The Texan looked much the same as he’d appeared at the Green Light Gala: swaggering, cocky, and utterly at ease in his incongruous outfit. It shouldn’t have been possible to pull off the combination of a traditional black suit with cowboy boots and a string tie, but he made it work. He settled into place across from Devlin and me, shot me an insouciant wink, and assumed an air of patience. The message was clear: your move.
Devlin gave it a few seconds before he spoke. “We’ve got some time to kill,” he said. “So, sure, why not? I guess you finished up your business in London?”
I noticed that he’d dropped the feigned accent and, instead, had slipped into using a more menacing baritone. His voice wasn’t openly threatening, but the shadow of a threat existed in the ominous pauses and the deliberately slower pace of his words.
“Had my business finished for me,” the Texan replied. He showed Devlin his teeth. “Was a bit of a dust-up in the local scene, if you catch my drift.”
“We heard about that. Something to do with the drug lord in the area, wasn’t it?”
The Texan revealed a few more teeth. “That’s a fair way of putting it.”
The general noise of the fundraiser faded away in the background, leaving only the intense silence between the three of us at the table. In that vacuum of sound, my thoughts sped from one connection to another. The Texan had seen us at the Gala, so there was no point in claiming complete ignorance. He knew that we were members of the criminal underworld and he could assume that we had enough clout to garner an invitation to the Gala. He also knew that we’d been after information about Avis; after all, he’d been the one to give us her location to begin with.
Could he also know that my team was responsible for the major disruptions to the Magi’s business interests? And, if he did, what did he plan to do with that information?
A moment later, an even more horrifying fact presented itself: he knew who I was. Regardless of our campaign against the Magi, the Texan knew with absolute certainty that Sarah Ford was a criminal. Granted, he couldn’t know the exact nature of my contribution – at least my online identity was safe, for the moment – but my alternative employment was a valuable nugget of information, all on its own. Even a single hint about my partnership with Devlin might be all the Magi needed to suss out my real identity; from there, it was a short hop to fire, blood, and devastation.
There wasn’t a way to ask him what he knew, however, without tipping my hand. With no idea springing readily to mind, I elected to stay quiet. Devlin was better in situations like this, anyway.
“Last I saw y’all,” the Texan said, after a pause that seemed to last for an eternity, “you had that pretty Mexican girl with you. What happened to her?”
“Pretty sure that she wasn’t actually Mexican,” Devlin said, stressing the word just a little bit.
The Texan shrugged. “Where I’m from, most times you see someone looks like her, Mexican’s the best guess. I don’t mean no offense by it, though.”
“So?” The Texan leaned his forearms onto the table, exposing a pair of gunmetal gray cufflinks at his wrists. “It’s just the two of you out on the town tonight?”
“She was a short-term hire,” Devlin lied. “I could probably get in touch with her, if you were thinking about hiring some protection.”
The Texan threw back his head and laughed. “Protection? Me? Nobody with any sense wants to bother with little ole me.”
“Someone with your secrets ought to be in a lot of danger, don’t you think?”
“Somebody who knows less than me, sure,” the Texan said amiably. “But me? I know just enough that nobody likes me, but everybody wants to make sure I’m close at hand.”
“What’re you doing here?” I asked. Devlin’s mouth was partly open, as if he’d been about to speak; when he heard my voice, he leaned back in his chair and gave me the floor without comment.
“Well, Miss Ford,” the Texan said, making certain that I understood his implication, “I happen to care a great deal about the well-being of these poor, innocent babies and I just could not abide letting them go another day without proper care. That’s why you got all dolled up and came out, isn’t it?”
I put on my best scowl. The effect was probably spoiled by my frizzy hair and evening wear, but there wasn’t anything to do about that. “You deal in information. That’s your whole thing. Fine. What’s it going to take for you to keep what you know to yourself? Pretty sure that’s why you came over in the first place.”
The Texan placed a hand over his heart in mock injury. When I didn’t give him a reaction, he allowed the cocky smile to drain from his face. “I’m not your enemy,” he said. “I hope you understand that. If I wanted to make things difficult for you, I’d have done it already.”
“That’s right. See, it turns out that a group of thieves a lot like you, your boyfriend, and your bodyguard have been going around have been stirring up trouble. Started up while y’all were in London, but it didn’t stop there. A lot of folk have been out there asking questions, but no one seems to got any answers. Now, let me ask you a question: you know anything about that?”
I tried to keep my expression as neutral as possible. The Texan narrowed his eyes for a few seconds, then smiled slightly.
“Aha,” the Texan said. He leaned back in his chair, almost an exact mirror to Devlin. “You got a bad poker face. Ought to work on that.”
“Say you’re right,” Devlin said. “Say that we’ve been involved in some…ambitious projects overseas. What’s that have to do with you?”
“Personally? Not a damn thing. Professionally, though? I make a living trading in knowledge. Figuring out why you’re hitting the businesses you’re going after would be worth a lot.”
I coughed into a napkin to hide whatever microexpression the Texan had been able to read before. If he thought that we were attacking businesses at random, then he wasn’t privy to the Magi’s existence or their involvement in the enterprises we’d overthrown. That was…something, at least.
“Not an option,” Devlin said.
The Texan sighed. “Shame. Suppose I’ll just have to make due with secondary options, then.”
“You still haven’t answered Miss Ford’s question. What’s it going to take to keep you quiet?”
“Way I see it, you’ve got a couple of options.” The Texan held out his hand, four fingers and a thumb extended. “One: you could try to take me out of play before any other interested party decides to start asking me questions.”
I raised an eyebrow. “That seems like a strange offer for you to start with.”
“I’m not in the business of lying to myself,” he said. “Always a chance you’ll decide to send your friend after me one night soon. Not much I can do about that.”
“So,” I asked casually, “what’s stopping me from doing that?”
Devlin’s eyes flickered in my direction and his lips became a thin line. He stayed quiet, though. Obviously, I wasn’t going to give Mila an order to kill someone, simply because they happened to know some dangerous information. For one thing, I wasn’t even sure that was the type of order she’d follow. For another, I was absolutely sure that I didn’t want to be the kind of person who broke out lethal force whenever I was in danger.
The Texan, however, didn’t know either of those facts.
“‘sides my good looks and winning charm?”
I ignored his casual flirtation. “Unless you came here looking specifically for us, you can’t have told anyone else about us being here. So you’re the only person who knows about my…other job.”
“You think I tell anybody else what I know? I only trust one person with my secrets and you’re looking at him.”
“You’re doing a really bad job of convincing us to let you leave here,” I said.
“I’m not trying to convince you of anything,” the Texan said, “except that I’m a resource. I don’t got a dog in whatever fight you’re picking. Either I can hurt you or I can help you. Or I can stay out of it entirely. How this plays out is up to you. Excuse me for a second; I’ll give the two of you a sec to talk this over. I’m feeling a little bit parched.”
He pushed away from the chair and walked across the room to the bar, utterly at ease. He didn’t even look over his shoulder.
As soon as he was out of earshot, Devlin leaned in and spoke in a harsh whisper. “I can make a scene,” he said. “Pick a fight or something, so that you can slip away. How long will it take you to get us a flight out of here?”
“I can’t do that, Dev,” I whispered back. “He’s right and you know it. As long as he knows who I am and what I do, I’ll always be at risk of someone else finding out. It’ll only take one whisper into the wrong person’s ear before the whole thing starts unraveling.”
“What do you want to do, then?”
I pinched the bridge of my nose in thought for a few seconds. “He said it can go a couple of ways. We’re obviously not going to have him killed.” The moment the last word passed my lips, I wondered which version of Devlin I was speaking to. The cold, clinical Devlin might very well think that murder was a viable method of dealing with his problems. He wouldn’t have gone that far before prison, but now…now, I wasn’t sure.
“Obviously,” Devlin said.
I allowed myself a minor sigh of relief. “What do you think the other options are?”
“Payment is definitely one,” Devlin said. “The Lady would foot whatever bill he could come up with in a heartbeat if we could convince her that he could expose us.”
I thought that over. It was a possibility with merit. “No,” I said slowly. “No, that wouldn’t work. She used him to get us the information about Avis, so she’s familiar with him, but I’m also sure that she’d just have her pet giant snuff him out on general principle.”
“Which we don’t want, because he might be useful in the future. So we can’t tell the Lady about this. Fine.” Devlin pursed his lips. “Maybe some sort of trade would work?”
I shook my head. “That’s a nonstarter. What information do we have to offer him that he doesn’t already know?”
“He thinks we’re a rogue group,” Devlin said. “So he doesn’t know about the connection between our targets and the Magi. Presumably, he doesn’t know about the Magi at all.”
I shook my head. “He doesn’t know what this information could be worth. I’m not inclined to give him even the vaguest hint. The last thing we need is him running off to someone connected and finding himself on the wrong end of some enhanced interrogation.”
Devlin frowned, but said nothing.
“That’s three.” I held up a corresponding number of fingers. “What are the last two?”
Devlin hesitated before answering. “You could come clean to the people who matter,” he said finally. “If you gave up your identity as Sarah Ford and went entirely into the underworld, the fact that you lived a double life would be irrelevant.”
I half-shouted the negation instantly, without even pausing for deliberate thought. A few of the fundraiser’s guests turned to look at me, unasked questions apparent on their faces. I waved them away with a half-smile.
“No,” I repeated in a whisper, when our observers found more interesting things to occupy their attention. “That’s not an option. What’s the fifth choice?”
Devlin opened his mouth to answer, but didn’t say a word. His eyes flicked up, over my shoulder, just before the Texan walked back into view and returned to his seat. He pushed two full shot glasses to our side of the table.
“The fifth option,” he said, “is probably the simplest, all things considered.”
It took me a moment to rebuild my neutral expression. I wasn’t sure if it was all that believable – he’d already demonstrated an ability to read me, even when I was trying to hide my feelings – but the exercise helped to bring my emotions under control. I didn’t know why I’d reacted so violently to Devlin earlier. He hadn’t been suggesting that I submerge myself in the criminal underworld, just adding it to the list of possible solutions. Yet I’d felt compelled to shout the idea down without even a moment of consideration.
Another thing to add to the pile of issues I needed to sort through, I supposed.
“And what is that?” Devlin asked, while I composed myself.
“I know you aren’t…well, for lack of a better word, let’s go with players. I’m on speaking terms with most of the big name movers and shakers in the game and I’m at least aware of all the rest. Hell, most owe me a favor, in one way or another.”
“You’re calling us pawns, then?”
The Texan shook his head. “Not if you’re gonna take it the wrong way, I’m not. I think you’re closer to me, in the grand scheme of things. Not players, not pawns, but…contractors. That sound about right?”
Devlin looked at me for an answer. It was my real identity at risk, after all. From the first job he’d been a part of, Devlin hadn’t really been a part of legal society. He had a name and a social security number, of course; they just weren’t connected in any real way to his actual life. If he needed to, he could probably change his name and go on living his life without any real changes. I had more at stake and, appropriately, he was leaving it to me to decide how much information to reveal.
The grand secret was already out, though, revealed through nothing more than a moment of incredibly bad luck. A few details, here or there, wouldn’t make things much worse. “Let’s go with that,” I said. “What about it?”
“Well, I personally believe that people in our field have to operate by a code,” the Texan said. “That’s all we got, when you think about it. Just our names and our word. Lose one of those and who are you, really?”
That was certainly an ominous turn of phrase. “So, what then? We both just walk away and keep each other’s secrets?”
The Texan chuckled. “Not quite. I don’t think I’ve got quite as much skin in the game as you do, if you don’t mind me saying so. No, what I’m thinking is this: you’re contractors. I want to offer you a contract.”
I raised an eyebrow. “To do what?”
“As much as I care about the welfare of poor children,” the Texan said, “I had other motivations for attending this little shindig. There’s been a trail of suspicious of activity in some of my channels lately. Sources drying up or going dark without warning; digital dead-ends; data caches being mysteriously wiped up. That sort of thing. Anyway, I followed that trail here and tonight seemed like the best time to make an appearance.”
“You’re an information dealer,” Devlin said. “People tell you things; you don’t go looking for secrets.”
“I’m a man of many talents,” the Texan replied. “None of which, unfortunately, involve breaking and entering. Although, I suppose it wouldn’t really be breaking and entering if the building’s got your name on it, would it?”
The Texan kept speaking. “I’ll make you a deal. You help me get the information I’m looking for, so I can zero out this problem, and I’ll conveniently forget exactly who did the job for me. A simple transaction, just how I like ’em. Who knows: maybe this could be the start of a profitable relationship for the three of us?”
I thought about the field of play and allowed the potential outcomes to play out in my mind. The Texan could leave the fundraiser without the object of his search. It was even possible that no one would directly ask him anything about us. It wasn’t like many people in the underworld would bother specifically asking whether or not Sarah Ford was a thief. But it wasn’t a certainty. The slim margin of doubt could mean the difference between success and a miserable death. It’d be a lot easier to track Sarah Ford than a random French cabdriver, a bodyguard whose real name I still didn’t know, or a thief who had effectively disappeared from the public eye almost twenty years ago.
Or we could take on this job and, without any planning and only half of the team present, attempt to find actionable intelligence on whoever was breaking into the Texan’s whisper network. I was almost certain that Caelum was responsible, so that wasn’t a question that needed answering, but we’d only come to Atlanta in order to run down the Mouse’s location. Actively searching for Caelum might be all he or she needed to turn his malevolent, digital eye in our direction.
Neither option was great, but one was demonstrably worse. I couldn’t put the rest of the team at risk because of my real identity. I wouldn’t do that.
I reached across the table and picked up one of the shot glasses. “Let’s drink to it, then?”