Atlanta’s international airport is one of the busiest in the world. Flights from all corners of the globe terminated or passed through those terminals, filling the airport with a dozen different languages and a general tumult of noise that bordered on open chaos. I’d purchased our tickets using four different fake names, each one tied to its own fictional identity. Those psuedonyms had years of credit history – apartment rentals, investments, and an appreciable amount of accumulated debt – and they’d been specifically designed to resist investigation by anyone, except for the supremely talented and motivated. It was a ritual we’d undergone several times since London and, with the notable exception of the Lady, it had thus far managed to keep us from walking into an ambush.
And yet, with all of those precautions in place, I exited the airplane in a state of near panic.
“Your hands are shaking,” Mila said. She was behind me, carrying the majority of our carry-on luggage without any noticeable signs of struggle. Devlin had argued for the right to carry his own bags, but she’d ignored him and simply picked up the luggage without waiting for permission. “Is there something I should be worried about?”
“No, no,” I said. “I’m being ridiculous.”
“Ridiculous things keep happening to us,” Mila pointed out. “Might be better to say what you’re thinking, just so that we don’t get blindsided later.”
I shook my head. “It’s not like that. It’s just…I don’t even know. Part of me feels like my grandmother is going to waiting for me just around the corner, chock full of judgment and ridicule.”
Mila made a vaguely confused noise in her throat. “Did you tell her you were coming?”
“Not in so many words, no. I needed to make sure that she wasn’t going to be away on business, which means I had to send her an email. But I didn’t tell her exactly when I was going to touch down.”
“So why would she be waiting for you?”
I struggled to find a metaphor that she might understand. Complaining to Devlin about my family life was one thing; his issues were well-trod ground and, besides, he wasn’t the type of person to attack me for any perceived insensitivity. Neither was Mila, for that matter. But what I’d managed to piece together about her past made my own history seem like an episode of Full House. One of the cheerier episodes, no less.
“Imagine someone like the Lady, alright?” I began, crafting the metaphor as I went. “She’s nowhere near as bad as the Lady, of course, but my grandmother has cultivated an impressive ability to just know things that you’d rather she not.”
We moved forward a bit in the line and I took the opportunity to glance backwards, past Mila. Devlin was six or seven people back, one person ahead of Michel. They were conversing at a volume too low for me to hear but, judging from the occasional gestures on Devlin’s part, it seemed fair to guess that Devlin was outlining some finer point of how to pick locks. That couldn’t possibly have been a safe conversation to have in public, even if that ‘public’ was entirely too loud for anyone to hear a single conversation among the cacophony.
I put that out of my mind. Devlin knew what he could and couldn’t say in public, better than I did. There was enough on my mind without adding an analysis of proper thief etiquette.
“Boys,” I said to Mila, a little belatedly. She didn’t show any sign of irritation at my slightly delayed answer. “Just for instance. It was like she had a sixth sense when it came to finding out when one of her grandkids had done something wrong.”
Mila tilted her head. “Seems like that’d be kind of a bad thing for someone in our business, don’t you think?”
“Probably,” I agreed, “if she had the imagination to think of something like this. The first time I used her server as a proxy – there was a local charity dinner, and most of the money wasn’t going where they said it was – I ended up getting back to her house after my curfew. She was convinced that I’d sneaked out to see my secret boyfriend for months. I don’t think she ever gave up on the idea, so much as she realized I wasn’t going to break under pressure.”
Thinking of that particular evening triggered another memory: the cancer charity where I’d met a charming thief who had seen me…maybe the first person who had ever really seen me, up to that point in my life.
I kept that thought to myself, though. Mila might not mean anything untoward by her questions – in fact, it was entirely possible that she simply didn’t understand when her questions verged on personal matters – but that didn’t mean I wanted to share every secret with her, either. Some memories were best kept only to their original owners.
“I thought you meant sex,” Mila said.
An older gentleman directly behind Mila looked up sharply from his phone. Mila turned and met his gaze. The eye contact lasted for maybe fifteen uncomfortable seconds before the older man coughed, mumbled some apology, and found something interesting to look at on his phone.
I suppressed a chuckle, but only with a great deal of effort. “You can’t say things like that in the South. Have you ever been here before?”
“You mean the Bible Belt, specifically? No, not on business.”
“Why, is that surprising?”
The land of passive-aggressiveness seemed like exactly the sort of place where feuds would be settled via assassin, instead of face-to-face confrontation. I couldn’t exactly say that, though. For one thing, I wasn’t sure how Mila would deal with any reference to her previous employment. For another, I imagined that more people than the older gentleman would be very interested in an open discussion about the merits of murder-for-hire and which countries were the most lucrative for work.
“A little surprising,” I said. “I’ll tell you about it later.”
Mila accepted that answer with a slight nod and lapsed back into companionable silence. We cleared security without any problems and made our way over to a table in the food court, where we could wait for the other two members of our team. After a few minutes, Mila noticed a cart stocked with chocolate covered pralines and left me to examine the wares. Her bags, complete with Sam’s carrying case, stayed under the table.
Sam had dealt with the flight in typical feline fashion: the occasional meow of complaint, coupled with an intense air of superiority. Even now, he seemed to narrow his eyes up at me through the grates of his carrying case.
“You and me both, pal,” I said. “Hopefully we can get out of here and find somewhere for you to stretch your legs.”
Sam tilted his head, just like his owner, and said nothing meaningful in reply.
“We won’t – I mean, we shouldn’t – be here too long. It’s a pretty quick trip over to the house and then you’ll be free to roam. Who knows? Maybe we can find a ride that won’t mind it if we let you out early.”
The cat either growled at my offer or purred at the prospect. It was difficult to tell which noise corresponded to which emotions.
“You know,” Devlin said from behind me, “most people don’t talk to their pets in public. Gives the wrong idea, you see.”
One of the things I’d learned about myself since becoming involved with the Lady’s impossible job was that my reflexes apparently had preferences. Mila’s sudden departures and arrivals still set my nerves on edge, and I’d had plenty of time to get used to her nature. But Devlin could walk right behind me, without making a sound – probably on purpose, knowing him – and I never felt surprised or alarmed by his presence.
Dr. Bridges would probably have a lot to say about that.
“I’m not the one who discussing tradecraft in the middle of the security line,” I pointed out.
“Michel works with cars,” Devlin said. “It’s entirely possible that he’d have a legitimate reason for that sort of knowledge. Besides, I wasn’t getting into any specifics. What’d you say to that old man earlier to get his attention, by the way? He was muttering something about the new generation and respect, last time I saw him.”
“Would you believe me if I said it was girl stuff?”
He lifted an eyebrow. “With Mila?”
“It could happen.” I looked around at my immediate surroundings and changed the subject before he could start reading my micro-expressions. “Where’s Michel?”
Devlin pointed in the direction of one of the restaurants. “Apparently,” he said, “our Frenchman has never actually been to the States. He wanted to try some of the local cuisine, so I suggested he grab something with a bit of local flavor.”
I looked in the direction he was indicating and saw Michel standing in line at a Paschal’s. Even from this distance, I could see how excited he was. I wondered if he’d even know what to order and decided, after a moment, that an attractive black man with a French accent would receive whatever help he needed from the middle-aged women behind the counter.
Devlin took a seat opposite me and began massaging his legs. “I miss the train. Is that weird?”
“It was a comfortable ride,” I agreed. “I mean, I would’ve gotten us first class tickets, but…”
“But we didn’t and don’t have the time to spare,” Devlin finished for me. “I know. Doesn’t mean I can’t still complain, though.”
Privately, I agreed with him. My own legs were buzzing with discomfort. But I wasn’t going to let go of the rare opportunity to feign superiority.
We didn’t have to wait long for Mila and Michel to return. Michel came first, somehow managing to balance four full plates of Southern comfort food in his two arms. Fried chicken, macaroni & cheese, and collard greens released a considerable volume of delectably scented steam into the air. My mouth began watering at the sight. There were things I disliked about coming home, but the food wasn’t on that list.
None of us tore into the food until Mila returned with her arms full of various deep-fried treats and chocolate covered fruits. I couldn’t quite suppress a flash of pique at her dietary choices. I wasn’t exactly out of shape, but I owed as much of my figure to genetics as I did to exercise. Or…perhaps it was more accurate to say that I owed all of my figure to genetics, seeing as I avoided exercise whenever possible. It just seemed unfair that Mila could consume however many sugary calories she wanted, without suffering the consequences.
It occurred to me that I could easily join her on her morning workouts, but that was obviously out of the question.
Our various culinary spoils took up almost the entire table. I managed to keep a small space, just barely large enough for my laptop, and opened up a series of programs while everyone else began taking portions of food for themselves.
“I have eaten chicken before,” Michel said, around a mouthful of fried chicken, “but it was nothing like this.”
I snorted. “This is from a chain restaurant. Wait until Devlin figures out the recipe and starts making this on the road.”
“Aww,” Devlin said. “That was almost a compliment.”
I swatted at him with my own chicken leg. “Don’t get cocky.”
“Perish the thought,” he said. “So, you’ve got your laptop out. Do we need to turn this into a working dinner? Or, uh…breakfast? I’m not really sure what meal it is, what with our flight across multiple time zones.”
I took a deep breath and forced myself to think past the immediate feeling of camaraderie and to focus on the job ahead. “Yeah. You and I talked about it a little bit on the plane, but we all need to be on the same page.”
I quickly outlined our goals in Atlanta and a loose idea of our timeline. Michel and Mila both knew as much about the Community as Devlin did – and I still hadn’t given him the full breadth of available information, for the sake of practicality – and they grasped the seriousness of the situation with a minimum of additional explanation.
“What if your friend, this…Mouse, isn’t here?” Michel asked.
“I’m really hoping that he is, for obvious reasons,” I said. “But if he isn’t, then I’ll have to hope to find something I can use to get the Community to back down or at least extend my deadline.”
Mila downed a huge forkful of macaroni & cheese, followed by an equally oversized swallow of sweet tea. “And Caelum? What do we do about him?”
“We don’t do anything,” I said immediately.
“You’ll handle that?”
I shook my head. “If Caelum is in town, then we’re going to cross our fingers and try very hard not to be noticed. We’ll deal with him if, and only if, it’s directly necessary to get in contact with the Mouse.”
Devlin chewed thoughtfully on some collard greens for a few seconds. With his free hand, he jotted down a note on a small Steno pad under the table, before he turned his eyes back up to meet mine. “It’s that serious?”
“More than you can possibly know,” I said. “I won’t get into the specifics because – no offense – you won’t understand what I’m talking about.”
He shrugged and accepted that assessment of his technical skills without complaint. “But you do? Understand it, I mean?”
“Not really, no. The last time Caelum showed up, he did things with code that I still don’t quite get. The Community spent years trying to reverse engineer his techniques and, at last check, we’re still only getting the general outline of his abilities. Assume that he’s been progressing in the interim years and…yeah. Let’s just say that Caelum is beyond our abilities to handle and we need to treat him like a version of Adlai who isn’t overly concerned with things like the law.”
Devlin swallowed nervously. That metaphor must have hit home. “But he isn’t after you, at the moment?”
“Somehow, he got the idea that the Mouse is responsible for some of the things we’ve been doing,” I said. “That means we’ve got a little bit of latitude to act, so long as we don’t draw any attention to ourselves. Thing is, we shouldn’t need to act at all.”
“You just need access to your grandmother’s server,” Michel said.
“Basically. I can get that in a few different ways, but the simplest way will be to just use her computer. With a little bit of time, I can pull up a list of everyone who’s accessed the server and trace things from there.”
“And when things can’t be that simple?” Devlin asked.
I noticed that he hadn’t said ‘if things don’t go that simple.’ He might have added the provision unconsciously or it might have been a deliberate phrasing, predicated by his strong belief in jinxes. Either way, I didn’t see any particular need to refute the sentiment.
“I’ve got options,” I said. “We’ve got options. I don’t want to use them, but they are in place. I’d just rather not get into the specifics of those until they’re absolutely necessary, if possible.”
Devlin considered that for a heartbeat or two and then nodded. “What’s our first step, then?”
I tore off a large piece of chicken, savoring the taste and classifying it as the best possible memory of the formative years I’d spent under my grandmother’s thumb.
“Over the river,” I muttered, mostly to myself, “and through the woods, I guess.”