More than almost anything, I longed to call Michel and Mila to rescue Devlin and me. Of course, I couldn’t quite do that with my grandmother’s heavy gaze on me at all times and I wasn’t sure if pulling them into the line of fire, so to speak, was the smartest way to play this out. She’d seen the hard drives, yes, but she didn’t know enough to tell that they’d been stolen from the Sovereign’s server floor. She would, but she didn’t yet. That meant there was still time for me to slip away to some hotel outside of Buckhead, where I could set up whatever electronics I could get my hands on and get to the work of solving the problems this evening had presented to me. Summoning my bodyguard and my fake husband/real getaway driver wiped out any chance of pulling a relatively clean blow-off.
And I was scared. It wasn’t rational, considering the enemies I’d made in the underworld over just the last few months, but fear wasn’t always a rational reaction to stress. Since glimpsing into my bag, she hadn’t spoken a single word to me. She shook hands and soothed tempers on the fifteenth floor, calmly ushering the donors and dilettantes toward the elevators. She was the very soul of calm professionalism as she maintained an air of easy grace. I doubted that any of the men or women who fell in her eyesight caught a glimpse of anything other than the consummate host.
I knew her, though, far better than anyone else at the fundraiser. She wasn’t calm; she wasn’t even angry, which would have been easier to deal with. She was calculating: the worst possible state of mind for her to be in, considering the secrets in my head that could quite literally end lives.
Devlin had only spent a few hours with Virginia, so even his considerable prowess at reading people probably didn’t extend to a complete model of my grandmother. He did, however, know me extraordinarily well. While he couldn’t read her mood, he could absolutely pick up on my rising agitation.
While Virginia kept the donors happy, ensuring that their money would continue to flow into my sister’s foundation, Devlin moved a little closer to me and spoke in a low whisper. “I don’t know what I was thinking,” he said. “It was just a second and I thought that she didn’t have an angle, but -”
I shook my head and cut him off. “We don’t know what she thinks, Dev.”
“But we know what she saw.” He paused. “I can take the heat, you know. If I run right now, she’ll just assume that I tricked you into leading me upstairs.”
“And how would you have gotten away from me long enough to make it up several flights of stairs and steal a bag full of hard drives without me noticing your absence? Either I’m an idiot for getting played, blind for not noticing any sudden and unexplained disappearance on your part, or I’m complicit.” I shook my head again. “Virginia won’t believe anything but the third option.”
“How do you want to play this, then?”
I turned to look at him. Devlin’s icy professionalism had retreated, leaving the compassionate and concerned Devlin standing in front of me. I wasn’t sure if I needed Devlin’s ruthless focus or his understanding more at the moment. After a brief pause for consideration, I ruled in favor of the latter.
“This is your area,” I said. “What would you do?”
“Caught redhanded with stolen goods, inside the building where those goods were stolen?” He shrugged one shoulder in a minute gesture, hopefully too slight for Virginia or CJ to notice from where they stood. “I would have run away a while ago. We could still do that…but that would cause more problems in your life than it would solve, so that’s out of the question.”
In the space of an eyeblink, Devlin had assessed the same problem as me, but he’d reached the same conclusion in a fraction of the time. It wasn’t the time to feel irritated at him, but irritation rose up anyway.
“Yes, Devlin,” I said, through gritted teeth, “I am aware of that. Other options?”
He glanced down into the bag and its contents. “If you aren’t going to run,” he said finally, “then you’ll have to tell the truth.”
I’d been keeping track of Devlin in my peripheral vision. At that suggestion, I couldn’t help but turn my body entirely to face him. “What?”
“Not like that,” he said. He raised both hands – neither one came higher than his waist, but I could still track the movement – and pointed the palms in my direction. “Hear me out before you yank out my spine.”
I took a deep breath. And then another. There weren’t many people left on the fifteenth floor. Whatever we were going to do, it was critical that Devlin and I figure out a game plan now, or else we’d have to play off of each other without the benefit of preparation. That was doable, but it wasn’t the kind of effort I felt capable of. Just the events of the last hour or so had drained my mental batteries to the breaking point.
“You don’t have to tell her the whole truth,” Devlin said. “But I’m sure there’s some version of the truth that covers why you might have wanted these hard drives and that you couldn’t explain to her before coming here.”
“I can’t think of…” I trailed off. Smoking and straining, my mental gears began to turn again, connecting earlier conversations with possible justifications I could use when my grandmother inevitably started to ask questions.
Devlin must have been able to see the light bulb at the exact moment it popped into existence above my head. “Do you think that’ll work? You’ll have to cut it close; you do know that, right?”
“I’ve seen you do it often enough,” I countered. I left out how often I’d been shocked at his ability to thread the needle because that was information he didn’t need to have and that I didn’t need to consider.
Devlin opened his mouth to respond, but whatever he was about to say died on his lips. The last of the guests stepped onto an elevator, smiling broadly at Virginia. When the doors closed, she spun around and walked over to where Devlin and I stood. Her heels clicked against the floor in a precise rhythm, like a metronome. The effect was unnerving.
“According to the guards upstairs,” Virginia began, “there isn’t any threat remaining in the building. No one’s downstairs and the two guards working upstairs – just between here and the residential floors – didn’t report seeing anyone. Anyone else, that is.”
She raised her eyebrow and allowed the silence to fill the room. CJ stood almost a foot behind her, as if he might avoid direct attention in Virginia’s shadow. He wasn’t entirely wrong.
“Virginia,” I said, “I promise, there’s a very good explanation for all of this.”
Her eyebrow arched even further up, until it was practically diagonal. “I’m listening.”
It took me a second to come up with that very good explanation. When an answer presented itself, I sent up a silent prayer in hopes that I’d somehow grown at least a little better at deception. “Long story short,” I said, “I ran into some trouble overseas. A lot of trouble and…it wasn’t the kind of thing I could tell anyone about.”
The stern, serious glare on Virginia’s face softened slightly. She still resembled an avenging angel more than a human being, but the faintest hints of concern were visible around the edges of that mask. “Trouble? What’re you talking about?”
I took a deep breath, ostensibly to prepare myself. In reality, I just needed the time to put the finishing touches on my last-minute fabrication. “There are…people…overseas that have more than a passing interest in the kind of artwork that Devlin and I work with. People that don’t like to take no for an answer.”
Instead of finishing the thought, I allowed her to fill in the blanks for herself. It was a trick I’d picked up from Devlin: nothing was scarier than the worst thing your target could imagine. Virginia’s own imagination could paint a picture of what sorts of ‘people’ I was talking about. Besides, the Magi were interested in artwork…probably. And they certainly weren’t the type of people who accepted anything other than obeisance.
Virginia turned her head slightly and spoke over her shoulder. “CJ?”
“Yes, uh…Miss Ford?”
“Go get a report from the guards upstairs,” Virginia said. “There are some discretionary funds in the company’s accounts that we can use to keep things like this quiet. You can take care of that for me, can’t you?”
Confusion registered briefly on CJ’s face, followed immediately by understanding. “If that’s what you want to do, ma’am. But what will you…?”
“My granddaughter and I need to have a talk,” Virginia said. “Desperately.”
“Of course. I’ll go get that handled right now.” CJ walked past my grandmother and me, while studiously avoiding my eyes. When he reached Devlin, he paused. “Are you coming?”
“I’m more involved than this than I’d like,” Devlin said.
I noticed that he was still clinging to the accent. He probably didn’t want to abandon a useful cover, if not absolutely necessary. I amended the story in my head appropriately. If he wanted to play at being Irish for a little while longer, I could allow him the fiction. It wouldn’t disrupt things too badly.
CJ bobbed his head up and down twice, then disappeared into the stairwell leading upstairs. When he was gone, Virginia turned her attention back to Devlin and me. “Alright,” she said. “Now, explain to me why I’m buying the silence of those men upstairs. And start from the beginning.”
I did not, in fact, start from the beginning, mostly because I wasn’t sure exactly where ‘the beginning’ was. Did she want me to tell her about the first time I hacked into a network, or the ‘after-school projects’ I’d amused myself with when she was busy handling company business? Or did she want to know about my college years, when I’d first grown to accept exactly how privileged I’d been and when I’d decided to use my unique skills to actually help people?
But what about those early years, when I’d been limited only to the smallest possible intrusions? Or the close calls I’d narrowly escaped, primarily by changing my username and methods a half dozen times in the first six months of my criminal life? Did she want to know about the Mouse and how he’d guided me through the finer points of digital crime, or how he’d introduced me to the Community and the highest echelon of technological thieves?
Because that was too much to tell in the short time we had available, even if I’d been willing to tell it.
Then there was the huge chunk of my life when Devlin had been a central figure. We’d bounced all around the globe, pilfering and plundering from the richest with impunity. Somewhere along the way, we’d fallen in love and gotten married. That had been wonderful beyond words, until he’d made that last fatal mistake and I’d been left with no choice but to leave him. That decision had definitely been a formative one and it was no doubt responsible for a lot of my choices to date.
I wasn’t ready to share that story, yet. I didn’t even think that our story was over, so how could I talk about it like a historical reference?
Where I did start, instead, was London. I told her about my work surveying the security of the Museum of London, until someone broke in and stole the barbarian’s crown. After that, I’d asked Michel to join us in the city and hired a bodyguard, for my personal protection. I talked about how I’d spent some time ministering to the poorest and most indigent of the city’s population which had, as it turned out, put me in touch with the local law enforcement for some period of time. And I told Virginia all about a singular manuscript I’d been contracted to acquire, only to discover that a relatively minor nobleman had gotten his hands on it first.
“What did he say when you made him an offer?” Virginia asked.
“He…made us a counter offer,” I said. “But neither Devlin or I was really interested in taking him up on it.”
“So whoever your client was didn’t get what she was after?”
Devlin took that question. “Yes and no. She’s got a lot of demands.”
Virginia chewed over that technical truth for so long that I thought she would realize my game. After fifteen seconds, she nodded and gestured for me to continue my story.
According to the story I told Virginia, we realized something else was going on after the nobleman’s house was burgled. When that same nobleman had been quite publicly executed, the four of us had collectively decided to get the hell out of London while whatever was going on was going on.
“But then,” I said, “I reached out to a friend of mine in the…in the art community.”
“Acquisitions?” Virginia asked. “Like you?”
I shook my head. “Not exactly like me. Anyway, I was looking for a specific piece and he put out feelers for me. Only…”
“Only now he’s in trouble? The same trouble you were trying to get away from?”
From a certain perspective – namely, third person – I was telling her the exact literal truth. If she bothered to do any research, every inch of my story would be verified by news reports and live video. It wasn’t as though I could very well tell her exactly what thieves had robbed a museum, kidnapped a girl, blown up a building, stolen a train, and indirectly led to the murder of a nobleman in broad daylight.
Even if I had told her, I was pretty sure she wouldn’t have believed a word of the story anyway. I’d lived it and occasionally couldn’t believe it.
“Alright,” Virginia said. “Let’s say that I believe you. What does your friend have to do with those hard drives?”
I turned the problem around in my head, examined it from a few different mental directions, and decided upon a path. “Some other people who work in the same field want to help my friend, but they can’t go to the police or anything like that.”
“Why not?” Virginia held up a hand and stopped me from answering. “No, nevermind. That was a stupid question. If they’re out there blowing up barons, nothing’s going to stop them from taking out a few art dealers.”
I marveled at how well she was taking everything. It wasn’t the full, unvarnished story, but it was damned close and, thus far, Virginia’s only reaction had been the occasional question.
“The guys who are after my friend want him to find something for them,” I said. For the last half hour, that lie was the farthest thing I’d said from the truth. Despite the fact that he was blackmailing me, I almost liked the Texan. Besides, I was positive that he wasn’t involved in the hunt for the Mouse. “And since he wouldn’t be in trouble at all if I hadn’t asked him to help…”
“You feel like you’re in trouble, too,” Virginia finished. “My Lord, Sarah, you really stepped in it this time.”
I gave her a helpless shrug. “I didn’t want to tell you, because I didn’t want to get anyone else involved. I was just trying to protect you.”
Virginia snorted. “So, instead, you used me as a cover to get into the Sovereign and hoped that no one would notice a dozen hard drives missing from upstairs?”
“I’d been hoping to go about this another way,” I admitted. “This isn’t the kind of thing I do often, Virginia.”
“That’s for damn sure,” she said.
Since that had been the thing closest to the truth I’d said in the last hour, it took some effort to step down on my indignation.
“So?” I asked. “Are you going to call the police on us? Or do you just want us to put these back because I can…I can find another way to help him, if you aren’t comfortable with it.”
There were other ways. They were just more difficult and, with the dwindling clock, we’d have less time to plan things. But I’d grown to expect dangerous, half-cocked situations to develop around me.
“Tell on you?” Virginia laughed and shook her head. “You and your husband are out here trying to help a friend and you think I’m going to tell on you? How can I help?”
…I hadn’t expected that.