Devlin whipped his phone out as soon as the Texan made his exit. He talked to me while he punched at the screen. “Have you had a chance to look at the building schematics yet?”
“I was napping, Dev,” I said. “No, I haven’t had an opportunity to pull up the blueprint.”
“You should probably get started on that then, shouldn’t you?”
I bit back a retort. He was right. If my grandmother had accurately estimated the remaining time until her speech, we were on an impossibly short timeline. Arguing now would only eat up the few minutes we had available.
My laptop was back at the house and I still hadn’t been able to construct a proper workstation. I allowed myself a single second to mentally complain about the unfairness of my life before I fished out my own phone and began fervently searching for information about the Sovereign online. Buildings like these often kept vague blueprints online, so that prospective tenants could examine their possible purchase in comfort. There had been some information online when last I’d looked, but that had been years ago. The elevated ceiling in the conference room was proof that modifications had taken place in the intervening time, so I couldn’t trust any old memories to guide us through.
Devlin’s phone rang. He looked nervously around at our surroundings before he answered. “Yes?”
He listened to someone speaking on the other line.
“Yes, thank you, I’m aware of that. But what would you have done?”
Whatever response came from the other party possessed enough vitriol that he actually pulled the phone a few inches away from his ear.
“That wasn’t an option. God, it’s like you’re trying to get the authorities involved. Look, can you put Michel on?” He covered the microphone for a moment. “Sarah, Mila’s not thrilled about the last minute nature of this particular job.”
“I think I could have figured that out, Dev.” My phone lit up and I scanned down the first page of search results. There wasn’t anything there. I clicked over to the second page and, halfway down the list, spotted a website that looked promising.
“Michel,” Devlin said into the phone, “talk to me about escape routes. If we had to make a quick getaway, how fast could you make that happen?”
While Michel answered that question, I navigated through the website. Most of the information on the page related to rental benefits, insurance clauses, and a wealth of legal mumbo jumbo. I had to read the entire screen twice before I noticed a link that pointed to floor plans. I pulled that up and took a few seconds to verify that the image on the screen was something that might be useful.
It was very possible that even this information was out of date, but it was better than nothing. My phone screen was too small for me to make out fine details, so I connected with the tablet in my purse and sent the entire page over to that. That wasn’t a perfect solution, though. Speed would be an issue and I was going to be limited to whatever wireless security this building possessed. There wouldn’t be time to cobble together anything better.
Devlin was still speaking to Michel on the phone. “If you can figure out a way in, sure, but I don’t think we should even risk the attention. Virginia might get involved, realize that you’re coming up, and start wondering where exactly Sarah disappeared to.” He paused. “Obviously, I can’t do that. Infiltration is my thing and I can’t very well do that if I’m keeping her grandmother distracted.”
I switched from the phone to the tablet. The floor plans weren’t drawn in great detail. I could tell the general shape of the floors upstairs, but not which rooms were located where. The names of each floor’s occupants weren’t listed, either. We could leave the conference room, go up one floor, and walk directly into a security firm. There just wasn’t any to know for sure.
“I promise,” Devlin said. “And let her know that we did do this sort of thing before her.”
He tilted his head at the response and a tiny smile appeared on his face.
“Well, I wouldn’t say it to her either,” he said, “but it was still worth a try. Go, figure out some plans, in case we need to use them. I’ll be in touch if…well, when things go wrong.”
I waited for Devlin to hang up before I passed the tablet over to him. “What do you think?” I asked.
“I think this is a terrible, no good, very bad idea,” Devlin said, “but these floor plans might make it workable. It’d help if I knew who was actually occupying the floors above us.”
“I did what I could with what I had.” I knew that he wasn’t taking a shot at me, but I couldn’t quite stop my pride from flaring up.
“And it’s better than I could have done on my own,” Devlin replied. “I’m not complaining, I’m just saying. Tell me about this server room?”
“What do you want to know?”
“Is there any other way to access it, besides breaking into whatever room it’s in?”
“Not without leaving tracks,” I said. That wasn’t quite true. I might not leave tracks, but it wasn’t a risk worth taking. The difference was minute enough that I doubted Devlin would care about the details. “The safest way is if I gain physical access.”
He nodded. “If we end up creating a situation, we won’t be able to get back in the building. Security protocols will change and all that.”
“I am aware of that. What are you asking?”
“Are you sure you can do both things? Find whatever information the Texan is after and dig up the Mouse’s trail?”
If I was right, and Caelum was responsible for the Texan’s intelligence drought, it was definitely a possibility. Of course, in a rush to clear out the server for anything that might be useful, I might also trigger some sort of digital trap, alert the entire building, and inadvertently reveal to my grandmother the very information I was desperately attempting to suppress. Or I might make a dumb mistake – not a common occurrence, but not one that I could completely ignore – and alert Caelum to my intrusion, without actually getting my digital hands on anything I needed.
There were a lot of ways this could go wrong, but there were always a lot of ways things could go wrong. I just needed to bet on pulling off the lone, perfect series of events that gave me what I wanted without making things worse in the long run.
“I can do both things,” I said. I hoped my voice didn’t betray my lack of confidence in that statement.
If Devlin saw anything in my face, he kept it to himself. “Alright, then. We’re looking at a few floors, unknown security features, and a server room…whatever that is. Where do we start?”
I took a deep breath and scanned the room. A few couples were lingering near us, probably waiting for an opportunity to introduce themselves, but the bulk of the party had migrated closer to where I assumed my grandmother was. She was, after all, the belle of this particular ball.
“A distraction right about now would be incredibly useful,” I said. “Otherwise, someone is going to inevitably stop me before I can slip away and tie me up in some inane conversation.”
“I’d planned on making one of those anyway,” Devlin said, “but that obviously won’t work if I’m going with you.”
It didn’t occur to me to suggest that he stay behind. As much as my technical skills would be necessary to access the server, Devlin’s expertise at infiltration would be equally essential. More importantly, perhaps, I found that I didn’t want him to stay behind. Even if I’d had absolute confidence in my ability to sneak through the upper floors of the building without getting the attention of any guards, I would probably have still wanted him to come with me.
“Ideas?” I asked.
Devlin furrowed his brow for several moments. I was intensely aware of each second as it ticked away, but I kept my peace and waited for Devlin’s peculiar mind to offer up a solution to the first of what would most likely end up being many problems.
His eyes lit up when he came to a solution. “How much of a distraction are we looking for?”
“Not enough to get the fundraiser called off,” I said. “More than just a temporary amusement. What do you have in mind?”
Devlin winked at me. “Science,” he said, wiggling his fingers mystically in front of his face. “If you’ll excuse me?”
He excused himself without waiting for permission to do so. That left me alone at the table, surrounded by a sea of people waiting to make my acquaintance. Immediately, I began playing around on the tablet to discourage anyone from approaching.
There wasn’t much for me to do, aside from speculatively examining floor plans. Much of what was displayed on my screen wouldn’t be useful and the truly valuable information was deliberately kept secret from the general public. If we could locate some sort of security hub on the way up to the server room, that would help, but I wasn’t about to start betting on any lucky streaks at the moment.
I’d begun toying with the idea of checking in with Mila and Michel myself when a push notification drew my attention to the tablet’s task bar. Someone had sent me an email. Or, more accurately, someone had sent Irene an email. The routing protocols I used to insulate myself were still active, as far as I knew, which meant it could only be a member of the Community. No one else knew the address.
Glancing around nervously once more, as if anyone could see or read my email from a few feet away, I cautiously opened up the message and skimmed its contents. The message written there was short, but no less ominous for its brevity.
You can’t trust him. You can’t trust anyone.
There was no signature at the bottom of the email and, in the ‘sender’ field, someone had only filled in absolute gibberish. That meant a burner account. Whoever was trying to contact me didn’t even want me to know their digital identity, which elevated my paranoia to an even more impressive level.
The Community had its problems , its infighting, and its factions. At least, it had possessed all of those things before Caelum’s apparent rampage through the rank and file. But, regardless of personal issues, we’d always been able to rely on the certainty of one simple fact: any member of the Community would cheerfully throw themselves in front of a bus – or whatever the online equivalent of that was – if it meant that someone else’s real name would be kept secret. With that unspoken promise as a base, it had been common practice to be relatively free with our handles, so long as were communicating with other members in good standing.
I wasn’t on the outs with the group. They probably weren’t thrilled that I’d put a pause on their D-Day plan, but I was still working in our mutual best interests. If one of the remaining members wanted to impress the seriousness of my situation, they’d wasted their time. Without identifying themselves, I had no reason to take this email any more seriously than a spam message.
Except…except that it had come to one of the accounts I maintained, specifically to stay in contact with the Community. A random individual wouldn’t have been able to locate that account and, even if the random number god had decided to kick out that combination of letters and numbers, that same random person couldn’t possibly have known what name I’d respond to.
There was a short list of people who knew the address, knew my online handle belonged to it, and knew that I was rapidly approaching the deep, still waters. The Community members left standing comprised one group. Frizzle, Gate, and Max would clearly be capable of reaching out. But they weren’t asking for anything and they hadn’t expressed anything coherent.
The Mouse was another. He knew how much danger he was in. Presumably, he could make the assumption that I was in similar straits. But what would the point have been to express fear, when he’d already done a perfectly good job of painting a picture of his precarious position, with regards to Caelum and the Magi?
And Caelum…he was a third and final option that I couldn’t ignore. If he wanted to, I didn’t doubt that he could find some thin connecting thread between Irene and Sarah Ford. But why warn me? Why not just swoop in, sever my connection to the Internet, and take me and the team completely off of the board?
It meant something. I didn’t know what, but I knew that it meant something. I added it to the growing pile of questions and moved past it. Devlin was on his way back.
In his hands, I saw several things. One: a plain, unmarked glass of a bubbling, clear liquid. Two: three coasters, gripped between his fingers so that they resembled claws. Three: a clenched fist, holding something tight and keeping it from sight.
Devlin sat down across from me. “Can you make sure no one’s looking at me for a second?”
I did a quick sweep, identified a cluster of men in their twenties sneaking furtive glances in my direction, and went with the simplest possible option of capturing their attention. I yawned, stretching my arms as high as they would go and focused my attention on my exposed shoulders. I rolled my neck slowly, as well, just in case one of the men held different interests.
Sure enough, it worked. One of the young men noticed me, then subtly tried to direct his friends’ eyes in my direction. Men in their twenties were nothing if not predictable.
What I did not see coming was the nearly identical look of slackjawed appreciation that appeared on Devlin’s face. I resisted the urge to snap my fingers in his face. “Devlin? Kind of in a hurry,” I said through clenched teeth.
He blinked rapidly. “Oh! Oh, uh, yeah. Lost my train of thought for a moment there.” He lowered the cup of seltzer water beneath the table, placing it on the floor as close to the center of the table as he could, and opened his clenched fist. Two circular, chalk-white tablets rested in his palm. Instantly, I understood.
“Oh, that is clever,” I said appreciatively.
“I do what I can,” Devlin replied modestly.
“How long do you think that’ll take?” I asked.
He shrugged a response back at me. “I failed chemistry,” he said. “Saw this on an episode of Bill Nye.”
I was torn between the urge to gape and the desire to laugh. I split the difference and gave Devlin a disbelieving look. “We should probably get moving then.”
“Yes,” he said, “we really, really should. I’m late, I’m late, and all that jazz.”
“We’re late,” I countered, standing up without waiting for him to pull the chair out for me.
The two of us walked as casually as we could in the direction of the nearest exit. Conveniently, it was one of the few ways out of the conference room that wasn’t blocked off by a pop-up bar. We’d covered half the distance, taking great care not to draw attention or to seem unusually skulky, when Devlin’s chemistry experiment paid off. Alka Seltzer plus seltzer water in an enclosed container was a basic science experiment. But two extra-strength tablets, combined with an even larger quantity of water in a glass took what should have been a minor pop into a considerably larger production.
The table was too heavy to move, but he hadn’t been planning on knocking anything over. It was the sound that he’d been after. A loud hiss of pressurized air escaping its confines followed by a heavy thud as, at its apex, the glass collided with the wooden underpinnings of the table was enough to draw the eye of every guest in the immediate vicinity for at least a few seconds. Those people who weren’t close enough to actually hear anything still reacted to everyone else.
It was an odd thing to see. Every man and woman that I could see turned to look intently at an empty table or to look at people who were looking at an empty table. But, oddity aside, their distraction gave Devlin and me the seconds we needed to slip, unseen, through the exit. A staircase led up to the floor above, the first of at least four floors that we’d have to traverse in the next hour or so.
I turned to Devlin and saw the wolfish smile on his face that I’d expected. I met his grin with one of my own.
“After you?” He dipped his head and gestured extravagantly with one hand.
I inclined my head slightly in courtly appreciation. “Don’t mind if I do, good sir.”
The two of us hurried upstairs and, for maybe an instant or two, I was having too much fun to worry about much of anything at all.