After we’d devoured the vast majority of food on our table, I excused myself from the table and purchased a burner phone from a nearby cart. From sheer paranoia, I took extra care to survey the surrounding streams of people for any bright red hair, but the Lady wasn’t anywhere that I could see. Of course, she could easily have dyed her hair black or blonde in order to hide herself better, but some instinct said that she wouldn’t go to any such lengths. It wasn’t like her hair was nondescript and she’d kept it the same color for the past six months. Why change things up now?
The first call I made was to a car service I remembered from the good old days. They’d been discreet and reliable before I’d moved to San Francisco and their branch office in that city had proved themselves similar in quality. The fact that I’d already established a line of credit with them, under a false name, made the decision of which service to use even easier. It wouldn’t have taken much effort to set up another bank account and to protect it via the usual means, but it would have taken time, and I didn’t have any of that to spare.
With that taken care of, I hesitated before making the second call. For all of my well-founded issues and deep-seated issues, my grandmother still frightened me. The reaction was instinctual, not logical, and the tendrils of that childish fear were already twining themselves around my internal organs. In my youth, my grandmother had been an impossibly powerful figure: commanding, stern, endlessly judgmental. Her overbearing presence might have had a different effect on me, had my actual parents been around to moderate, but they’d spent most of my formative years involved in business at one corner of the earth or another. So, I’d grown up with the matriarch of the Ford family and the damage that upbringing had caused were in danger of rearing their ugly heads.
I took a deep breath, glanced up at the table for strength, and then dialed the appropriate digits from memory before I could talk myself out of it. Each ring from the speaker ratcheted up the cold feeling in my gut until – somewhat anticlimactically – I reached her voicemail.
You’ve reached the cellular phone of Missus Virginia Ford, my grandmother’s voice said in a steady serious voice. I’m unable to take your phone call at the moment. Please leave a message after the beep and have a blessed day.
Her words possessed all of the smooth consonants and rounded sounds that I’d grown accustomed to in my youth. In all honesty, her accent should have melted away on its own, through sheer proximity to the upper crust. The twang in her words was a remnant of her humble beginnings, though, and I suspected that she’d taken special effort to hold onto it. Speaking with someone who sounded like a backwater yokel, but who acted like the most cutthroat businessman this side of Miranda Priestly, was certain to throw her rivals off of their game. And it would have the added benefit of allowing her to stay connected to her roots.
I waited for the beep before speaking quickly into the phone. “Grandmother,” I said, “I just touched down. I’m still hoping to catch up with you. Since you’re not answering, I can only assume you’re at the office. I’ll stop by and see you there.”
The appropriate way to end a phone call with a loved one was ‘I love you.’ I knew that, obviously. It was common knowledge. But I just couldn’t force myself to speak those words, either because I didn’t quite believe it or because I wasn’t willing to play that card under false pretenses. Either way, I needed to think of something else to say, lest the voice message end up sounding even more awkward than phone messages inevitably did.
“I miss you,” I said after a heartbeat of thought. That was kind of true. It was true enough, at any rate. “Talk to you later.”
I broke the connection and looked at the phone for a good fifteen seconds. Then, content in the knowledge that nothing untoward would be happening in the immediate future, I walked back over to join the team.
“How’d it go?” Devlin asked, before I’d had an opportunity to get comfortable.
I ignored the question until I was appropriately settled. One corner of his mouth twitched down in the beginning of a frown, but he wisely decided to keep his displeasure to himself. When I was nestled as comfortably in the food court chair as I could reasonably hope to be, I retrieved my nearly empty cup of Diet Coke and sipped at it.
“It didn’t go badly,” I said, just before he exploded with anticipation. “I don’t think she’s home right now, which works out in our favor.”
“Will she think something’s going on if you just stop by the office?”
I shook my head. “Why would she? I have an official stake in the office, just like the rest of my family. Just because I don’t show up in person to handle things doesn’t change that fact.”
“I know that,” Devlin said. He sounded a touch more waspish than necessary, which was probably due to my pointless trolling of him only moments before. His minor irritation probably shouldn’t have been amusing to me, but it was. “But flying in from wherever she thinks you were just to go the office would be strange. It might be the kind of thing that would put her on edge, even if she doesn’t have the necessary information to come to the right conclusion.”
I thought about that for a few seconds. “She probably won’t even notice me,” I said finally. “She was never terribly concerned with me as a person, even when she was ostensibly in charge of my development. Now that I’m an adult, she’ll probably just pat me on the head and go back to orchestrating corporate takeovers or breaking up unions.”
“Oh,” Devlin said. “Evil corporate businesswoman things, you mean.”
I shrugged. “Pretty much.”
“From the way you describe her,” Michel said cautiously, “it does not seem like the two of you had a very good relationship.”
With effort, I managed to suppress the scoff threatening to make its way out of my throat. “Yeah. Yeah, we’ll go with that.”
We stared at each other in silence for a minute or two, occasionally picking at the remnants of our meal. Mila spoke first.
“Since the two of you don’t even like to talk about the possibility of things going wrong, does that mean it’s my job to be the realist?” She folded a receipt into a tiny wedge of paper, then used to pick at her fingernails. “Or is someone else going to take on that job?”
“We aren’t against talking about theories,” Devlin protested. “We’re just against talking about successes before we’ve cleared the zone and fenced the goods.”
“Which we aren’t doing this time.”
“Well…no, we aren’t, but you know what I mean. Don’t count your chickens before they’ve hatched and so on.”
Michel wrinkled his nose as he tried to piece together the idiom. I found myself intensely interested to learn which idioms he innately understood and which ones he had to work his way through. I would have thought the chicken idiom common knowledge, despite the language barrier, but a good fifteen seconds ticked away before comprehension dawned on his expression.
“Let’s talk theories, then,” Mila said. “Sarah’s got a plan to get the information she needs. I’m going to go out on a limb here and assume that this isn’t going to go as smoothly as she thinks.”
I frowned at her. “Thanks for the vote of confidence.”
She raised an eyebrow in response. “Every single time we’ve come up with a plan, that plan has gone to shit within minutes of first engagement. I’m just trying to learn from our mistakes.”
“She’s got a point,” Devlin said.
Hearing that from Devlin, the undisputed master of ‘survival in a time of chaos,’ stung a bit. More than it stung, however, his concern forced me to confront the possibility that I was being too glib about what we had to do in Georgia.
“What do you have in mind, then?” I asked Mila. I took considerable effort to modulate my tone, just in case some of my barely suppressed irritation and anxiety mixed together and yielded unpleasant results.
“I’d like the chance to actually gather information, for a change,” she said. “It’d be nice to know something about the area before someone starts shooting at us.”
“You are thinking of an escape route?” Michel asked. Mila nodded twice before he continued. “I will find a map when we were settled and draw up a few possibilities.”
“That’s one thing checked off the list,” Mila said. “Although we’ll still have to get a car at some point, but that shouldn’t be too difficult.”
I shifted my weight and picked pointlessly at a chunk of fried skin on the plate that I had no intention of eating. Now that she’d started up, Mila was rapidly warming to the subject of our security. It was her area of expertise – at least, not counting however many assassinations she’d carried out before falling out with our Merry Band – and she rarely got the opportunity to exercise those skills. Normally, we shifted positions and bases too often for her to really dig her heels in. Besides, more often than not, we were playing offense, attacking the Magi’s agents from positions of secrecy and destroying them before they had a chance to strike back.
My grandmother was an older woman who, despite its use on a near-daily basis, refused to learn about computers. She wasn’t a threat, in and of herself, but there were more than enough security guards who could give us a hard time. And even that was assuming that none of the guards had been subverted to the Magi’s cause. Gaining access to the personal server of a titan of industry like my grandmother was right up their alley, after all.
All said, I couldn’t in good conscience stop Mila from outlining every possible precaution, especially when there was a better than fair chance that we’d either end up using them or deploying them as decoys before the next forty-eight hours ran out.
“What else?” I asked.
Mila seemed to read my entire thought process from a single glance into my eyes. “I don’t have weapons,” she said, lowering her voice. “I’m going to need to find some of those again.”
“You know we couldn’t figure out a way to get your gear on board the plane,” Devlin said. “Maybe with a little more time, I could have found some pretext for you carrying heavy artillery on board a plane, but even then…probably not.”
“I’m just saying.” Mila spoke the words in a tone that clearly said she actually was complaining, but didn’t want to make the fact known. “Guards equal guns and, moving forward, I don’t want to be the only person in the game with my hands tied behind my back.”
She followed that up with a significant look at Devlin.
“Look,” he said, “if we could have found a way to get your equipment on board the plane without triggering an international incident, we would have. But that just wasn’t feasible, so you’re going to have to deal.”
“I always have to deal,” Mila said. There wasn’t any real heat in her voice, so much as the implication of heat. “This is hardly the first time I’ve had to hop in a plane at the last minute.”
“Then what are you complaining about?”
She pursed her lips. “You know, I’m really not sure. Maybe you’re just rubbing off on me.”
Devlin responded to that with an incredibly sour look.
Mila favored him with a sarcastic little smile before her expression turned serious again. “Third point. Do you have any idea what you’ll do if you do find the Mouse? Say he’s still in the area and you’re able to track him down; how are you going to convince him to speak with the Community if he’s already decided to go into hiding?”
I’d gone over that eventuality in my head a dozen times during the flight and, thus far, hadn’t come up with any satisfactory answers except for the most obvious and uncomfortable one. If the Mouse was feeling skittish already – and who wouldn’t be, with the looming specter of Caelum in the wings – there wasn’t going to be any digital means of establishing trust. I’d have to meet him. He and I had tossed the idea around previously but I’d secretly been hoping for any other option to present itself.
But I didn’t want to tell that to the team. I wasn’t exactly keeping it a secret. I just didn’t want them to start worrying about that now, instead of keeping their heads in the moment. Of course, I was fully aware of my hypocrisy, but I’d grown up in the South. I was capable of believing two fully opposing viewpoints at the same time.
“Let’s get through this,” I said out loud, “and worry about what comes after, after. Sound fair?”
One of Mila’s eyebrows twitched. The gesture was impossibly subtle, almost certainly unconscious, but it gave me a window into the woman’s thought processes. Not a very large window, but more than she usually left open. Mila knew I was hiding something.
“Fair,” she said, holding eye contact for the barest fraction of a second. Then, she closed her eyes and leaned back in her chair. “Those are my only concerns, then. I’ll raise anything else that occurs to me when it becomes necessary.”
She didn’t say it and she even hid it from her features well enough that I doubted even Devlin would be able to pry it from her nonverbal tics, but I knew she’d have questions for me later. Call it instinct, call it a gut feeling, even call it women’s intuition. But Mila hadn’t fallen for my slight deception and I expected to hear more about that at her earliest opportunity.
My phone vibrated on the table. I checked it and, after reading the short message on the display, pushed any thoughts of future conversations out of my head. “That’s the car service,” I said. “Let’s gather our gear and get this started. Sooner we touch base with grandma at the office, the sooner we can be on the next flight out of here and off to our next stop.”
“You do not want to be in any location for too long,” Michel mused, mostly to himself, “so long as this Caelum is still a factor, no?”
I shivered. “I’ll sleep a lot more comfortably when I’ve had the chance to really hunker down and put up some solid defenses; let’s go with that, for the moment, and panic about other things when we have to.”
“Why, Sarah,” Devlin said, “that almost seemed like something I would say.”
I flinched and covered the involuntary movement with a sneeze. I thought about the potential meeting I was keeping to myself. There was a tangible amount of risk that went with any in-person meeting and those were risks I’d gone out of my way to avoid. In order to save the Mouse, I’d have to voluntarily strip myself off the protection of anonymity. To get him out of trouble, I’d have to drop my own defenses during a time of subtle warfare.
I also thought about the fact that, in a small way, my secrecy was exactly the sort of thing that had poisoned my marriage to Devlin. There had been one big lie, sure, but the ground for that deception had been watered with dozens of small half-truths and misdirections. It only took one untruth to start the trickle.
I forced myself to smile at Devlin. “Maybe Mila’s right,” I said. “Maybe you’re just starting to rub off on me.”
Internally, I prayed that wasn’t the case.