The sixteenth floor of the Sovereign was dark. Of course it was dark. I didn’t want to check my phone for the time, but it was well past the hour when an industrious worker might be plugging away at some last minute assignment. When Devlin and I eased the door open, I had to narrow my eyes to search for any sign of a janitor or a beleaguered junior assistant or anything of the sort.
I saw no one, looked at Devlin for confirmation, and read in his face that he’d seen no one either. It wasn’t an absolute conclusion, by any stretch of the imagination, but it was at least something to start with. Without access to the building’s security system or a more detailed blueprint to work with, our eyes were the only tools we could use. Far from ideal, for a wide variety of reasons, but it was all we had at our disposal.
“I’ll go first,” Devlin whispered under his breath. He wasn’t taking chances with some unseen interloper, either. “Give me a little bit to check our immediate surroundings. Do not move from this spot until I either come back to let you know it’s okay or…”
He trailed off. I only gave him a second to formulate an answer before anxiety and adrenaline forced a question past my lips. “Or what, Dev?”
“Or I set off an alarm,” he finished. “Or attract the attention of some guard we aren’t seeing. Whatever the reason, if something happens, you need to get back to the party and pretend you have no idea where I went.”
I knew that any glare I shot him wouldn’t be caught in the darkness of the staircase, but I glared at him anyway. “I don’t know how many times we’re going to have to talk about this, Dev, but -”
He cleared his throat, cutting me off before I could finish the distance. “That’s not what I’m saying, Sarah. If something goes wrong and I end up in custody, you’re the only one who’ll be able to get me out of trouble. Unless you think your grandmother would be feeling generous after her speech?”
I pressed my lips together in a tight, tense line. He had a point. My name still held clout in these circles and I was definitely dressed to play the part of a wandering heiress. I could likely intercept anyone dragging a handcuffed Devlin and negotiate his release without drawing too much attention to myself. Someone would probably have things to say about the prodigal Sarah Ford making an appearance on a closed floor, but that was a price I’d have to pay.
“I don’t like it,” I said.
“I don’t like it either,” Devlin replied, “but unless you’ve got another idea…”
I sighed. “I don’t. Fine. Hurry up and check out the area, then. We’re still on the timer.”
The staircase was too dark for me to see Devlin’s expression, but the silhouette of his head nodded twice. He opened the door a little wider, slipped inside, and vanished.
That left me alone in the staircase, squinting into the uniform darkness of this floor’s layout. I could make out a few desks from their shadows and the little bit of ambient light that filtered into the room through the distant windows. Other than vague details, however, I couldn’t make out anything potentially worthwhile. With my eyes rendered useless and any use of illuminated electronics out of the question, I turned my thoughts inward and attempted to sort through the last email I’d received.
A few minutes passed before I was forced to admit that I’d made no progress on sussing out the sender of the mysterious, ominous message. Each of the three options I’d come up with earlier had points to suggest their validity; at the same time, each possible answer came with a unique set of complications.
My thoughts shifted to another problem. The email had said that I shouldn’t trust him. Him who? There were only a few men I interacted with on a regular basis, especially since the London affair had catapulted us into the employ of a madwoman with a vendetta the size of an aircraft carrier. There was Devlin, but I could…well, if I couldn’t trust him, I could at least trust him to do what he thought best. My well being ranked at the top of that particular list.
Michel was a new friend, true, but he was a friend who had been instrumental during the denouement of the London debacle and who had stood by the rest of us in difficult times without flinching away. I could easily accept that he might be a mole of some sort – after the revelation of a corrupt Chief Inspector in Interpol’s ranks, only an idiot would rely on the word of a relative stranger – but, if he was a mole, then that wouldn’t be a world I wanted to live in.
That left Caelum and the Mouse. If Caelum had discovered and subjugated my mail server, he’d have access to more than enough information to start connecting dots. Someone motivated enough to dig through my web traffic and all associated metadata would almost certainly be able to find a single thread to pull on. From that thread, the whole tapestry of my double life might easily unravel.
And then, there was the Mouse. He’d always contacted me over the official channels I reserved for Community purposes: my username, generally attached to a series of random numbers. He might have been in a hurry of some sort at the time, maybe, but I couldn’t bet on anything right now. Either the Mouse was still free and potentially trying to warn me about something; we’d been discovered, and this infiltration had ended even before it had been given a chance to begin; or someone else – the Community, the Magi, Caelum, maybe even the Lady – was playing us like chess pieces.
Given those options, I really wasn’t sure which I favored most.
Devlin returned and rescued me from weighing that question in my mind. “Clear as far as I can see,” he said.
“Is there a security room on this floor?” I asked. While I spoke, I pushed myself up to my full height and began brushing away imaginary specks of dust from my dress.
He shook his head. “None that I could see.” Devlin paused, switched mental tracks, and these continued. “What kind of security do these buildings normally have?”
I blinked. “You can’t guess?”
Devlin shrugged his response. A heartbeat later, he gave breath to his thoughts. “Office buildings like these aren’t high value targets, generally speaking. Occasionally, an original piece finds it way into someone’s office, but it’s never really worth the trouble. Most of the times, those paintings are just prints.”
“So that’s a no?”
“That’s a no.” Devlin looked around the floor’s interior one more time, as if he might have missed a whole person on his first sweep.
I swallowed down a thick knot of tension. I’d assumed that Devlin would have some experience breaking into high rises like this. Granted, we’d never taken on any jobs like that during our time together, but still. It was the aesthetic of the thing. What kind of an art thief didn’t occasionally steal things from an office?
“How did I not know that?” I asked out loud.
“Know what?” Devlin opened the door wide enough for me to join him in the floor space, instead of the staircase. I allowed him to lead the way through the darkened silhouettes of desks, chairs, and other accouterments.
“That you didn’t do towers and the like,” I whispered back to him.
“Is this really the time for a conversation, Sarah?”
I tried to look as helpless and unoffensive as possible. The darkness went a long way towards blunting the effect of any innocent expression I might have been able to muster. “Just trying to…well, not distract myself, but to keep myself from getting angsty about all this. You know I hate working without the opportunity to plan and there is a lot at stake.”
He went still for an instant. It wasn’t a long freeze – just barely longer than a full second, perhaps – but it was still noticeable for its abruptness. When the freeze passed, he looked over his shoulder and found my eyes in the gloom. I couldn’t see his face with it turned away from the ambient outdoor light, but I felt a little thrill go through my body that must have signified intense eye contact on his part.
“That’s the kind of thing you see in movies, Sarah,” Devlin said. It took me a moment to connect his sentence back to my original question. “Generally speaking, if you want to break into a high-rise, you do it by waiting somewhere already inside the building. That way, you can check out guard rotations, scout any cameras that might become an issue, and you only have to figure out your exit.”
I should’ve known that. But it wasn’t as though I had as much experience in the field as Devlin and something about his tone pricked at my nerves. I didn’t say anything else until after we’d crossed the sixteenth floor without incident, located a staircase, and started the ascent to the seventeeth.
“That just sounds boring,” I said.
“Sitting behind a computer screen sounds boring to me,” Devlin countered, “but it works for you. Most of the jobs I pulled before we started working together were boring. Come to think of it, the majority of the jobs the two of us took on ended up being boring in one way or another.”
The unspoken subtext was clear: at least, until we started working for the Lady. Since this job had started, things had been anything but simple or boring. That was definitely something the two of us could agree on.
Devlin took the lead. With him scouting ahead of us, we cleared two more floors without trouble. Any cameras within the building were either out of the way or easily avoided and, in an effort to reduce costs, it appeared that the building managers had elected to use electronic means of surveillance instead of hiring men to patrol through the halls. I didn’t doubt that we’d run into stiffer security when we reached the actual twentieth floor but, for the most part, there simply wasn’t anything worth stealing from the desk jockeys that populated the offices we were passing through.
At the nineteenth floor, Devlin went ahead to scout the room and returned only a few seconds later. “Guards,” he hissed to me.
“Looks like two,” he said. “Could be more on patrol, though. Show me the floor plan again?”
I moved over so that he could return to the staircase and close the door before I activated my tablet and passed it over to him. Devlin examined it for a few seconds. I looked at it upside down. The floor plan for the nineteenth was more open than that of the previous three floors, which was good and bad. On the one hand, it meant that there probably weren’t additional guards hiding around corners or in darkened alcoves. On the other, the lack of cubicles or walls gave us less cover to hide behind.
If someone saw us, I could always reveal my identity. That would probably get us out of trouble, in the short term. In the long term, however, it meant that we wouldn’t be able to get the Texan’s requested information. He’d then be free to reveal my name to the first person willing to make him an agreeable offer and my life as Sarah Ford would come crashing to a violent end. Moreover, it might take us days to find another way to enter the Ford offices. I had less than a week to locate the Mouse, on top of the other thing.
Capture, detainment, or a gentle escort back down to the fundraiser were three unacceptable options. I needed a fourth that might actually prove helpful.
“What are you thinking, Dev?”
“Nothing pleasant,” he said. I glanced up sharply at the sound of his voice. It hadn’t reached wintry levels yet, but it was noticeably cooler than it had been before. “I’m pretty sure I can take two guards, if I have to.”
“They’re just doing their job!”
“And I’m just doing mine,” he countered. “I don’t want to do it, but I could probably pull it off without hurting them too bad.”
I didn’t like the part of myself that reared its head. I was discovering that pragmatism was often an unpleasant thing.
“…how bad is too bad?”
Devlin shrugged, reached inside his jacket pocket, and withdrew a collapsible baton similar in construction to the one Mila typically carried. “Bad headaches,” he said. “Bruises, both on their bodies and their egos. Nothing permanent.”
I checked my phone. We’d made good time, but I still had no idea what security measures might be protecting the servers. Devlin and I couldn’t afford to spend time searching for nonviolent, noninterventionist ways of dealing with the guards. “And you’re sure you can get to them before they raise an alarm?”
“Sure as I can be without trying, yeah.”
He was hesitating. It took me a second or two to realize that he was waiting for me to give him permission. Why would he do that? “Go for it, then!”
Devlin nodded and eased the door back open again. He leaned his weight on his back leg, lowered his head, and prepared to leap through the door. Seconds passed, however, and he did nothing except turn his head slowly from one side of the room to the other.
“What is it?” I asked, when I could no longer bear the tension.
“They’re…gone,” he said.
“Gone? Where could they have gone?”
He opened the door wider so that I could join him at the very cusp of the room’s interior. There was more light on this floor, owing to the presence of several very large windows on both sides of the space. There were still deep shadows stretching in long lines across the floor, but the entire floor plan wasn’t completely shrouded in darkness.
Whatever business operated on this floor must have been some sort of new-age tech companies. I’d read somewhere that those types of firms preferred open work spaces and atypical designs, in order to better promote creativity. Personally, I thought it was just an outgrowth of a new generation seeking to mark themselves as individuals, but who was I to judge?
“Small miracles,” I muttered under my breath. I moved ahead of Devlin for a few steps, but then he caught up and outpaced me.
“We would have heard an elevator, wouldn’t we?” Devlin asked.
I gave him a clueless look. “From the staircase? That space was like an echo chamber. I doubt we could have heard anything from inside there.”
Devlin didn’t look convinced.
We reached the far side of the room, stopping at a door labeled ‘Information Technology Solutions’ . It wasn’t locked and there weren’t any guards in sight. I stood up before leaning on the door, stretching out the cramps in my legs from so much time spent crouched warily. A breeze raised the hairs on my arm and I rubbed self consciously at my bare skin.
Then, I blinked. Devlin glanced at me, looked down at my arms and the way I was sheltering them from the elements, and his eyes widened. A breeze meant a window was open. Who would open a window on the nineteenth floor, at this time of night?
The door to the server room burst open. Two guards, bound together, gagged, and blindfolded fell through the open portal like an oversized sack of potatoes. They were struggling to free themselves but the knots on their restraints looked extremely professional. On the heels of the two guards, someone dressed in all black – black pants, black t-shirt, black shoes, and a black ski mask – took a long step over the two tied-up men. The figure was focused on something in his hands and, due to a lack of attention, walked directly into me.
I stumbled back, dumbfounded and incapable of rationalizing this newest development. The figure in black stared blankly at me in return.
Just when I was about to scream – it was a silly reaction, but I couldn’t think of anything else to do – the figure cleared its throat. “Well,” the figure said in a rich, deep baritone. “This is awkward, isn’t it?”