Chapter 31

We were packed to leave Tangiers within an hour; no more than thirty minutes after that, we were in the air. Neither Michel nor Mila raised the slightest complaint about the rushed nature of our departure. Any whining from the hardened bodyguard would have been a shock, but Michel…I kept finding myself impressed with his fortitude. Devlin had made the right call, bringing our driver fully into the fold months prior. In almost no time at all, I’d grown so accustomed to working with this ragtag team that I could hardly imagine what it’d been like to work with less cohesive groups.

I chewed over that thought in the comfortable seats aboard the private flight I’d managed to charter. From what I’d gathered, the occasional group of thieves formed up by necessity if, for instance, a target with superlative defenses, made itself available for pilfering. But those groups rarely stayed together after completing their task. In fact, most of the time, one party or another couldn’t wait to backstab the rest of his or her compatriots and the team dissolved into infighting before anything could be accomplished.

Smaller teams, like Devlin and I had been in the long distant past, had a better chance of making it work over the long-term. It still wasn’t a great success rate, but it did happen. We’d hardly been the only husband-wife team working in the business, just the most successful.

But the current team had basically been thrown together by blind chance. I didn’t know that anyone had ever been able to weld together such drastically different personalities with such a high degree of efficacy before. But, if they’d been able to accomplish even half of what we were doing, would I even have heard of them?

As I left my mind drift between unconnected thoughts, it turned from pleasant thoughts of my team to decidedly less pleasant thoughts about our destination. Georgia…God, how long had it been since I’d been back to the estate? Even before I’d met with Devlin and alternately corrupted/allowed him to corrupt me, my relationship with the originating Fords had already begun to fray. Holidays and special events – weddings, anniversaries on occasion, every other annual family reunion – were the only times I was guaranteed to see my grandparents and extended family. After I’d gone deeper into the criminal underworld and glimpsed the possibilities that existed there, I’d effectively cut myself off from everyone.

It wasn’t malicious. There simply wasn’t any way to take on the sort of jobs I’d taken on, while splitting my attention. Of course, I couldn’t offer that explanation to my family, so the optics of my sudden retreat into “work” and away from “family” hadn’t been…well-received. According to my grandfather, original patriarch of the Ford family name and a superior son of a bitch cut from the roughest possible cloth, I’d regret walking away from the only people in the world who had to care about me. I understood the point he was trying to make – namely, that family members would ultimately be the only people with my best interests at heart – but that hadn’t been the point I’d taken from his innumerable lectures.

I didn’t want someone to care about me because they had to. I wanted someone to choose me, out of all other options. There had been plenty of boys circling like vultures since my eighteenth birthday and fake friends who conveniently always left their wallets at home. That was part and parcel of being a Ford. But for family? I wanted more.

In Devlin, I’d found what I’d been looking for. For years, I reveled in it. And then – like I should have known would happen – he’d fucked it all up.

As if summoned by the darkening direction of my thoughts, Devlin picked that exact moment to return from the bathroom. He approached me, noticed that I had stretched my body out to the length of both seats, and collapsed into the empty row behind me.

What’re you thinking about?” Devlin asked, without preamble.

What makes you think I’m thinking about something?”

Other than a wealth of practical experience?”

I made a face, comforted by the knowledge that he wouldn’t be able to see my expression from his position. Working with an ex was difficult enough, without said ex being preternaturally capable of simply ignoring any facade I put up. It didn’t help that both Mila and Michel were fast asleep and therefore incapable of providing a buffer.

Trying to decide how this is going to go when we land,” I said. That was the truth, if not the whole and complete truth.

Devlin didn’t say anything. He stayed silent long enough that I turned my head slightly and peeked between the seats, just to see if he’d fallen back asleep. He hadn’t, of course. His eyes were focused on something in the middle distance and his eyebrows were a little lower than normal, but he was still conscious.

What are you thinking about?” I asked.

He blinked, then returned his focus to me. “Nothing important,” he said.

Well that’s not fair. I told you what was on my mind.”

I guessed there was something on your mind,” he pointed out, “and then you tried to dodge the question.”

Doesn’t change the facts, Dev. What’s bothering you?”

What makes you think something’s bothering me?”

I turned fully in the seat, getting my knees under me, so that I could look over the seat and meet Devlin’s eyes. It was easy enough to tell that he was anxious. He was more than capable of disguising his emotions, even from me, if he were suitably motivated. But, exhausted after nearly twenty-four hours of active conflict, it seemed like he wasn’t going to bother with the effort. “Is something bothering you?”

We maintained eye contact for a few heartbeats before he looked away. “Not really,” he said. “I’m just wondering…well, it’s kind of like what you said.”

You’re worried about my old house?”

He shook his head. “Yes and no. I’m just wondering where all of this is headed. After Georgia, after whatever fresh hell we have to go through in order to find your friend…hell, even after we finish dancing on the Lady’s strings. What happens after that?”

I blinked. Devlin, thinking about the future, was an oddity that deserved greater examination. It was so out of his basic character that I temporarily forgot about my own brooding.

I hadn’t really thought about it,” I admitted. “It’s been kind of difficult to think long-term.”

Well, that’s an early frontrunner for ‘understatement of the year,’” Devlin said.

Don’t be an ass.”

Sorry, sorry. Stress plus second thoughts minus sleep equals…” He gestured at his body with a broad gesture.

It’s fine. I get it. I was sitting here thinking about the opposite of what’s on your mind, though.”

Oh?”

I nodded. “I don’t think I’ve seen my grandmother since Zeke died. Even then, I was only barely at the funeral.”

When was that?”

I closed my eyes for a moment, dredging up the relevant memory from the depths of my mind. “It would have been just after Laos. Remember, with the counterfeit diamonds?”

Devlin looked confused, just for a second, and then he rolled his eyes. “Oh God, those elephants were the worst. You’d already caught a flight, so you didn’t have to deal with the literal clean-up.” He paused. “Who was Zeke?”

My grandfather,” I said plainly.

I almost literally flinched away from the shift in expression on Devlin’s face. One second, we’d been casually joking about one of our more ridiculous jobs; the next, he looked like someone had slapped him across the face. “You haven’t seen your grandmother since your grandfather died?”

I shrugged. “She wouldn’t admit it – no self-respecting Southern woman would ever give up the opportunity to snipe passive-aggressively – but it’s been mutual. The two of us just don’t have a lot to talk about.”

But…but…she’s your grandmother.”

And she’s also a part of a generation where it was expected that women kept quiet and let their husbands do the talking.” I gave him a sour smile. “Of course, she never actually did that, but it hasn’t stopped her from judging the hell out of me for daring to work a regular job and wear pants in public.”

Devlin’s eyebrow went up a fraction of an inch.

Okay,” I amended, “the job thing might be fair, even if she doesn’t know about it. The dress thing stands on its own, though. She and I never got along. I’m pretty sure she doesn’t actually get along with anyone, come to think of it.”

Not even your grandfather?”

I shook my head. “Different people, different times. They were always cordial to each other, especially when there was anyone nearby who might be interested in selling stories to the tabloids, but it always felt empty. If you said that they’d only got married to have kids and legitimize their burgeoning empire, I don’t think there’d be a single Ford who wouldn’t privately agree with you.”

Devlin opened his mouth, like he had something to say, but closed it without speaking. He repeated that two more times, clearly in the depths of some unutterable struggle, before my jet-lagged mind pulled itself fully out of self pity and connected some dots. Devlin had no more family. His father had walked out of his life without leaving so much of a goodbye note. His mother had physically died almost a decade ago, but she’d emotionally died on the same day as his father’s departure. To him, the concept of having family, but simply not caring to see them, must have been horrifying.

Pity would send the wrong message, but I didn’t have the stomach to continue barreling through his emotional minefield, now that I’d realized where my figurative feet were. I decided to utilize an ancient Ford family technique, in order to avoid stepping on his hot button anymore: I changed the subject.

So,” I said, “we spent two days in Tangiers. The flight’s going to cost us…oh, fourteen hours. Round that off to a full day, so that we can get settled and rested up. That leaves us four days, give or take. Think we can pull it off?”

Devlin had too much experience in the subtle arts of conversation. I’d spent a lifetime navigating journalists and backbiting friends, but his skill eclipsed mine. There was no way he wouldn’t notice what I was doing.

And he did notice, of course. His eyebrows twitched, the corners of his mouth inched upward, and he inclined his head an impossibly small distance in appreciation.

Of course,” Devlin said. “Four days is almost too much time. We should set another deadline, just to spend the rest of the time coming up with suitably dramatic ways to reveal the information to your Community.”

It’s not my Community.” I paused. “And I’m sure we can find the time to work on the entrances while we’re running down our leads.”

Speaking of leads…?” He left the sentence open, inviting me to fill in the rest on his behalf.

Leads,” I repeated. “About those.”

I understood that you found an email originating from a particular part of the state,” Devlin said. “And that we need to go back, in order to find out more information. I just don’t know what information we’re looking for…or why we need to go back there to find it. Isn’t everything networked?”

Devlin was a man composed entirely of opposing principles. The same person capable of instantly reading a person’s psyche and tailoring a personality, designed specifically to achieve a desired goal was also the man utterly incapable of learning any language more complicated than Pig Latin. And, even then, he could only accurately translate things after a period of intense study. So it shouldn’t have been surprising when he displayed his absolute, staggering ignorance when it came to exactly what I did and what I should not do.

The server in question is connected to the internet, yes, but it’s vastly simpler to skip through whatever electronic security measures the owners have put in place since my day.”

Security measures,” Devlin asked, “like what?”

For remote access?” I thought about the question for a little bit. “When I was still using that server, I used some basic traps. Keyloggers, IP trackers, that sort of thing.”

Devlin gave me a long, blank look in response.

Nothing that would technically stop someone from getting into the system,” I explained. “But it would let me know that someone was trying to access it and I’d be able to find out who was behind the attack.”

Why didn’t you say that in the first place?”

I pinched the bridge of my nose instead of answering. “Anyway. I could remotely log into the server, but if someone else managed to get in, there’s no telling what sort of goodies they left. It’s easier to just physically access the server, without running a risk of leaving an IP address behind. Understand?”

I think I’ve got the broad strokes,” Devlin said. He tapped an index finger to his bottom lip in thought for a few moments. “What are you hoping to find?”

In a perfect world, there would be a direct link back to the Mouse. An email address I can contact him through or something with a GPS single attached to it, for instance.”

In a perfect world, sure. But in this world?”

I sighed. “Anything’s better than what we don’t have right now. Whatever I can dig up will just have to be enough.”

Neither of us spoke for a minute or two. I shifted my legs so that I could settle into a more comfortable position and Devlin, almost unconsciously, did something similar. Before we’d slipped out of Tangiers, he’d taken the time to change into a pair of faded jeans and a short sleeved polo shirt. The shirt wasn’t too small for him, per se, but it did stretch appreciably around his biceps and shoulders. There was more muscle on him than I remembered from the good old days. Some of that probably came from Mila’s incessant training and the demands of her physical exercise regimen. The rest, I assumed, originated from his two and half year stretch behind bars.

He’d never been a very big man, in height or in musculature, but I couldn’t keep my eyes from noticing exactly how well he’d filled out since our divorce.

Devlin rolled his shoulders, one at a time, and lifted an eyebrow. “What is it?”

What?” Warmth flooded into my cheeks as I realized I’d been staring. Thank God I couldn’t actually blush. “I was…what?”

The server,” Devlin clarified. “Is it something we could just physically steal?”

I barely kept myself from exhaling in relief. “Oh, uh…no, nothing like that. I mean, we could, but it wouldn’t do much good. I’ll need it connected to a lot of infrastructure and I’m not about to build my own server from the ground up. I don’t have the time, for one thing, and it’s not really my skillset.”

Ah.” He nodded, lapsing back into thought for a few heartbeats. “What are we going to do then?”

We aren’t going to do much of anything,” I said. “I, on the other hand, am going to check in with my grandmother and hope that she isn’t holding a grudge over all the missed holiday visits.”

Why bother?” I could see that the concept of avoiding family bothered him, but Devlin managed to keep any recrimination from his voice. “If the two of you don’t get along, can’t we just get in and out of the state without even letting her know we’re here?”

I blew air out of my nostrils. “That’d be difficult to pull off, seeing as it’s her server.”

He blinked, slowly, and worked through the implications as best he could. Just because Devlin didn’t understand the technology, that didn’t mean he couldn’t connect dots in an abstract sense.

It’s hers personally?”

I shook my head. “For a very loose definition of personal.”

It’s something she uses for her business, then?”

Her very own email server, in fact, located in the local office,” I said. “I tried for years to tell her that the security wasn’t up to snuff, but she just would not listen.”

Let me see if I have this right,” Devlin said. He closed his eyes for a moment to gather up the disparate parts of our conversation and to form them into a cohesive whole. “We’re going to lift information from your grandmother’s computer, so that we can find your digital friend, before your online Top Eight decide to launch a suicidal attack against Matthew Broderick’s character from War Games?”

One,” I said, “a server is an entirely different thing than a computer. Two, you’re officially an old man the instant you start referencing Myspace. Three, you know I fell asleep during War Games.” I paused.

And?” Devlin prompted me.

Four: yeah, that’s pretty much it.” I gave him a helpless little shrug. “On the bright side…have you ever had shrimp and grits?”

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