Back at the bed and breakfast, each member of my team found something to do that allowed them to be alone. Devlin headed off to his room, claiming a pressing need to catalog his current supplies. Mila paused long enough to retrieve Sam from his hiding spot in the branches of a cultivated acacia tree before deciding to strip down, clean, and reassemble the weapons she’d stolen from the shanty-town. Michel wanted to spend some time researching potential vehicles, in case we found ourselves in need of another ride before we had time to purchase another.
I understood the subtext. The showdown between Fatima and Mamoud had ended differently than anyone could have expected, and we were all going to need some time to come to grips with it. Since London, we’d danced right along the razor’s edge between success and catastrophic failure. We’d even deliberately dipped a toe closer to the water line than was safe. But I’d never really thought that murder was a possibility. Even Asher hadn’t ever planned to really hurt Ally, so much as to use her as bait. And he’d been a bad guy. Moreover, he’d been the Bad Guy.
Fatima was something different. She was a child, sure, but it was getting increasingly difficult to label her as only that. She had either styled herself as the Urchin’s protector or had been forced into that role by the needs of her peers. The responsibility of her charge had made her older than her few years might suggest. She’d doubtless seen things that I couldn’t imagine; in just the past hour, I’d seen her do things I’d never done. That much practical experience would change anyone, especially an impressionable child.
I couldn’t remember the last time I’d slept. Without the steady flow of adrenaline flooding my body, it took every ounce of willpower just to keep my eyes open. Sleep called to me. My bed had never looked more attractive. But I had work to do and a limited time frame in which to do it. So, while the other members of the team went off to kill time and clear their heads, I made myself a massive pot of coffee, curled up on the nearest couch, and opened the files I’d stolen from the shanty-town’s command center.
There were programs on my tablet designed to do most of the heavy lifting, in terms of sorting and collating assorted data files into logical configurations. Image files went into one folder, documents into another, and so on. Most of the images consisted of almost pornographic pictures of weapons, in a variety of configurations. The warlords hadn’t just been in the business of using child soldiers; they’d also been prolific arms dealers in their own individual rights. The pictures, then, were most likely promotional in nature, designed for any potential customer to see what the warlords had for sale in the most flattering light possible. I noticed that, in the few images that featured people at all, the soldiers used to model the weapons were all attractive adult males. I wondered if there was some corollary between the attractiveness of a soldier and whether or not other criminals – predominantly men, based on my limited research – would be interested in making a purchase.
It didn’t take me long to decide on a ‘probably,’ leaning towards ‘yes.’ There were studies linking violence to latent homosexuality. I might have to read those at a later date.
For the moment, I skimmed briefly through the photos and then moved on to the documents. Comparatively, there were more of those than I’d expected, but nothing out of the ordinary. Arms dealers and accountants had at least one thing in common, it seemed: both professions depended inordinately on email. In the case of the latter, I didn’t quite understand why professional bean counters needed to communicate quite so often. In the case of the former, it just seemed ill-advised. But criminals around the world could hardly live their lives under the assumption that a hacker of my skill set would take a personal interest in their business dealings.
There were only a few documents that I found relevant to the Lady’s request for information. I bundled those with a few of the pictures for context and moved my search into the spreadsheets. There was more useful information contained within a few pages of spreadsheets than in the entirety of the other two categories: inventory counts, profit margins, arrival and departure dates from specific staging areas and storage locations. It only took me half a pot of coffee to pair relevant cells from the spreadsheets with documents and pictures, in order to create a cohesive snapshot of the weapon smugglers’ financial interests. With the last half of the pot, I set to work chasing down banking trails and identifying specific numbered accounts in a half dozen different banks that contained a sizable amount of illegally obtained wealth.
On an ordinary day, or an ordinary job, I would have routed the lion’s share of those funds to thematically appropriate charities – say, something dealing with gun violence or adoption agencies – but something told me that the Lady would look poorly on anything so close to embezzlement. Besides, it wasn’t as though we weren’t being paid exorbitant amounts of money to do her bidding. The charities I deemed worthy of attention received more than enough funding to survive without using the arms dealers’ bank to provide further supplementation.
I combined all of the Lady’s requested information into a Zip file, encrypted it, and sent it to the burner email address she was using this week. By the time I came back from making my second pot of coffee, there was already a response waiting in my inbox.
From CSandiego1234: Excellent work. I hope that this task didn’t prove too difficult?
It took me a moment to catch the reference: Carmen Sandiego, globe-trotting thief and lady of wealth and luxury, known primarily for how frequently she seemed to disappear. As jokes went, it wasn’t a bad one.
From IreneAdler: Not much worse than we’ve dealt with before.
From CSandiego1234: And your other, personal task?
From IreneAdler: I took care of your business first.
From Irene Adler: …
From Irene Adler: You’re going to take care of these kids, right? That wasn’t something you just said?
The Lady didn’t immediately reply, which was common enough with her. While I waited for an answer, I went back to the tablet and dumped the remaining files onto my laptop and started skimming through the emails again. Before I’d been looking for specific information relating to how the arms dealers had run their business. Now, I paid greater attention to the metadata behind the messages. Most were completely mundane accounts, of the sort used by most of us criminals when we had to deal with each other: burner addresses, maybe routed once or twice through different servers, but nothing overly complicated. I barely glanced at those before I moved on.
I knew I was going through the information faster than prudent, but I could still hear the clock in my head ticking away and it drove me forward. I’d lost a day and change dealing with the Urchins. There were only five and a half remaining before the Community decided that the Mouse was a lost cause. When that happened, they’d declare open war on the Magi and, presumably, Caelum.
Collectively, we were some of the most skilled hackers on the planet. If we could ever be herded into working together, there was hardly any system that could withstand our combined forces. But I had no illusions about our ability to fight against the Magi. Even if they hadn’t found a way to conscript Caelum’s services, they were too elusive for direct confrontation. Without a name or network to target, they would be free to isolate and pick us off one at a time. And if they had hired Caelum to handle their digital dirty work?
I’d survived his first rampage through the Community by virtue of being essentially too small to worry about. I wouldn’t have that luxury this time.
The tablet beeped at me. I looked away from the laptop to see what the Lady had said.
From CSandiego1234: Ask your partner how well I keep my word.
I wouldn’t have to do that. After London, Devlin and I had spoken at length about his conversations with the Lady and, in specific, that final chat we’d had before the full size of our predicament had became painfully clear. She was a lot of things – infuriatingly elegant, insultingly superior, and maddeningly enigmatic – but the Lady was not a liar. If she said she’d do a thing, she’d either succeed or die trying. Or, more likely, someone else would die trying.
From IreneAdler: …sorry. Tough night.
From CSandiego1234: How so?
From IreneAdler: You expect me to believe you’re really interested?
From CSandiego1234: Believe it or not, we are in this together. Your success is my success; your failure is mine, as well.
I stared at the screen in silence for a few seconds, sipping at my fifth – or was it my sixth? – cup of coffee since returning to the bed and breakfast. My nerves were beginning to buzz from the excess of caffeine and I knew that I should slow down. I took another sip anyway while I considered how I should respond to the Lady’s statement. I knew that she wouldn’t necessarily lie to me, but that didn’t preclude misleading me or allowing me to draw a false conclusion. I just couldn’t see what she possibly stood to gain by expressing interest in my personal life or my emotional well being. She’d already proven herself more than capable of tracking us at a whim; I couldn’t imagine there was much about me that she couldn’t find out, given time and a desire to do so.
After a few moments of thought, I decided to test the waters. A little bit of personal information couldn’t do much more harm than my psychologist’s notes and the Lady had somehow managed to acquire those all on her own.
From IreneAdler: I saw someone die tonight. Last night. Whatever.
From CSandiego1234: Ah. Was it your first time?
From IreneAdler: Of course it was my first time. Don’t pretend that you didn’t already know that.
From CSandiego1234: …
From CSandiego1234: I hadn’t, actually. Now that I’m looking into it, my own partner is telling me that you wouldn’t necessarily have much experience with this sort of thing.
From IreneAdler: And you do?
From CSandiego1234 : I have done and seen many things that I would rather not have done or seen.
That seemed almost genuine. It was the most substantive thing the Lady had ever so much as intimated about her past. I knew that she was an unseen force within the global criminal community and no one rose to that level of power without getting at least a little blood on their figurative – maybe even literal – hands. But regret? I hadn’t seen that coming.
From IreneAdler: Why do it, then? You could stop whenever you wanted to, couldn’t you?
From CSandiego1234: …
From CSandiego1234: I could no more stop on my path than you could walk away from your partner and leave him to fend for himself, or than the child could leave her flock to make their own way in the world.
I blinked. I’d only just sent her the email with the intelligence about the arms dealers and their network. I hadn’t even mentioned Fatima, and I certainly hadn’t said anything about the scene inside the sub-basement.
From IreneAdler: What are you talking about?
From CSandiego1234: I am only making an educated guess, based on the information I have in front of me. The child went to rescue her friends, did she not? Even when it would have been easier to consolidate her power and make her move from a position of strength later?
From IreneAdler: …what’s your point?
From CSandiego1234: We are all slaves to our nature. You will do what you will do; I will do what I must. That is all.
A shiver went up my spine. She’d parroted Fatima, almost exactly, and I knew for a fact that the Lady could not possibly have heard that conversation. Or, at least I thought I knew. There wasn’t ever any way to know for sure where the Lady was concerned.
With one eye, I’d been absently clicking through email after email while chatting with the Lady. Nothing of particular interest had made itself known and I was beginning to lose interest when a single line of metadata caught my attention. I clicked back and examined it more closely. The time stamp marked the email as from a few weeks ago, which wasn’t that unusual, but the routing server looked familiar. A moment later, I recognized the IP address.
It had served as one of my first VPNs, back in the early days of my nighttime career. I’d long since cleared out any personal data from the server and, after thoroughly subjugating it to my whims, had gone so far as to craft a convincing false account that would lead any intrepid hackers into a series of traps, specifically designed to cripple a system and alert me to an intruder’s presence.
None of those traps had gone off, however. Someone was using a server I’d personally protected to hide their identity and they were doing it with enough skill that I hadn’t even realized it was happening. This was something interesting.
I clicked to the body of the message. It was a short email: direct, terse, and without even the barest hint of perfunctory politeness.
Have an idea where the target might be hiding out. I’ll be settling here until further notice: either I catch him or I’ll let you know when I move on.
There were a million people who could have identified themselves by that lone initial and a million different reasons that an anonymous person might be communicating with the warlords. Except that this person wasn’t just speaking to the warlords. In fact, the only reason this particular email was on the system at all was because this was a stopping point along the way to its ultimate destination. I’d only been able to identify the familiar server because I’d basically intercepted the message at its first checkpoint. With the network shut down and the Magi pulling up stakes in the area, there was no real hope of following the trail any further.
But I didn’t really need to do that. Because, at that moment, I knew with absolute certainty who ‘C’ was. And, with that certainty, came a cold, uncomfortable clarity. I knew where the Mouse was. If I was right, I knew where Caelum was located, too. There were only a few locations where my old server could be accessed, but one of them made painful, perfect sense.
From IreneAdler: Do you have everything you need?
From CSandiego1234: Everything and more. Do you?
I re-read the email two more times and checked the metadata. Nothing had changed there, no matter how much I’d been wanting it to.
From IreneAdler: We’ll see.
From CSandiego1234: Best of luck, then. And, if I may offer a word to the wise?
From IreneAdler: I’m listening.
From CSandiego1234: No matter what happens from this point on, remember that you cannot undo the choices you make. As they say, you can never go home again. Be certain that this is the path you wish to pursue.
From IreneAdler: Do you know something you aren’t telling me?
From CSandiego1234: Almost certainly. But this is merely friendly advice, from one woman to another.
I was in the middle of typing out a response when the Lady logged off, without even allowing me the grace of a parting shot. That irritated me; I could only imagine how much it frustrated Devlin not to get the last word in.
I packed up my equipment as neatly as possible, with the exception of a single tablet. Then I went to wake up Devlin. His eyes snapped open the moment I touched his shoulder, but I’d grown used to that. I waited for the handful of seconds it would take his brain to catch up to his reflexes. When he blinked twice, sleepily, I knew that he was aware of his surroundings.
“I hope you aren’t too comfortable,” I said. “We’re on a time limit and the sooner we can get on a plane, the better.”
“What are you -” He stopped, visibly gathered his wits and started over again. “You found something in the data?”
“You could say that.”
“Where are we going?” Devlin was already tossing the covers and beginning to come back to full awareness. It wasn’t fair that he could do that.
“Home,” I said.
“San Francisco? Silicon Valley’s kind of an obvious place for a hacker to go, isn’t it?”
I shook my head and showed him the tablet. “Not San Francisco,” I said. “Home.”
He stared at me for a few seconds, clearly unwilling to wrap his head around the implications. “Georgia,” he said finally. “You’re saying the Mouse is in Georgia.”
“Well, you know what they say?” A dry chuckle found its way out of my throat. “Turns out you can go home again.”