Chapter 51

In the whirlwind of activity that followed my revelation, Devlin and I couldn’t seem to find any time to talk to each other. Only a few moments after I finished relaying the edited version of the last six months to my grandmother, local police officers stepped out of the elevator and onto the fifteenth floor. Virginia stepped forward to intercept them, offering an utterly unbelievable lie about faulty security systems as an excuse for the alarm, but the officers were either personally familiar with the Ford family or they’d been specifically told not to push too hard against anyone with as much political power as Virginia possessed. Either way, they didn’t ask too many questions. When the two guards from upstairs – the ones that Barrett had subdued and restrained – returned, accompanied by CJ, and backed up my grandmother’s story, that seemed to be the end of the matter.

At some point, someone was going to discover that Barrett had performed his own high-altitude robbery. Whatever he’d been after would undoubtedly be missed and, when that crime came to light, I expected law enforcement to send someone with a little more curiosity to vet my grandmother’s version of events. However, as I wasn’t planning to even be in the country in the next forty-eight hours, I was content to put that problem on the back burner.

Virginia hadn’t committed a crime, after all, and it wasn’t likely that anyone would think to specifically ask her about any trouble that her granddaughter might have gotten herself into. No matter what pressure they put her under, as long as the team managed to get away from the area, there quite simply wasn’t any way to disprove anything she claimed to have happened.

When the officers finally relented and left the Sovereign, Virginia ushered Devlin and I over to a private elevator. From there, we were bundled into a waiting limousine – with a different driver, I noticed absently – and driven away from the building at the highest legal speed anyone could manage in downtown Buckhead.

I expected there to be questions. In her position, I probably would have had dozens of questions. But Virginia asked nothing and, in the face of her silent contemplation, I couldn’t find the courage to speak first. Devlin was quiet also, but at least I understood his reasons. As I’d taken the initiative, allowing me to make any further calls on what information to share was the only real move he had available. Anything else risked contradicting the narrative or inadvertently offering Virginia more information than she really needed to have.

At the earliest convenience, I intended to sit down every member of the team and hammer out every last detail of the cover story. Until that point, though, the best move was silence or, if silence proved impossible, speaking as little as possible.

The thought of Mila and Michel was like a cattle prod to the dormant, poleaxed areas of my brain. We hadn’t talked to them at all since initiating the job and, as far as I knew, Mila was sharpening her knives in preparation for a panicked rescue mission. Michel would only be able to keep her more violent instincts from asserting themselves for so long and every minute that passed without an update was only going to push her closer and closer to action.

I checked Virginia. Her face was turned away from me, aimed out of the nearest window, as she thought about…something…in contemplative silence. CJ, seated next her, stroked her hand with a casualness that surprised me. How long had the two of them been seeing each other? Was it more than just – ugh – sex with them?

I threw that thought, along with any other corollary visual images that might have materialized, directly into the trash bin. This wasn’t the time. I focused, instead, on my surroundings. The limousine’s interior wasn’t cavernous – I’d been in larger, more luxurious vehicles before – but it certainly wasn’t small. My encrypted smartphone lay inside my purse, which was on the floor between my feet. I didn’t think I could retrieve it without drawing either Virginia’s or CJ’s attention. If they saw what I was doing, I might have been able to reference Michel, claim that I needed to let him know that I was alive and well, but it wasn’t a risk I was willing to take.

I bumped Devlin instead. He responded with a lifted eyebrow and a barely perceptible frown. Using my eyes, I indicated my purse and then his pants pockets. Devlin arched the eyebrow even steeper. I repeated the process two more times, widening my eyes for emphasis, before he got it.

He slipped one hand into his pocket and eased his phone free just enough to easily navigate the phone. Without any apparent difficulty, he entered a short message into his phone using only one thumb. There were typos, but the text wasn’t going to be indecipherable: Were fine Problems with Vrgna. Xplain l8r.

I wondered how Mila would react. Apparently, Devlin didn’t think her reaction would be a pleasant one; he directed the message to Michel, instead. After a minuscule nod from me, he pressed the green button and sent the message out.

With that done, there was nothing to do but wait. I couldn’t talk to Devlin about our stories without casting suspicion on my carefully woven version of the truth. I didn’t want to provoke my grandmother into asking questions that I might not have answers for yet. And I didn’t know enough about CJ to guess how he’d react, what he was thinking, or even if Virginia was going to tell him the “truth” later on. I couldn’t use my phone without running the risk of increased attention and I absolutely couldn’t use my tablet to start sorting through the information contained on my treasure trove of stolen hard drives.

I waited, anxious and barely wrestling down the worst products of my imagination, until we made it back to the mansion. A journey that had only taken forty-five minutes, at the absolute outside, had felt like several excruciating hours. When our driver opened my door, I stepped out of the limousine’s stifling atmosphere with undisguised relief.

The two of you probably want to change, don’t you?” Virginia asked. It was the first thing she’d said to me, directly, since offering us her help. Her tone was unreadable. Or, more accurately, I was unable to read it. Devlin would have had greater success and I made a mental note to ask him about that later on.

Without any additional context, I decided to cleave to the truth, except when it threatened to reveal anything about my ongoing association with various, international criminal syndicates or open Interpol investigations or anything like that.

It’d be nice,” I said. “It’s late, after all, and it isn’t like I want to wear this getup all night long.”

Virginia offered me a smile so thin that her lips seemed to disappear. “Go and change. If you didn’t have a chance to bring anything else to wear, I can send someone out to pick up clothes for you.”

I shook my head. “I’ve got jeans and some t-shirts. Devlin, did you have a chance to pick up anything?”

He nodded, perhaps a little too energetically. “Nothing fancy,” he said, with the faint hint of an Irish brogue. “Just something to wear around town, if you know what I mean.”

Well,” Virginia said, “why don’t the two of you get out of those fancy clothes and then come on downstairs for dinner?”

I resisted the urge to check the time. I’d never been a Girl Scout, but I was pretty sure the position of the moon in the night sky implied a time far too late for dinner. “I ate at the fundraiser,” I said, automatically. As soon as the words left my mouth, I immediately regretted them.

Virginia’s thin smile broadened. “Is that so?” Even I could pick up on the high level of sarcasm contained in just those three words. “Why don’t you come down and keep me and CJ company, then? I was awful busy with those donors and the speech, you know?”

Pinned to the spot, all I could do was nod my agreement. Virginia and CJ entered the mansion and, after the driver pulled away, that left Devlin and me alone in the driveway.

As soon as I was confident that we weren’t being watched or listened to, I turned to Devlin and spoke in a needlessly low voice. “Be honest: how badly am I messing this up?”

He gave our surroundings a cursory, subtle examination before answering. “If you ask me,” he said, “you’re doing just fine. We’ll have to fill Michel and Mila in on the details, obviously, but that shouldn’t be too hard.”

It only has to hold up for a day or two,” I said. “After that, we’ll be out of the area and chasing down the Mouse, wherever the hell he disappeared to.”

Devlin opened his mouth to respond, then closed it slowly. He didn’t actually speak for another fifteen or twenty seconds. “If this story falls apart, then you’re only kicking this problem down the road. You realize that, don’t you?”

I blinked my confusion back at him.

I don’t even know your grandmother that well,” Devlin explained, “but she doesn’t seem like the kind of person who’s just going to take something at face value. Everything you told her is technically true, and any research she does into the finer points will be backed up by news articles and the like. But if any aspect of your story falls apart?”

He didn’t finish the thought and, when I allowed myself to consider the long-term implications of what I’d done, I realized that he didn’t need to finish it. Devlin was right. I’d been thinking strictly in the short term when I’d crafted the story for Virginia. But she was never going to forget what I’d said. As long as I was employed by the Lady – and I didn’t expect that to change anytime in the immediate future – I would be in some form of danger. That would necessitate traveling from country to country, participating in a coup here or a massive act of tax fraud there.

That was fine. That was, more or less, the lifestyle I’d chosen to live.

But Virginia now knew, from my own lips, that I was living in a very dangerous lifestyle. Even if she kept what I’d told her from my parents and sister, she would be keeping an eye on me in the future. I wouldn’t be able to slip away to deal with issues without attracting her attention and the type of surveillance that only an extremely wealthy, concerned grandmother could bring to bear. And maybe I could slip that surveillance. I’d thrown tails before. But if Virginia ever caught so much as a hint that I’d left out key context, she’d dedicate herself to digging up the truth.

So, I’d have to lie. Or selectively report the truth, whatever. Either way, I’d locked myself into a life of deception. One hiccup could be the thread Virginia needed, in order to start unraveling the whole mess.

Some aspect of my dawning comprehension must have registered on my face, because Devlin stepped closer to me and laid a hand on my shoulder. “Maybe it’s not going to be that bad,” he said soothingly. “Maybe we’ll wrap things up with the Lady and the Magi, and you can go back to the civilian life.”

That was a possibility, albeit a slim one. Something about that line of thought bothered me, though. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but the idea of abandoning the team felt…wrong.

I spent a few moments attempting to pin down the origin of that odd sensation. When no answer presented itself, I sighed and shook my head. “We’re still on the clock,” I said to Devlin. “Let’s get changed and deal with the mess in front of us before it gets out of hand. The last thing we need is Virginia thinking that I need a professional team of bodyguards every time I leave her sight.”

Do you think she’d really do that?”

I didn’t think she’d get involved with someone a quarter her age,” I said. “So I’m putting a temporary kibosh on any speculation or assumptions.”

Devlin couldn’t quite conceal a chuckle, which almost certainly meant he’d intended me to see it. Instead of getting irritated, I felt a smile appear on my face in response. Temporarily uplifted, the two of us entered the mansion and headed to our respective rooms to change out of formal wear and into more casual attire.

It occurred to me that it’d be easier to run away in jeans and sneakers than a dress and heels. I didn’t want to run away from Virginia, as that would trigger a shit storm of cataclysmic proportions with the rest of the Ford family, but I couldn’t stop the thought from presenting itself.

I didn’t want to leave my bag upstairs, but I also didn’t want to drag the weight around with me. I compromised by removing the tablet, USB cord, and the vast majority of hard drives. Those, I tossed onto the bed, to be dealt with later. Then, I took the time to send Michel a more substantive series of messages about the events at the Sovereign. I didn’t know how long it would take him and Mila to return to the mansion, but keeping him in the loop felt like a good idea. Whenever he returned, I didn’t want him to walk into a situation without some basic information.

When I returned my phone to my bag, I happened to glance in the direction of the items I’d removed. Barely visible underneath the heap of electronics and computer parts, a blue light flashed insistently on my tablet. That meant I’d missed an email at some point since leaving the server room and returning to the mansion.

My mental reserves were beyond drained and, just for an instant, I wanted to ignore the message. That moment passed quickly, though. If the Community had decided, for whatever reason, to accelerate their timetable, that was information I needed to possess. If the Lady had come across additional intelligence that might help me locate the Mouse, avoid Caelum, or pull off some magical combination of the two, I couldn’t afford to let that email wait any longer than strictly necessary.

Wearily, I walked over to the tablet, unlocked it, and navigated to the program responsible for curating the emails I received at all of my various accounts. I had, in fact, missed a few emails in the last hour. An address I didn’t recognize had reached out to the corporate email address my parents had forced on me. I opened it and skimmed the contents.

Miss Ford:

I’ve got to give it to you. When you and your boyfriend decide to make a ruckus, you damn sure do exactly that. Not that I’ve got any real issues with how you go about your business, so long as I get what’s mine.

Way I figure, you’re gonna need some time to get me what I’m looking for. I’ll give you a week to get everything all neat and orderly before you send me what you found. Any longer than that, and I can’t guarantee that you get the same protection all of my sources get.

Looking forward to a productive chat.

The email wasn’t signed. A quick check at the address didn’t immediately trigger any alarm bells, so I assumed that the Texan was one of the only people in the Underworld uninterested in puns and clever word games.

As blackmail messages went, he was a lot more polite than I would have expected. If I was reading it correctly, he was treating this entire affair as a simple business arrangement. There didn’t appear to any animosity on his point or, surprisingly, the faintest amount of personal interest in my identity. It was a chip he planned to exchange for a chip with greater value to him, simple as that. The fact that he’d been responsible for rushing what should have been a simple infiltration job – which had, in turn, led directly to my grandmother and her boy-toy catching us with stolen goods – didn’t factor into his thinking.

Weirdly, that made it easier for me to like him. God, the longer I dealt with these criminal figures, the weirder my criteria for ‘enjoyable company’ became.

The second email had been sent to an account with my customary screen name, accompanied by a random selection of numbers. I didn’t recognize the specific email address until a second glance: it was the same address that the Mouse had reached out to, twice, in Tangiers.

My heart skipped several beats. Then, I sat down on the edge of the bed and opened the message.

I think he found me. Tried to run, but it didn’t work. I need help. You, the Community…someone. I want to come in. Can you make that happen?

Again, no signature. Where the Texan’s unsigned email had been par for the course, there was nothing infinitely more ominous about the same action coming from the Mouse. A chill went down my spine and I made no effort to suppress it.

I read the message twice, making sure that I hadn’t missed some obvious cipher in the text itself, then checked the timestamp. He’d messaged me while we’d been in the limousine, returning from the Sovereign. Wherever he was, whatever he was running from, he’d neglected to attach a reliable means of communicating with him.

On a lark, I replied to the email with the IP address of relatively secure chatroom that we could use, but I didn’t expect him to receive the message. Each time he sent me something from the same Gmail account, the Mouse increased the risk to both of us. If someone was stalking his traffic, they could easily identify people he commonly reached out to. If he was smart – and the Mouse was definitely smart – he’d delete the account entirely and move on to something else before reaching out again.

I didn’t have time for him to do that, though. Sometime within the next two days, the Community was going to launch a war against the person hunting the Mouse. If they did that, it wouldn’t matter what email address he used to ask for help the next time.

At that point, no one would be in any position to help him.

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