“So,” Virginia said, “how long are the four of you planning on staying?”
I’d already distanced myself from the conversation, mentally speaking. Thoughts and ideas about how we could gain access to the server floated to the surface of my mind as I began the process of bashing together some semblance of a plan. I’d been inside the local office, but I’d only ever done that with permission. Even the network intrusions of my youth had been aided by an official access card. Any organization with as much propriety information as Ford Enterprises would be equipped with formidable security. Nothing I couldn’t bypass, given sufficient time or the aid of specialists within the Community, but still impressive fortifications.
But I didn’t have time and the Community was, for all intents and purposes, neutralized as a possible ally. That meant I’d have to find some other method of sidestepping whatever security measures my family’s organization had put into place, I had to accomplish that without leaving a fingerprint that could be traced back to me or the team, and I had to do it all in the next few days. Without suitable equipment. Or an opportunity to create anything other than the barest possible outline of a plan of attack.
God, I was getting tired of this. Just once, it would’ve been nice if the forces arrayed against us – or, really, arrayed against the Lady, but there wasn’t a functional difference at this point – gave me a week or two to research, run simulations, or set up plans for complications.
“Sarah? You hear me?”
I blinked and hauled my thoughts back to the present. “What’d you say?”
“I asked how long the four of you are staying in Atlanta,” Virginia repeated. “I haven’t seen you in years and I was hoping we’d be able to talk about…I don’t know, about things. How’s your life, what you’re up to. You know, that kind of thing.” She shot a significant look at Michel and, surprisingly, Devlin.
“Only a couple of days,” I said. “It’s just looking like it’s going to take us longer than expected to get that information we’re looking for.”
“If you need to access the network, I can make a call, Sarah. It wouldn’t even take that much time, you know.”
I shook my head and waved off the offer. “It’s been a long time and the files probably aren’t even there anymore. I know a few other ways of getting them; it’ll just take longer, is all. It’s not a big deal.”
“Where are you going to stay, then?”
I reached into my oversized purse and removed the tablet. While I spoke, my fingers flew across the screen, pulling up the websites for several local hotels. There were several with suitably high ratings in the area. Some of them would probably afford us the privacy I’d need if I wanted to set up an impromptu command room.
Virginia reached over and placed her hand in front of the screen, blocking my line of sight. “You never were good at picking up on little clues, were you?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean,” Virginia said, “that you’re out of your mind if you think I’m going to let my grandbaby and her husband stay in a hotel when I’ve got this big house all to myself and all these rooms with no one in ’em. To say nothing of this woman who’s been keeping you safe and your business partner; I insist you stay here for as long as you need.”
My brain chose that moment to lock up. Devlin must have been waiting for that, because he stepped in without missing a beat. “Now, Miss Ford, you know we can’t possibly take advantage of your hospitality like that. You were expecting to meet up with your granddaughter and all of us just showed up alongside her.”
“You can, Mister Murphy, and you will.” A glimpse of her indomitable will shone through her pearly smile. “How much do you know about old southern women?”
Devlin feigned a few moments of thought, then shrugged. “Not as much as I thought I did, apparently.”
Oh, he and I were going to have words, just as soon as we had a few moments away from Virginia.
“Let me let you in a little secret, then.” Virginia leaned closer and lowered her voice to a stage whisper. “When we invite someone into our houses, the only thing you say is ‘yes ma’am’ and ‘thank you.’ Understand?”
A few seconds ticked by. Snide commentary aside, Devlin was more than capable of doing the math without my input. Working from within my grandmother’s estate would make things even more difficult than they already promised to be. Working against the woman would likely make things impossible. All she needed to do was make a single phone call to the office, ostensibly to help me find the mysterious files, and an undeniable connection would be drawn between the online sobriquet of ‘Irene Adler’ and the very real person ‘Sarah Ford.’
“Yes ma’am,” he said finally. “And thank you.”
“See? You’re learning just fine.” Virginia relaxed in her chair and took another bite from the pie. “It’s not all that bad, I suppose.”
“Fine,” I said. “We’ll stay here, if you’re going to make a whole thing out of it. But as soon as we finish our business here, we’re going to go after the pieces we’re looking for. I don’t want you to get upset when that happens.”
“Pieces?” Virginia raised an eyebrow. “I thought it was just one thing you were after?”
In my poleaxed state, I’d drawn the cover story just a bit too close to reality. Again, Devlin stepped in and answered on my behalf. “It’s a triptych, ma’am,” he said. “Wouldn’t do my client any good to get her hands on one piece, if the other two are still out there, floating around.”
Normally, his quick wit was the kind of thing I appreciated. Since he’d apparently decided to use those talents to take shots at me from a position of safety, I had to fight down the strong urge to speak over him. The fact that he’d provided an adequate cover, drawing the line even closer to the truth, only irritated me more.
“Oh,” Virginia said. “Well, I never was into art. Didn’t know you were either, Sarah.”
“We’re all just full of surprises,” I said.
She must have caught a whiff of the tension coalescing in the air between Devlin and me, because her eyes narrowed for an instant. Then her expression smoothed back out and she put the matter out of her mind. “You’ll need sheets,” she said. “And at least three separate rooms.”
“Just because I got a little gray in my hair doesn’t mean I forgot what it was like to be your age,” Virginia said. She waggled her eyebrows at me, then at Michel, before I got it. He met my eyes, read something in them, and started coughing around his mouthful of pie.
“Oh! No, we’re not going to…God, why would you think that?”
“I’m not saying anything,” Virginia said, with a half-smile on her face. “Just pointing out that this is a big house. Lot of space between the rooms. Nice, sturdy walls. That’s all I’m saying.”
I’d never been so happy to find myself occupied with the problems and difficulties of a potential job. There simply wasn’t any room in my head to accommodate the images that my grandmother’s heavy-handed innuendo attempted to conjure up.
“Do not worry about that,” I said, “and do not bring it up. God! You’re…that’s just not the kind of thing you say to your granddaughter, Virginia!”
“You’re grown enough to call me by my name,” Virginia countered. “I just figured you were grown enough to talk like adults. My bad, then, my bad. And Mister…I mean, Devlin? You’ll need a room to yourself, unless you and Emilia here…?”
Devlin and Mila exchanged a look and then, simultaneously, burst out laughing.
He recovered first. “Oh, not at all. I’ve had a chance to get to know her a little bit, while we’ve been on this little hunt of ours, but nothing like that.”
“She’s an attractive woman, though, isn’t she?” Virginia’s voice had an odd inflection that I’d never heard from her before.
“I suppose,” Devlin said. “But – and I mean no offense, Emilia – she’s not really my type.”
Mila snorted. “Yeah,” she said. “Let’s go with that.”
Virginia scrutinized the two of them for another second or two before she rolled her shoulders. “Three rooms, then. Shouldn’t take me too long to find the linens.”
I thought that she would bustle away to fetch the linens herself, considering her newfound domesticity, but Virginia reached for a cordless phone instead. She pressed three numbers in rapid succession and then spoke into the handset.
“CJ,” she said, “would you be a dear and come give me a hand?”
She tilted her head as CJ responded.
“No, no, nothing’s wrong. I just don’t think I can run up and down these stairs anymore and it’d just be easier if you do all the cardio for me. Women my age shouldn’t be stressing their knees, you know.”
CJ said something pleasant, if the smile that spread across Virginia’s face was any indication.
“I’ll meet you by the door, then. Shouldn’t take too long.” Virginia hung up the phone, nodded in our direction, then left the kitchen.
As soon as she was out of sight, I whirled on Devlin. “What the hell are you thinking?”
“I’m thinking,” he replied evenly, “that we’re going to have a harder time here than we’d expected. Which isn’t particularly surprising, I guess.”
“That’s not what I’m talking about,” I hissed. It was important to keep my voice down, lest Virginia catch what we were saying. I wouldn’t have put eavesdropping past her. “And you know that’s not what I’m talking about.”
“I’m playing a role, Sarah,” Devlin said. A flash of heat found its way past his neutral mask, but only for the briefest instant. “If I want to play the role well, then I need to make sure that any emotions I can’t completely conceal fit within the context of my character.”
“Emotions you can’t conceal?” I parroted. “And what emotions are those?”
He gave me a withering look in response, then blatantly dodged the question. “I don’t tell you how to hack,” he said, “and you don’t tell me how to play characters. That’s how we’ve always worked. Even if you don’t like what I’m doing, at least trust that I’m not stupid enough to torpedo our whole thing because you hurt my feelings.”
And I did trust that. After all, he hadn’t blown our cover. If anything, he’d stepped in at the perfect moment to maintain it. Knowing that didn’t make me less angry or less confused, though.
Michel cleared his throat. I noticed that he hadn’t finished his pie and wondered why that might be. “We do not have time for this, do we?”
I took a deep breath and let it out in slow, evenly spaced increments. When I finished, my emotions weren’t quite under my control, but they had at least been lassoed into a general order. “No,” I said, “we do not. But we will talk about this later.”
Devlin nodded. As I watched, he slipped into that professional personality, the icy cold thief whose eyes never strayed from the prize ahead. He rarely did that unless the situation was dire and the only reason I could imagine he was doing it now was that the cold persona wasn’t overly concerned with emotion.
“For those of us who don’t know anything about computers,” Devlin said, “what’s the newest wrinkle in our plan and how do we smooth said wrinkle out?”
I smothered the urge to ignore his question. “The server I used when I was younger – the same one that Caelum presumably used when he was searching for the Mouse – is located within the local Ford Enterprises office. I was hoping to gain access to the building, using Virginia’s keycard, but that’s not going to work anymore.”
“Can you get in remotely?” Mila asked. She reached across her body and took a large chunk of Michel’s pie without bothering to look.
“I could,” I said. “It would take time, but it’s possible. I’m not going to, though.”
“The time thing, for one. The minutes keep ticking away until the Community decides that collective suicide is the best option. But, more importantly, I can’t forget about Caelum.”
Mila took another bite of Michel’s pie and I found myself wishing that I had another slice. It would give me something to do with my hands, if nothing else. “What about him?”
“If I were trying to find someone’s real identity, I’d make a point to lay traps everywhere I thought that person might go and in every system that person might attempt to access. It’s too risky to use any of my exploits, if there’s even the vaguest possibility that he might be able to backtrack me through them.”
“So that means…”
I sighed. “It means I have to physically interface with the server. Anything else would leave a digital trail. I can just brute-force any security they’ve got in place with physical access, pull the logs, and sort it all out when we get back to safety.”
“Physically interface with the server,” Devlin mused. “In layman’s terms?”
“Break into the offices of Ford Enterprises, sometime in the next couple of days. I’ll have to go with you, because you don’t know what you’re looking for and I don’t have the time or inclination to teach you.” I was a little harsher than normal, but he deserved it. “Download whatever information Caelum left on the server – logs, digital fingerprints, signature techniques, and so on – without somehow setting off some kind of trap that’ll lead to our gruesome and violent deaths at the hands of the Magi.”
“Also,” Mila said, around yet another mouthful of Michel’s pie, “we’ve got to get you past your grandmother’s security outside, without tipping them off. Seems like we wouldn’t want anyone talking about how Sarah Ford came to visit her grandmother, only to slip away in the dead of night.”
“Why would they care?” Devlin asked.
“They probably wouldn’t care, personally,” I said, “but the press would want to draw all kinds of conclusions. Any attention is bad attention. So, yeah, we can add that to the list.”
Devlin tilted his head and frowned slightly, but he nodded in acknowledgment of the point.
“And,” I finished, “we’ve ultimately got to find something that points us toward the Mouse. If it isn’t located on the server, then I don’t really know else I can do.”
A moment of heavy silence fell over the four of us. In the distance, I could hear the faint strains of a conversation between Virginia and CJ.
“Well,” Mila said eventually. She left a segment of pie on Michel’s plate, which he devoured. “That just sounds like a regular Saturday night, to me.”