My brain froze up. Any clever ideas that might have found their way to the surface were immediately trapped beneath a thick layer of mental frost and it was all I could do to gape up at my grandmother, standing in the doorway over me with a curious expression on her face.
Even if my higher functions hadn’t chosen that exact instant to go on strike, I probably wouldn’t have been able to come up with a story quickly enough to forestall disaster. My short-term abilities had already been taxed to the limit, what with the appearance of Barrett, the veritable glut of servers stored up on the twentieth floor, and the interruption of power to the Sovereign. Mentally speaking, I was running on empty, and the task of convincing my grandmother that she wasn’t seeing exactly what she was, in fact, seeing was simply a bridge too far.
For me, at least. For Devlin, however, it was probably just another day at the office.
“Well, this is certainly embarrassing,” he said smoothly, applying the Irish accent without missing a beat. “I thought we could get back before you finished up with your speech, but I guess that was just wishful thinking. Good speech, by the way.”
Virginia blinked. I could practically see her attempting to square Devlin’s cavalier attitude with the situation she’d walked in on. “Thank you,” she said eventually, taking great care to stretch both syllables out as long as she could. “That’s not answering my question, though, now is it?”
“Well,” Devlin said, “there’s an artist that I’m…well, let’s say that I’m a fan of his work. And I remember hearing somewhere that he had a few pieces located in your building.”
“It’s not my building,” Virginia said immediately.
It wasn’t important that she’d refuted Devlin’s claim. What mattered was that she responding to him automatically. As long as he could control the conversation and keep things as casual as possible, there was a chance that she’d be more inclined to accept whatever explanation he was building up to. I’d seen him pull similar tricks on security guards while in the middle of a job; on police officers who would occasionally help him break into cars or load up stolen goods; and once, damnably, on me.
Despite the morass of negative emotion that one thought threatened to unleash, I still couldn’t help but be impressed at the audacity. Only Devlin would have the sheer temerity to attempt such a brazen lie, while literally pushing his ill-gotten goods underneath the desk with one foot.
“I’ll be honest,” Devlin was saying, “I forget that this isn’t the actual Ford headquarters sometimes. But you know the artist I was thinking of, right?”
“Murphy,” Virginia said after a moment. “You’re talking about Murphy?”
I had no clue who Murphy was, whether that was a first or last name, or even if it was a real person. It wouldn’t have taken very long to Google my way to a satisfactory answer, but Googling was, of course, out of the question at the moment.
Devlin clapped his hands together. He was careful to keep the noise down, however. “That’s the one, yes! A client of mine reached out to ask if I could get my hands on any of Murphy’s work and, when your lovely granddaughter mentioned that there might be some originals in the building, I thought I might be able to sneak a peek. You aren’t offended that we stepped out for a little bit, are you?”
Virginia quite clearly did not have the foggiest idea how to react. While she puzzled over the absolute load of BS that Devlin had just dropped on her shoulders, my own faculties began to thaw and resume normal activity. Even convincing my grandmother that nothing nefarious was going on wouldn’t be quite enough to resolve our problems. We still needed to get the bag of hard drives out of the building, preferably before the guards on the nineteenth floor managed to free themselves or someone else from higher up in the Sovereign discovered whatever crime Barrett had scaled up the building in order to commit. I needed to rifle through the information we’d acquired and, hopefully, come away with more information on the Mouse and something that would satisfy the Texan.
And, at some point, I was going to need to figure out some way to either evade or defeat Caelum. But that was a long way down the metaphorical road.
“I’m not offended,” Virginia said. “Just surprised. You could have asked me for a tour if you wanted to see my old office, you know.”
She was buying it? It took all of my self-control not to openly pump my fist. I settled for a very, very minor version, with my body angled so that no one else in the room could see it.
“I didn’t want to presume,” Devlin said. He betrayed no sign of shock or disbelief at his own success. Either he’d be completely confident that he’d be able to snow Virginia or he was pretending to be completely confident. I wasn’t sure what the difference was, sometimes. “After all, you’re already letting us stay at your house and you seemed busy with all of the donors downstairs.”
Virginia waved a dismissive hand. “The donors will be just fine without me around to kiss up to.”
“Maybe we can come back when the office is open then,” Devlin suggested. “If she doesn’t mind, Sarah and I can just head back downstairs and rejoin the party.”
Virginia shrugged. “You’re already here,” she said. “Might as well look at the painting, if it means that much to you.”
She pointed at a wall in the room. Devlin and I looked in that direction, almost in unison. The painting on the wall was a modern work, which generally wasn’t the sort of thing I enjoyed. Surprisingly, I didn’t know all that much about Devlin’s personal taste, but I suspected that we agreed on that point. That being said, there was a certain allure to the painting. A black girl, dressed in a flowing white dress, was represented in stark simplicity. There was no context to the painting, no other details to distract from the striking image.
“Sally Hemmings,” Virginia said. “That’s the original piece. I had to practically beg the artist for it, but I’m a good negotiator. What do you think?”
“Exactly what I thought before,” Devlin said, with a hint of awe in his voice. “It’s just…beautiful. The brushwork is…well, he’s as good a painter as I’ve been told.”
Virginia cleared her throat. “Exactly,” she said. “And you said you’d heard about him where?”
“Just around,” Devlin said. “A few clients had intimated that they wanted to get their hands on this one, but you beat them to the punch. I don’t suppose you’d be willing to sell it?”
“For you, considering how sweet you’re being? I’d be happy to,” Virginia said. She paused for a moment. “Except that the original work was thirty feet tall and made entirely out of steel.”
Devlin’s attention snapped back to Virginia. “I…what?”
“Todd Murphy,” Virginia continued, “is a mixed-media artist. The Sally Hemmings piece was solid steel. This is just a reproduction I commissioned, because I liked the original work so much. So, I’ll ask again. What are the two of you doing up here, in the dark, hiding behind the door to my office like a pair of schoolchildren?”
My mouth opened and closed, failing utterly to produce a single sound that might provide some cover. There was surely some story that Devlin could create, or that I could offer, that would diffuse the laser-like attention of my overly perceptive grandmother.
My mind, however, was still busily working its way back up to traditional operating parameters when it landed on an inconsistency. Virginia had entered the room, after talking – judging by her tone, it was closer to flirting – with someone…
“CJ?” I raised my voice a little bit. Not loud enough to carry, but just loud enough that it would reach outside of the office. “What are you hiding for?”
A few seconds ticked by before CJ peeked his head around the doorframe. As soon as he’d seen us, he must have ducked back out of sight while Virginia took the lead in the conversation.
“I was just…uh…” He trailed off into meaningless sounds.
“CJ and I were just getting some air,” Virginia said quickly. A little too quickly, in my opinion. The sharp focus she’d trained on the two of us evaporated in an instant and she physically moved closer, as if she could block CJ from vision and allow him to slip away.
“On the sixteenth floor?” I asked. Pressure was important. Whatever her reason for coming upstairs was, she’d proven herself willing to abandon any previous lines of inquiry in order to defend it. If that kept her from asking questions about Devlin and me, or from discovering the bag of hard drives beneath the desk, I would cheerfully exploit the opening.
“It’s just a saying, Sarah. I wasn’t actually trying to get fresh air…just wanted to stretch my legs for a bit.”
I tilted my head and regarded Virginia. The pace of her speaking had increased and there were subtle, almost imperceptible hesitations between her words. Before I’d started working with Devlin, I wouldn’t have noticed those tells. Hell, before the breakneck pace of the last six months, I might still have missed them. But I had worked with Devlin and I was growing more accustomed to spotting a lie than I’d ever needed to be before.
Virginia dabbed the back of one hand against her forehead, which only served to draw my attention to the beads of sweat there.
“You came to your old office,” I said, “so that you could stretch your legs. That doesn’t make any sense, Virginia.”
“Well, it doesn’t have to make sense to you, now does it?” Virginia drew herself up and set her shoulders. “I’m not the one sneaking around in the dark, am I?”
Instead of pointing that out that, yes, she was also by definition doing the exact same thing she was accusing me of, I focused instead on how flimsy her posturing felt. This wasn’t the woman I’d grown up around, the figure who had both terrified and inspired me as a child. This was someone desperately trying to distract from…something…
Then I got it, all at once. “Oh! Oh! You are…you have got to be kidding!”
CJ attempted to shrink into himself, judging from the way his shoulders came together and his head lowered. In the low light of the office, he was almost successful. Virginia tried to maintain her poise for a few more seconds before she also looked away.
Devlin tried to conceal his snicker, but was woefully unsuccessful. I turned a glare in his direction. “This isn’t my problem,” he said, raising both hands in surrender. “I’m just visiting.”
A great many words sprang to mind, but I couldn’t very well tear into him for laughing without potentially unraveling our cover story. I barely managed to fight down the impulse.
“I am an adult,” Virginia said, drawing my attention back to her. “And CJ is an adult.”
“Barely. No offense to you, CJ, but the two of you? In an office? In this office?” Another thought occurred to me and I recoiled from it. “Oh! Oh, God, this isn’t the first time you’ve done…this, is it?” I gestured vaguely to communicate exactly what I meant by ‘this.’
Virginia avoided my eyes. “Now, look here. That is hardly any of your business, is it?”
“This…is awkward, isn’t it?” Devlin asked. “How about we all just discuss this later? Somewhere else, maybe?”
I could feel his intentions, solely through his words and intonation. I couldn’t allow this particular wrinkle to distract me from the very real possibility of a building-wide alarm. The last thing I wanted to do was lie about theft while still in possession of stolen goods.
Of course, discussing my grandmother’s sex life ranked as number two on the list of ‘conversations I could have died without ever having,’ but if that’s what it took…
Devlin coughed awkwardly – I wasn’t sure if he was playing it up for effect, or if he legitimately felt uncomfortable in the situation – and took a small step to one side. The motion brought him close enough to reach out and touch my shoulder, but also placed him more squarely in front of the bag. He couldn’t take the risk of kneeling to pick it back up. If either Virginia or CJ asked a question about the bag or its contents, we’d be in a whole new world of trouble.
Thankfully, Virginia displayed no intention of belaboring the moment. She’d already released CJ’s hand and now stood almost a full foot away from him, carefully not looking at him or me. “I don’t see why we’ve got to discuss this at all,” she said, leaning on her southern accent a bit heavier for the last two words. “The two of you are adults and so are CJ and me. Seems to me that we could just move on from this little…predicament…without speaking another word on the matter.”
While I knew that there was more going on in my grandmother’s head than she was discussing, this wasn’t the time or place to start teasing out details. And, if those details included even more information about her Maude-like relationship with CJ, I could get behind the plan of pretending this whole encounter had never happened. I was already going to need several hours worth of cute otters to erase the mental images that I couldn’t seem to fully block out. Or Sam, maybe. He could be cute when he was in the mood to do so. Regardless, I was in no hurry to plumb the figurative depths of my grandmother’s personal life.
“That’s…probably for the best,” I said. “Devlin, if you’d be so kind as to carry my bag for me…”
Devlin retrieved the bag and pinched the mouth shut between his fingers. As long as he carried everything carefully, I doubted that the hard drives would even rattle against each other.
We moved to exit the office. Virginia and CJ were more than happy to clear a path for us. The stairway down to the fifteenth floor, to the fundraiser, and the Texan, and ultimately to escape was only a few yards in front of us. It would only take a quick phone call to Michel and then we could get away from the Sovereign, in favor of somewhere isolated and defensible. There, I could get to the work of rifling through the stolen hard drives and potentially find a solution to the Gordian knot the Lady, the Texan, the Magi, and Caelum had managed to tie my team into.
Which is why I wasn’t surprised in the slightest when the alarm began to sound.
CJ and Devlin reacted at about the same time. Devlin’s instincts, honed through a virtual lifetime of theft, leaned heavily on the ‘flight’ side of the ‘flight or fight’ equation. He tensed up, bent his knees to lower his center of gravity, and seemed like nothing quite so much as a nervous feline.
I didn’t know where it came from or how I knew enough to identify it but, in a moment of crystal clarity, I realized that the only thing keeping him from fleeing entirely was the knowledge that he’d be leaving me to face whatever came next alone. It was both a noble sentiment and a blindingly stupid one. On the one hand, it meant that we’d face whatever development was coming down the pipe as a team, like we’d done so many years ago.
On the other hand, we were currently on a floor of the Sovereign literally owned by my family, and the odds of me getting into any great amounts of trouble were vanishingly thin. Besides, he was the one with the hard drives.
Sufficed to say, it was a confusing moment.
CJ was a security guard by trade. In that moment, though, he reacted like a cop or at least like someone with cop training. His hand went to his side, but he wasn’t carrying a weapon on the outside of his suit. Then, presumably due to the lack of imminent violence, he made a judgment call.
“Miss Ford,” he said. For a heartbeat, I wasn’t sure which of the two Miss Fords in the room he was speaking to, until he touched my grandmother’s elbow lightly. “We need to go.”
“Yes, of course,” Virginia said. She allowed herself to be bustled out of the office and herded toward the door. “I’ll need to see to the guests and make sure that everyone’s alright.”
The four of us turned to leave, all at once instead of individually. As a result, CJ and Devlin tried to squeeze through the door at the same time. The collision only lasted for an instant, until Devlin stepped back and raised his hands to signify that CJ should go first.
I happened to be looking at Virginia at that moment, so I was in the perfect position to see her eyes widen, then narrow down to slits.
She made eye contact with me for an impossibly long second, but said nothing. My heart sank into the pit of my stomach.
But I had no hope that she would remain silent for very long.