. It was an obvious misdirect and he’d even given me the assist with that last line about ‘things being crazy.’ Still, I’d cheerfully been about to throw myself headlong into solving an equation that likely had no solution at all.
Or, more likely, the solution to the encrypted data would have been worse than a dead end: some sort of signal that served to alert watching parties where we were, maybe something that would have incapacitated what little equipment I had left.
Now, how to let the Mouse know that I’d passed his little test?
“Devlin,” I said, without looking up, “give me some Disney quotes.”
There was a slight pause before he replied. “Can you narrow that down a little bit? There are a lot of Disney quotes.”
“Early Disney, I think. Anything from or about Goofy should be fine.”
“Goofy didn’t really talk much in the original cartoons, but…” Devlin lapsed into silence while he mulled over the question. “He talks a lot in the movie, but I’ve only got vague memories of that.”
That was all I needed to kickstart my own mind. Nights spent watching the movie, curled up on one of the luxurious couches in the family’s winter estate flashed through my head in an instant. I picked the relelvant memory as it flew by, adjusted it to fit the message I wanted to send, and hit the reply button to hammer out a quick message, using the address the Mouse had originally contacted me on.
From firstname.lastname@example.org: Gawrsh, you always think I’m gonna lead you into some kind of calamity. I wonder why that is?
I hit send and bit down on my bottom lip. Devlin approached and knelt so that he could look over my shoulder. Normally that sort of thing bothered me, but it was the furthest thing from my mind right now. Either I’d figured out the Mouse’s trick and responded appropriately, or I’d just attempted to open up communication with someone actively staying off of the grid. There wasn’t any way to know how he’d react to that.
Nothing happened immediately. In fact, nothing happened for almost a full hour. I spent those sixty minutes, afraid that I’d accidentally tripped some sort of digital mine or failed a test I hadn’t known about. If my own presumptions had cost me precious hours when I could have helped the Mouse, I doubted that I’d ever truly forgive myself.
But, fifty-five minutes after I’d hit send, a response came from the same address. The Mouse, reaching out across established communication channels. That meant he was alright. At least, for the moment.
From email@example.com: Been working on some things. Let me know what you think.
The email came with another attachment, although this was only an Excel file. Probably no hidden images or steganography to deal with. That thought was proven correct a moment later when the file opened, revealing nothing more or less than a massive text file. I glanced at some of the entries.
“This is a ledger,” Devlin mused aloud. “A very thorough, very well-kept ledger.”
“The Magi’s ledger, maybe? That would certainly be something that get their attention”.
“No,” Devlin said. “It doesn’t feel right for that. If he’d stumbled onto that particular treasure trove, the Magi would likely have scorched the earth and been done with it.”
That was probably true, but it still didn’t answer the question. What had the Mouse been compiling and why would he think now was the best time to bring it…
I clicked over to another window and compared the information. When I was reasonably sure of my conclusion, I turned the screen to face Devlin.
“He’s been running down this investigation from his own end,” I said, while he read. He could multi-task well enough that it wouldn’t be unduly difficult for him to handle. “Without the same sources, he wouldn’t get the same information. But he would get entirely different information than anyone else.”
I tapped a part of the computer that wasn’t the keyboard or the monitor. “Meaning,” I said, “that the Mouse might be more involved in all this than we thought. And he might have just given us a way to get him out of it.”