Chapter 9

Applying the Mouse’s new information to what the Lady had given me, laying one over the other like a filter, opened a whole new world of possibilities. What the Mouse had only been able to guess at, the Lady knew for certain; when she had omitted or redacted details, the Mouse gave them freely. With that in place, I was able to really understand the scale of what was happening to the Community.

We were a far flung group of miscreants, as likely to be heiresses as homeless, and there wasn’t any real rhyme or reason that could help an enemy root us out. If the data in front of me was accurate, however, the Magi were systematically doing exactly that. America, France, Great Britain, Greece, North and South Korea…all across the globe, contacts were going dark or being dragged into the light of exposure.

I pored over the data by myself for the rest of the night, solemnly connecting real names to online handles, until exhaustion finally drove me to bed. I didn’t wake until the sun had reached a height sufficient to elevate the temperature to uncomfortable levels.

Tucking my laptop under my arm, I made my way to the bed and breakfast’s kitchen in search of something I could use as fuel. I was not particularly surprised to find Devlin already there, cooking with three different pans at the same time.

“If I asked how long it’ll be before you finish cooking, am I going to get something thrown at me?” I asked, as I slid into a chair opposite Devlin.

“Under normal circumstances, you absolutely would,” he replied, “but, as this isn’t actually my kitchen, I feel like it’d be rude to start using their utensils as projectiles.”

“Ah. How generous of you.”

Devlin snorted and, without turning to face me, pointed one spatula in the direction of a French press coffee maker.

I raised an eyebrow. “We both know I’m not a big coffee drinker.”

“We both also know that you’ve only got a limited supply of Diet Coke,” he retorted. “Probably better to hold onto what you’ve got as long as you can, right? No way of knowing when we’ll be in a position to resupply.”

Warmth filled my cheeks. I couldn’t exactly blush, but I was still suddenly very happy that Devlin wasn’t looking in my direction.

I dragged myself over to the French press and filled a heavy mug with fractal designs to the halfway point with steaming hot coffee. I took a tentative sip. Surprisingly, the beverage was a lot sweeter than expected.

“There’s a special way to boil the sugar into the coffee,” Devlin said. I looked up and found that he was setting two plates on the table and taking a seat. “I figured it was worth picking up, just in case.”

“In case you’ve got to make coffee for me again?”

“In case I’m ever around a French press again, actually. For all of our worldliness, we spend an awful lot of time working with default coffee makers.”

That hadn’t ever been a focus of mine, admittedly. I added ‘French press’ to my growing list of necessities to purchase at the earliest opportunity. It’d be a nice surprise for Devlin.

“What’d you learn last night?”

“Nothing that’ll help us or the Mouse,” I said, frowning. “A lot that makes me think we’re developing new and exciting ways to be screwed. Here, see what you can come up with.”

I pushed the laptop across the table so that he could access it before I fell on my waiting breakfast.

Devlin’s skills in the kitchen weren’t legendary, but he was a hell of a lot better than me. He’d elected to stay mostly traditional today: eggs, turkey bacon, coffee. Instead of pancakes or french toast, however, he had gone with a sort of flatbread. It was fluffy enough that I suspected he’d taken several shots at the flatbread before presenting it to anyone else.

“There’s a pattern,” he said.

That jolted me out of my culinary ruminations. “A pattern? What?”

Devlin tore a bite from his own flatbread, gnawing thoughtfully on it, before he pointed at three spots on the screen in seemingly random order. “The way these names are listed implies a certain chronology,” he said. “Even though there aren’t any timestamps listed anywhere, it’s still human nature to assume that things follow, one after the other, like dominos.”

“But?”

He shook his head. “If you look at it like that, then these are completely random. Nothing connects any two or three people in a row, except that you say they were all hackers. But absolute randomness? That’s impossible for a lot of reasons. The Lady wouldn’t have bothered delivering us something like that and an entirely separate source, with no idea of our endgame, wouldn’t have felt the need to provide us with exactly the corroborating evidence we needed.”

I took another sip of coffee before responding. The sweetness was distracting, but pleasantly so. I wondered if all coffee in Tangiers came this way or if it was something I’d have to specifically request. The thought reminded me of my first trip down to South Carolina and the Sweet Tea Fiasco of 2014; I decided, in lieu of other instruction, to simply drink whatever was offered to me without complaint.

“So,” I said, “you’re just guessing?”

Devlin didn’t betray even a hint of chagrin or shame. “Of course I’m guessing. That’s my thing. Doesn’t mean I’m wrong, though.”

I gave him a long look, then sighed. “What kind of pattern are you thinking about?”

“Location, maybe?” His intonation made it clear that he knew it was a reach. “Can you pull up a map of the US?”

I set down my coffee and opened up a web page with the appropriate cartographical image.

“And give me a visual representation of where these former hackers were located,” Devlin said.

A few keystrokes later, and tiny red dots began to populate the screen.

Devlin examined the image for several seconds while increasing number of red dots appeared. Eventually, he popped the rest of the flatbread into his mouth, wiped his fingers on a nearby hand towel, and gestured with one finger at the screen. “There it is,” he said.

“There what is?”

“The central location,” Devlin replied. “This wave of public outings had to start somewhere. I’m willing to bet it was right here: Lebanon, Kansas.”

I put aside my immediate question – why would there be a city in Kansas, of all places, named after a Middle Eastern country – and went, instead, with the more logical one. “Why would you think that?”

“Couple of reasons,” Devlin said. He extended three fingers and ticked them off as he spoke. “First: it’s actually a neat spot, geographically speaking. Lebanon, Kansas is the geographical center of the contiguous 48 states.”

This time, I couldn’t help it. “Why, in the name of all that is holy, do you know that information offhand?”

He shrugged. “Jeopardy. Anyway. There’s that first reason. Second: that area is too out of the way for any trail to reasonably lead there; that’s either the beginning or the end of the line.”

That made sense. “And your third reason?”

“No other hackers from that area have been attacked. At all.”

I scrutinized the image on the laptop screen. As names and data collected on a sheet, the list of doxxed hackers hadn’t really shown me how widespread the damage was. With that same information represented visually, however, it was easier to see where the devastation had been worse and where the Community had been able to rally in the face of an opponent.

Devlin’s theory made sense, but it was still just a theory. We needed more to go on before committing to any course of action.

In a surprising display of self-awareness, Devlin himself pointed that out before I had the opportunity. “As likely as that is, it’s still only a guess. Even if I’m right, I don’t really know what we could possibly do with that information.”

I tapped an index finger against my bottom lip, silently lamenting the state of my nails as I did so, and considered the problem. “If we can’t predict who’s getting hit, or when, maybe we can figure out where,” I said finally.

“Alright. How would you do that?”

“With this equipment?” I slapped the side of the laptop with enough force to make my displeasure known, but not to disrupt the already overtaxed hardware. “I don’t know. It’d be possible, but it wouldn’t be easy. If I had a customized desktop unit, I could run simulations to figure out the general timeline. This thing couldn’t handle the strain.”

“So you need new equipment? Can the Lady help with that?”

I shook my head. “I sent her a request before we were finished with the warlords and she informed me that even she can’t move merchandise like that without raising flags.”

“Sophie did it.”

“Sophie was deeply connected and even she could only pull off that sort of miracle within her sphere of influence,” I said. Even if I was surprised by the heat in my voice. I took a deep breath before continuing. “I’m going to work on better supply lines in the future, but she’s not going to be able to help with physical requests for the moment. She’ll still pay for anything we purchase from the local element, though.”

Devlin reached across the table for my discarded coffee and took a sip. “Yeah, about that. The local underworld is…”

“They’re what?”

“They’re in lockdown,” he repeated. “No one is taking meetings with outsiders and all of their smuggling operations have been shut down, for the time being. I tried spent all of yesterday trying to get face-time with anyone but everyone’s gone deep underground.”

“This would have been useful information to have hours ago,” I snapped. “Did you happen to find out why our criminal brethren have gone into hiding?”

“If I had to guess,” a deep female voice said from behind me, “I’d say it’s got something to do with the whole gun ring we just dismantled.”

With great effort, I kept my expression of surprise restrained to the bare minimum: a sharp intake of breath and a stiffening of my back, before turning to face our bodyguard. I doubted I’d ever really get used to Mila and her eerie ability to enter a room without making the slightest sound or giving off even the faintest tendril of presence. That, combined with her tendency to join conversations mid-stream, without even the slightest head nod in the direction of propriety, made her the worst person to lose track of. At any given moment, she was basically a part of and not a part of every conversation in her vicinity.

The thought made me chuckle. Mila was Schroedinger’s cat. I wondered how her actual cat would feel about the comparison.

She tilted her head in a very cat-like manner. “Did I miss something funny?”

“It’s not funny like that,” I said. I cleared my throat and rid myself of the giggles. “What do you mean?”

“Not surprisingly,” Mila said, “wiping out the primary source of weapons in the area has led to a significant decrease in the amount of product available. There’s some Soviet era cast offs that I could get my hands on, but the price is inflated beyond all reason and I don’t think the two of you are really going to want me going fully automatic at our next job.”

“I don’t think any type of law enforcement would approve of you going fully automatic,” Devlin pointed out, “but I get your meaning.”

“And that affects you and your local contacts, Devlin, because…?” No sooner had the question passed my lips than the answer occurred to me. “…because a decrease in weapons is going to lead to an increased focus on defense and fortification in the criminal powers that remain, obviously.”

“Exactly.”

“This far out, though? We’re hours away from where the warlords were set up. Shouldn’t there be an entirely different economy in a port city like this?”

“There should be,” Devlin said, “and, according to every source I could find, there used to be one.”

“What happened?”

“We happened,” Mila said. “Seems reasonable, at least. Every time we take out a part of the Magi’s organization, we’re helping to consolidate power in the hands of anyone left standing. It’s a miracle that we made it this far without blowing someone out of the water and bringing the roof down on our own heads.”

“You’re mixing metaphors,” Devlin said. Mila gave him a flat look and he raised both hands in surrender.

“Well, then, shit,” I said, “because I’m going to need to resupply on equipment before we get into anything too complicated and the stuff I need isn’t exactly going to available through customary channels.”

“Like what?” Devlin asked.

“Other than a laptop that was built sometime this decade?” I paused, marshalling my thoughts. “I’d like something with a hardware-based firewall, for starters, and that’s probably going to require a new case; I could also do with a new CPU, plus there’s this one terabyte RAM card that I’m itching to get my hands on, and -”

He cleared his throat twice, loudly. “Forget I asked.”

“There might be a way to get your hands on some equipment,” Mila said. There was a slight quiver in her voice, which, in Mila-speak, meant that she uncomfortable with her own suggestion. “Might not be everything you’re looking for – certainly won’t be everything I’m looking for – but there’s at least a possibility.”

“I’m listening,” I said.

“The kids who helped get our luggage here,” Mila said. “They do the tourist thing for extra pocket change, but most of the time? They survive as street level thieves and pickpockets, as a part of an…let’s call them a group.”

“So there is someone we can negotiate with? Why didn’t you lead with that?”

“Well, for one thing, it wouldn’t really be much of a negotiation. If we’re going to get our hands on anything in Tangiers, our only options are to spend years getting the remaining power players to trust us or to take whatever we can manage to scrounge up,” Mila said. “If we start talking with these…parties, we’ll have to accept whatever deal they’re willing to cut.”

I frowned. “You said ‘one thing.’ That implies there’s more.”

Mila cleared her throat several more times than could possibly have been necessary. “Yeah. These aren’t exactly the types of criminals you’d want to work with, if you had any other choice.”

“But we don’t have any other choice right now,” I said, “so I’d really appreciate it if you’d stop being dramatic and just tell me what the other problem is.”

She opened her mouth, as if to answer, but stopped when the courtyard gate opened outside. “Come on,” Mila said, sighing. “You’ll see what I’m talking about.”

Of all the personality traits she could have picked up from Devlin, it struck me as supremely unfair that she’d chosen to take his flair for the dramatic. I buried my irritation at that, as Devlin and I left the kitchen and followed Mila outside.

There were four dirty boys standing in the courtyard. Three of them were unfamiliar, but the fourth boy stood a little taller than the rest of his cohorts. An angry red line, crossing from the top of his left ear across his face and ending just under his right earlobe, served as a dividing line between a pair of determined brown eyes. The boy with the scarred face looked from Mila to me, blushed slightly, and ran a hand through his shoulder-length hair in a sort of nervous tic.

I remembered him. He’d been the ringleader of the group that had brought our luggage to the bed and breakfast to begin with. I could imagine that he typically wore the aviators to hide the ugly scar. But why had Mila said that I’d understand her meaning by meeting a child whose name I hadn’t even bothered to learn?

The question shaped itself in in my mind and, in that exact instant, I realized what she must have meant.

She glanced over at me and saw comprehension in my expression.

Devlin looked back and forth between the two of us for several seconds, clearly waiting for one of us to explain. When no answer came, he blew out a loud puff of air and raised a hand in the air, like a child in school. “I’d like an answer for five hundred, please?”

Mila and I both ignored him. “You can’t possibly be serious,” I said to her.

She shrugged. “I won’t be able to get what I need. But if they don’t have what you’re looking for, they’ll at least be able to tell us where we might be able to steal it.”

“At what cost, though? Chocolate milk and bedtime stories?”

Mila rolled her eyes at that, before gesturing in the scarred boy’s direction. “I spoke to Hisein this morning, when I realized we weren’t going to have any other options. He’s already reached out to the heads of the local street gangs. They’re at least willing to talk to us.”

“I’m supposed to feel flattered that children are willing to take our meetings?”

“Children?” Devlin asked. “What are you talking about? God, is this how other people feel when we finish each others’ sentences?”

I whirled on him. Mila’s suggestion made the most sense. Hell, it made the only sense, considering the circumstances. But logic had nothing to do with the visceral disgust at the idea. I couldn’t deny the merits of what she was offering, so I poured that emotion into my voice instead.

“Mila,” I said through gritted teeth, “is suggesting that we use the local orphans to get our hands on equipment and goods while we’re in Tangiers.”

“And that’s…that’s bad, right?”

I took a deep breath before replying. Then, not quite sure if I’d grown any calmer, I took another one. “Yes, Devlin. That is very bad.”

From her position near the scarred boy – Hisein, apparently – Mila shrugged. “I’m just trying to think outside of the box here.”

“Think outside of the – wait a second. When did you say you talked to the children? This morning? So you were already planning to spring this on us before you even knew what we were going to need?”

“I was being proactive,” Mila said. Nothing about her body language had changed. Her voice wasn’t any louder and her eyes hadn’t gone any harder. But there was a sudden tension in the air, vibrating like electric wire. “If you’ve got a problem with it, figure something else out.”

I gnashed my teeth – literally gnashed my teeth – in frustration while I tried, and failed, to come up with an effective counter-argument. I’d almost come around to the idea of stomping away from the courtyard in a fit of childish pique when another door opened out onto the courtyard.

Michel, dressed in a full-body set of pajamas complete with wilting cap, rubbed sleep from his eyes and yawned. He blinked twice, very slowly, as he took in the scene in front of him.

“What is going on?” Michel asked. “What did I miss?

Instead of answering that question, Devlin hurried over to the Frenchman and began ushering the man in the direction of the kitchen. “I’ll tell you all about it,” he said, “when we’re both in a position of safety. We should probably let the girls – the women, sorry – hash this one out on their own.”

They disappeared into the kitchen.

It was, thinking back, perhaps the wisest escape Devlin had ever made in his entire professional career.

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