My first instinct was to hide. I was too recognizable, too immediately memorable to hope for anything resembling anonymity from this position. Nothing I had on my person could possibly conceal my face from the man in front of me, and I couldn’t risk being caught like this. That was an impossibility, though. The floor plan was too open, without any convenient cubicle walls or desks that I could duck out of sight behind.
The second thought that popped into my head – courtesy, no doubt, of my time around Mila – was attack. Maybe if I could give the strange figure something else to occupy his attention, Devlin and I could take him down and make sure that he wouldn’t run off to report back on who he’d found sneaking around the upper floors of the Sovereign in the dead of night. But…no, that wouldn’t work either. Whoever he was, the strange man had managed to take down both of the floor’s guards and he’d done it quietly enough that we hadn’t even noticed his intrusion at first. And, even if we could subdue him in the short term, what could we really hope to do from there? We couldn’t hold him indefinitely. Whether we eventually released him or he made his own escape, I’d be in the same peril, except that our captive would then have a vested interest in extracting some sort of revenge.
It wasn’t until the third idea clarified itself in my mind that I paused for the microseconds necessary to actually think. What did I know and how could I use that knowledge? What were my strengths, what were Devlin’s, and how could I leverage those to get us out of trouble in the next few minutes? A thin trickle of adrenaline, not unlike the current I’d subsided on during the hectic night in Tangiers, began to fill my veins as my eyes flicked around the room, taking in data to be analyzed later.
In the thin margin of time before Devlin moved into position and the masked man would be forced to respond, I realized several things.
First: the guards had been disabled, but they hadn’t been killed. As far as I could tell, they hadn’t even been seriously wounded. The masked man had incapacitated them somehow, tied them up, gagged them so that they wouldn’t be able to raise an alarm, and blindfolded them. I didn’t understand the purpose of the blindfold – if he was already going to wear a ski mask, what was the point? – but it did mean that I didn’t have to worry about three people identifying me, for the moment.
Second: I’d been put on alert by a stray breeze, winding its way through the floor space from an open window on the far side of the room. If I was willing to assume that coincidence was a poor way to explain things, that meant the open window had contributed in some way to the presence of the masked man in front of me…that was, the open window on the nineteenth floor.
Third: all available evidence pointed to the man in front of me as a cat burglar. An honest-to-goodness, black turtleneck-clad, wall-crawling, cat burglar. It was such an absurd intrusion into the realm of fiction that I – Sarah Ford, hacker extraordinaire, and unwilling agent of the mysterious Lady in the Black Dress – could scarcely believe it. Cat burglars weren’t real. They were the bogeymen that rich idiots and careless nobility created to explain away their own bad investments or a foolish overconfidence in their own security. We preyed on people who believed in cat burglars. Few things are easier than picking someone’s pocket when their eyes are focused on the skylights, after all.
Yet, one stood in front of us, seeming almost as awkward and stunned as I felt.
All those thoughts flashed through my head in two heartbeats. I barely had enough time to open my mouth to say something before Devlin surged into action. There wasn’t even a yard between where he stood and the now open door, and he crossed that space like a streak of dark lightning. While I’d been planning to speak,all I could do was suck in a harsh breath as Devlin’s used one arm to press the masked man up against the wall and pressed his other forearm into the man’s throat.
“Who are you and what do you want?” Devlin asked in a dangerous growl. It wasn’t the voice he’d used on the Texan. In that tone, he’d at least kept the threat sub vocal, implied rather than explicit. Now, his voice was so gravely that I couldn’t believe he wasn’t causing himself pain to produce it.
The masked man choked out an unintelligible syllable in response. Devlin eased up a little on the pressure, so that his victim could take in a shallow breath. “Barrett,” the masked man croaked. “Name’s Barrett. Nice to meet you too.”
“What’re you doing here, Barrett?”
Devlin moved slightly to one side as he spoke. It took me a moment to realize that he was blocking Barrett’s sight line with his own body. Sure, he might have seen my face for a split second, but that was a far cry from being able to positively identify me later. I suppressed the urge to pat Devlin on the back for his quick thinking.
“Same thing you are,” Barrett said. He drew in another shaky breath. “Unless there’s some other reason for you to be up here in the dead of night?”
I took advantage of Barrett’s situation and gave my surroundings a closer examination. After a second, I spotted a gray towel that looked reasonably clean. I knelt, retrieved the towel, and tied it around the bottom half of my face like a bandanna. Another brief search in my bag yielded a thick scrunchy. I used that to pull most of my hair out of my eyes, leaving only enough to cast my eyes in some shadow. Then, just to be safe, I stepped even farther back into the shadows before I said a word.
“Picked a bad time to rob this place,” I called out from the shadows. I made an effort to sound different: lowering my pitch, adding strange pauses in the middle of my sentences, and pronouncing each word just a little bit different. My impersonation of the Lady wouldn’t win me any awards, but I had to hope it would add just a little more uncertainty if Barrett decided to start talking about who he’d seen and where he’d seen them.
“All things considered,” Barrett said, shifting his weight so that he could breathe a little more easily with Devlin’s forearm still pressed into his throat, “seems like I picked the right time. Everybody’s downstairs, drinking forty dollar cocktails and patting themselves on the back, and no one’s paying attention to anything happening upstairs. That’s not why you’re here?”
Devlin turned his head slightly in my direction. Whatever he’d intended to say never got past the thought stage, though. The very instant that Devlin’s eyes left him, Barrett twisted his head sharply to one side. The movement gave him a millimeter of space between Devlin’s forearm and Barrett’s own windpipe. Barrett’s hand whipped up, almost invisible in the darkness, and found the inside of Devlin’s elbow. It was a quick, almost impossibly precise action. Devlin’s arm flew away from Barrett’s neck and Barrett dropped down before Devlin could reapply pressure. As Devlin’s forearm collided with the wall, Barrett pivoted around my ex-husband and did…something. It was too dark to see clearly. The end of result of the exchange, however, was obvious even in the low light of the open floor space.
Devlin ‘s face was pressed against the wall, with one of his arm twisted up at a painful angle behind his back. Barrett stood behind him. The black-clad man had one foot pressed against the inside of Devlin’s right instep; the other foot was a good six inches farther back, providing leverage.
“Now then,” Barrett said. The calmness of his voice clashed with the ease with which he’d just turned the tables on Devlin. “Can we talk about this like gentlemen? Or gentle people, rather; I don’t mean to insult the lady.”
“Let me go,” Devlin said through gritted teeth, “and I’ll be happy to discuss this at length.”
Barrett chuckled. “You’ll excuse me if I don’t take your word for it, at the moment. I’m told this hold can be quite painful, so you’re probably not feeling very charitable at the moment. If your friend wants to vouch for you, though, I’m sure we can come to an agreement of some sort.”
“Let him go,” I said, as loudly as I dared. Just because the floors below had been empty didn’t mean they’d stayed that way. “If you want to talk, let’s talk. No need for the violence.”
“Your kind friend here started it,” Barrett said. Then, surprisingly, he released Devlin’s arm and took several quick steps back. “But I’m more than willing to let bygones be bygones, if you are. Let’s just agree that we got off to a bad start.”
Devlin’s glare could have melted steel at a hundred paces. He massaged his elbow in sullen silence and kept his lips tightly pressed together.
I knew that I couldn’t risk talking much. Accents weren’t my thing and it would only be a matter of time before I slipped up and revealed too much. But, if Devlin wasn’t going to talk, someone had to. I didn’t have the time to wait for Barrett, whoever he was, to set a leisurely tone for our conversation.
“What floor did you come from?” I asked.
“Twenty-third,” Barrett answered promptly. He went down to one knee and began rummaging around in a bag I hadn’t noticed before. Probably black, like his outfit. “You?”
Barrett whistled softly. “Server room? I never really understood the computer thing. I mean, I can use them, but why? Diamonds…you can actually feel them, you know?”
“Harder to fence diamonds,” I pointed out. “And if you do it right, no one even knows when you’ve broken into a computer.”
“That’s fair, I suppose.” Barrett stood back up. He was holding something in both hands and I had to remind myself that his tone hadn’t changed in the slightest before he’d attacked and beaten Devlin in the space of a few seconds.
I waited for Devlin to fill the silence. He didn’t, so I spoke again. “Are we going to have any issues?”
“Upstairs?” Barrett shook his head. “Cameras, obviously, but nothing you didn’t already know about. Security room is right up the stairs, third door on the right, by the way. I didn’t see any guards, so it’s probably being watched from off-site.”
That was certainly useful information. “Appreciate that,” I said. “But I meant are we going to have any problems?”
“The three of us?” Barrett barked out another laugh. “Nothing we haven’t already settled.”
“So you didn’t see us?” I pressed, stepping down hard on the childish petulance I felt rising from within me. For years, I’d managed to keep my identity a total secret. Most people who’d worked with Devlin didn’t even know that he had a partner. Now, in a little over six months, at least four people knew what I moonlighted as. The fact that only one of them – again, as far as I knew – was aware of my online identity by name didn’t make me feel any better.
“Who am I going to tell?” Barrett asked. “You think the cops really want to hear from someone who was also stealing from this august establishment?”
Not a promise, but I couldn’t have trusted a promise anyway. As things stood, I really only had the threat of mutually assured destruction at my fingertips. “As long as you keep it that way, we didn’t see anyone either.”
He tilted his head. I couldn’t quite see his eyes in the low light, but I could imagine that they’d narrowed slightly. “Are you kidding? I’m hoping you tell people. How else are they going to know I kept my word?”
I blinked at that, unsure of what response I should make. While I pondered, Barrett strolled casually over to the open window. He fiddled with something I couldn’t see, then paused for a second.
“What?” I asked. “If you’re thinking about blackmail, I wouldn’t.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it,” Barrett said. He fished something out of his pocket and dropped it the floor. “But I’m going to be in the country for a little bit. Assuming you can stick to this whole ‘honor among thieves’ thing, I feel like I could use a local to show me around. Or..I don’t know, maybe for some other things.”
He winked at me. I couldn’t see it, of course; the moon was on the opposite side of the building. But I could feel it, I swear to God.
Devlin picked that moment to find his voice again. “How about you don’t and just say that you did?”
Barrett chuckled and shrugged. “If your friend here ever decides you’re big enough to come out and play, give me a call. We’ll set up a play date and everything.”
“How would I call you?” The words came out of my mouth without stopping to check in with my rational brain.
Barrett looked down at the floor. “You’ll figure it out.”
Then, before I could say anything else, he took two fast steps forward and threw himself out of the window.
I took a long step toward him, choking down a scream of horror, but Devlin stopped me from going any further. When my conscious mind checked in, I put together the disparate clues I’d noticed. The bag I couldn’t see, whatever item he’d been holding in his hands, the fact that he’d apparently entered the Sovereign on the last floor before cameras became an obstacle. Barrett hadn’t just entered through the nineteenth story; he’d originally planned to leave that way, too.
Another minute or two in either direction and we wouldn’t even have encountered him. We weren’t going up to the same floor he’d just finished pilfering and, by his own admission, he wasn’t the type to mess with computers. It had been pure luck that had introduced us.
Pure luck, that is, unless you were the type of person who’d long since given up on coincidences.
“Are you okay?” I asked Devlin. The hand he’d used to stop me had been attached to the arm Barrett had twisted.
“I’m fine,” Devlin said. He didn’t sound fine. But, at the same time, he didn’t sound like he was in any physical pain. Losing a fight that quickly had probably done a number on his self-esteem. “How are you?”
“He didn’t do anything except -” I cut myself off. I’d been planning on finishing that sentence by pointing out that Barrett had been flirting with me from the start, but it felt like this wasn’t the right time to point that out. “…except give me a minor heart attack.”
“Mmmhmm,” Devlin said. He managed to pack more questions into those two syllables than anyone should have been able to do. He walked away from me, over to the window, and dropped to examine the floor. In the darkness, Devlin’s keen eyes were able to spot something that I almost certainly would’ve missed.
“What is it?” I asked.
“A card,” Devlin said. He returned to my side and held out the card to me, pinched between his index and middle fingers.
I took the flat rectangle and squinted to read what was written on its surface. On the front of the card, there was no lettering that I could make out. In place of writing, a stylized claw had been embossed with great care. On the back, there was only an email address: firstname.lastname@example.org.
I tucked the card away into my purse and felt Devlin’s gaze fall on me. “If we’d known a cat burglar that we could trust,” I pointed out, “this whole evening would have gone a hell of a lot easier.”
Devlin snorted. “You don’t even know him, but you’re already speculating about whether or not we can trust him?”
His sentence came out with a little heat. It wasn’t enough that I felt like responding, but I did notice the inflection. Devlin’s shoulders were a little more rigid, his eyes slightly more narrow, and one of his hands – the one attached to the injured arm – was flexing open and shut with alarming frequency.
“It’s just a thought,” I said as soothingly as possible. “I’m not planning on it, God. But I just like to know what my options are.”
For some reason, that seemed to irritate Devlin even more. Instead of saying anything verbally, he grunted in a vaguely disapproving – which is to say, territorial – way and stalked over the door leading up to the server room. I followed in his wake, unsure of how I’d misspoken now or whether the shift in his mood was entirely related to his fragile male ego.
I only paused in my ruminations to look at the open window and the thick black rope I could just barely make out now. My fingers tingled slightly, as if I was still holding the strangely heavy business card with the stylized paw. Then I pushed all of those thoughts out of the way, reminded myself of why we’d come to the server room in the first place.
Twentieth floor. Hackers, information dealers, and thieves.
Game time, in other words.