It took less than thirty seconds for the building’s backup generators to kick in, but the damage was already done. To restart the process from scratch – brute forcing the password, re-establishing the connection, indexing, and isolating the relevant information – would require me to start over from the very beginning. Or, if not the absolute beginning, close enough that the difference in time would be fundamentally meaningless. Sure, the work would go a little faster, owing to system memory and the like, but it wouldn’t be six or seven minutes faster.
Some data had been transferred already. I just couldn’t know how much or if anything I’d managed to acquire would be useful. And, even if I’d been lucky enough to get the exact information Devlin and I had sneaked into the server room to steal, it would almost certainly be corrupted. Again, that wouldn’t be an absolute deal breaker when I was located a comfortable distance from the scene of the crime, but at the moment? It meant that there wasn’t any way for me to assess the quality of what I’d managed to acquire.
It wouldn’t have been fair to say that we didn’t have any options. We did. We just didn’t have any good options. But was that really a new thing, in the post-Magi world I currently resided in?
“We can cut and run,” Devlin said, “or we can try to figure something out. Whatever you want to do, though, you’ll have to make up your mind fast.”
I looked up at him and noticed, almost immediately, that he’d slipped into his purely professional mode. Any trace of anxiety or nervousness was gone from his expression. All I could read in his eyes was a serious, intense focus. The sound of his mental gears spinning into high speed was almost audible.
It meant something that, even in his most utilitarian mindset, Devlin was laying this choice at my feet. If I decided to make a break for the benefit, it would lead to very bad things in very short order. There would be nothing stopping the Texan from selling my identity to the highest bidder, for one. If the Magi hadn’t yet figured out that they were under attack from a highly mobile and effective team of thieves, that was only because they seemed to lack the imagination to consider such a thing possible. Asher probably would have put the clues together by now but, thankfully, he’d been removed from play already.
Regardless, it was only a matter of time before someone in the organization caught on. When that happened it would only take a quick phone call to the friendly international information dealer and the game would be up. The only way to avoid that eventuality that I could see required me to voluntarily give up my public identity and do as Devlin had suggested earlier: to allow myself to fall entirely into the criminal underworld, using the anonymity and numerous false identities that defined that realm as a sort of cover.
And even that wasn’t a guarantee of safety forever. Whoever was chasing the after the Mouse – Caelum, the Magi, or some unholy partnership between the two forces – would eventually find him. Whether that happened before the Community’s wholly unreasonable time limit would only determine which of the five of us fell beneath the digital scythe first.
Or I could try something crazy to get the data I needed. I didn’t exactly know what I might try only that it would have to be more ill-advised than sneaking away during a fundraiser to burgle a building that my family owned. We might pull it off. Stranger things had happened. London had been a disaster of unprecedented proportions, almost from the word go, but we’d still managed to come out of that in one piece. The situation had Tangiers had involved small armies, slavers, and an eerily Golding-esque conclave of orphan children, and we hadn’t failed at that either. I believed in Devlin and, even if they weren’t necessarily with us at the moment, I believed in Mila and Michel.
If we didn’t succeed though, I still ran the risk of clumsily triggering some electronic trap or attracting the attention of a roving guard or…well, any number of things that could go spontaneously wrong at the worst possible moment. Like a car picking this exact instant to lose control and crash into the one relevant power line.
Devlin watched my expression. His body language didn’t read as patient, so much as poised. Tense, like a hunting cat or some other type of predator. Whatever I decided, he was ready to act instead of standing around weighing consequences and double checking his own decisions. I’d felt that electric current in the shantytown and, just beneath the surface of my skin, the heat began rising again.
On the one hand, definite failure and the end of life as I knew it. On the other hand, the impossibly thing sliver of a chance to pull off a miracle.
Put that way, the choice was almost too obvious. Miracles were almost becoming commonplace for us.
“No time to set up another connection,” I said. While I spoke I began to rapidly unplug the servers from his each other. Not knowing why, Devlin mirrored me on the other side of the server room. “That’d be too much to ask for.”
“So you’ve got what you need?”
I shook my head. “No way of knowing that until I can get back to a reliable computer. Or if I can find the time to let this tablet chug its way through a load of work it simply isn’t constructed to handle.”
I didn’t even bother returning the cords to their proper place. “Subtlety isn’t working. I say we go with a more physical solution.”
To punctuate my sentence, I allowed my eyes to skim over the surface of the nearest rack. It only took me a second to locate a barely protruding handle. My fingers were just able to gain purchase on the handle, but it was enough. The device wasn’t strongly secured to the overall computer anyway. It only took the barest amount of pressure before the hard drive clicked and released from its mountings.
“This,” I said, holding up the hard drive as an operative example, “is what we’re looking for. You see one, yank it out and throw it in the bag.”
Devlin hesitated. “That isn’t going to tip people off?”
“It’s absolutely going to tip people off,” I confirmed, “but how are they supposed to figure out exactly what we wanted to steal if we steal everything?”
He considered the merits of that insane plan for a moment. Then, a thin smile spread across his lips. “Especially when there was already a theft elsewhere in the building.”
I honestly hadn’t thought about that. I’d temporarily forgotten about Barrett, the cat burglar with the bear-marked business card. It was true that the theft of information – barring trade or government secrets, both of which I was fairly sure fell outside of the purview of the Sovereign’s residents – would be treated as less severe than whatever finery Barrett had pilfered from higher in the building. There would be an investigation into the theft of several hard drives from the server room, of course, and a few specialists would probably lose their jobs for incredibly lax security procedures. But anything important here would almost certainly be backed up elsewhere. If Barrett had been here after some jewelry of considerable value, that would make it a lot easier for us to slip under the radar long enough to get what we needed and get away from the Sovereign.
Or, more accurately, from Atlanta entirely. It had barely been a day and things were already impossibly weird.
It was harder to spot the slim black handles in the dim emergency lights but, using a penlight that Devlin provided, the work went fairly quickly. Five minutes, maybe six at the absolute maximum, passed while we pulled out the physical methods of data storage and tossed them haphazardly into my bag. When I took the time to check my own phone, I signaled for Devlin to stop.
“If we’re going to go, we’ve got to do it now,” I said, “Virginia’s long winded, but she isn’t going to stand up there and talk for hours.”
He nodded and, without asking if I needed help, took the bag filled with hard drives and threw it over his shoulder. He winced as the weight settled into place and tried, unsuccessfully, to conceal the expression.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
Devlin waved his free hand dismissively. “The other guy wasn’t very gentle,” he admitted. The pain that passed over his face wasn’t entirely physical. “It’s nothing to worry about.”
“I’m sure that we don’t have time to worry about every little injury I’ve got,” Devlin shot back. His personality was still submerged and focused, but a noticeable amount of heat made its way into his voice.
I couldn’t remember him ever getting sassy while completely immersed in the job, but I didn’t have the time to consider what made this instance different. “Alright, then. That’s my part, handled. If there’s something to find out about the stoppage in his information flow, it’ll be on one of those. I hope. He’ll just have to wait until I find a solution for the Mouse problem.”
“Which will be somewhere in your bag.”
Devlin hadn’t made it a question, but I nodded anyway. “Or something I can use to find that information,” I said. “Easy enough.”
It would absolutely not be easy, but I didn’t feel the need to tell that to Devlin. Even though he didn’t really understood computers, I suspected that he knew I was exaggerating anyway.
“Time?” Devlin asked.
I checked my phone and my heart skipped a couple of beats. “Past time,” I answered. “Come on, time to make ourselves scarce. Or…visible, rather. You know what I mean.”
He did, in fact, know what I meant. Devlin took the lead and I followed in his wake. If any guards decided to path down into the server room from the higher residential floors, his keen eyesight and hair-trigger instincts would alert us long before I noticed anything awry. It felt natural to allow him to take point now, in the same way that he’d effortlessly and without the faintest bit of shame, allowed me to handle things in the server room.
We worked well together. That much wasn’t a surprise. It was a pleasant shock to discover that our professional chemistry continued, even when I was forced to work in the field instead of behind a computer screen a few blocks away from the crime scene. I wouldn’t be repeating this particular type of infiltration in the future, if I could help it, but it never hurt to have a few more options in my metaphorical bag of tricks.
The steady trickle of adrenaline that I’d felt building earlier swelled into a stream of electricity in my veins. I didn’t even need the boost now, and I tried to tamp down on the jittery energy growing within my body, but no dice. I kept myself from bouncing on my toes by drumming the fingers of one hand against a knee.
From the twentieth floor to the nineteenth, we didn’t encounter any trouble. On the nineteeth floor, Devlin and I took great care not to speak a single word out loud while we navigated across the open floor space. The two guards were still struggling with their bonds but, thus far, nothing had given way. They twisted and writhed, moaning incoherent syllables into their gags.
I tapped Devlin on the shoulder and pointed at the guards. He looked in their direction, squinted in the darkness, and then moved into the staircase. He didn’t speak until the safety door was safely shut and, even then, he kept his voice to a whisper.
“What is it?”
“The guards,” I asked. “Are they going to be a problem?”
He weighed the question. “Those were professional knots,” Devlin said finally. “But they aren’t difficult knots. If either of those guards gets a hand free and has even been so much as a Boy Scout, odds are high we won’t have much of a lead before they’re both on the hunt.”
“Are they going to be able to raise an alarm?”
Devlin shook his head, paused, then shrugged. “They probably could, but I don’t think they’ll want to admit that the two of them were beaten up and disarmed by a single man dressed in black.”
“But they might do it.”
“Yes, Sarah, they might. Which is why I’m wondering why you picked this moment to stop us for a little chat?”
I opened my mouth to respond before I realized that I didn’t actually have an answer. Some part of my mind had wandered off, apparently, and started to speculate about Barrett. I knew that I couldn’t disable two guards, by myself, and neutralize them for that length of time. I doubted that Devlin could do it, either, but I wasn’t going to voice that thought. Mila could definitely have done it, but the guards wouldn’t have been tied up so much as incapable of movement.
Barrett was a thief, like us. Well, he was probably closer to Devlin on the scale of criminality, but still. Because of my limited face-to-face experience with other thieves, I couldn’t help but wonder if the underworld was even deeper and more mysterious than I’d imagined. The Magi existed. The Lady was on my email list. Why wouldn’t cat burglars be a real thing, too?
Instead of vomiting out my thoughts, I took a breath and shook my head. “No reason. Forget I said anything.”
Devlin raised an eyebrow. I expected him to ask a follow-up question, but he looked away from me and let the subject drop.
We crossed the eighteenth and seventeenth floors quickly, without any complications or conversation. I began to think of excuses I could use, if we made it back to the fundraiser after my grandmother’s speech. The new and improved Virginia Ford would probably care more about the minutiae of where I’d disappeared to, but an increased interest in my personal life wouldn’t give her any additional insight into my hobbies. As far as she knew, I could be a wanderer at events. It wouldn’t be out of the question for me to disappear into a side room or office, just to get a little bit of space from the press of sycophants and hangers-on, eager to get a little bit of attention from the youngest Ford sister.
That might work. I could make that work. I just needed to make it to the fifteenth floor without anything else going wrong.
Halfway across the sixteenth floor, with the door leading to the stairway in plain view, Devlin let out a strangled sound of surprise. Before I could do anything more than let out an equally strangled inquisitive sound, he grabbed me by the arm and pulled me into a nearby office. He slipped a hand into his pocket, fumbling around for his lockpicks. He located them easily enough but it turned out that he didn’t need them. As soon as he tested the door handle, it opened easily into an office, lit primarily by the lights of the city through a nine foot tall plate glass window.
Devlin pulled me down into a crouch and placed an index finger over his lips. I took the cue and fell silent. He tilted his head slightly and pressed his ear against the door.
I strained to hear whatever sound he’d picked up on, but failed. Something had set him off and I trusted him enough to believe in his instincts implicitly. There were questions I wanted to ask, but those could wait until we were in the clear.
“Do you remember what business operates on this floor?” Devlin asked, in a barely audible whisper. “Don’t check the tablet, I don’t want the light to be visible.”
I squeezed my eyes shut, searching my memory for the answer. It provided itself with only a minimum of effort. “This is one of ours,” I whispered back. “Some of the executive offices expanded onto this floor.”
There was something familiar about the office, now that I was thinking about it. In the light streaming through the window, I could make out several paintings on the wall. They weren’t masterpieces, of the sort that Devlin and I had stolen. Black men and women, drawn in a strange cubist style, decorated the walls. On the desk, only a short distance away from where I crouched, a paperweight that I recalled playing with as a youth, sat unused on one corner.
“Devlin,” I said. “I think I know whose office this is.”
He didn’t have an opportunity to respond. Now, straining my hearing to the absolute limit, I heard a door open. The stairwell, presumably. Then, on the heels of that sound, my grandmother’s voice reached my ears. “No one’s going to come up here,” she said. “That’s the best part. Everyone thinks it’s easier to just keep an office up here for me, in case I decide to come up and get some work done. Keeping me busy, you know.”
Her voice drew closer. I knew what was going to happen several excruciatingly long seconds beforehand, and I knew there was nothing I could do to stop it. My grandmother’s footsteps stopped outside of the room, the doorknob turned, and then she stepped inside.
CJ trailed behind her and I could see that she held his hand in hers. They both froze when they saw Devlin and me crouching less than a foot away from them.
“Sarah?” Virginia asked. “What in the blue hell are the two of you doing up here?”