The Mouse’s email hadn’t necessarily cut down on my available time, but it did make that time seem immeasurably shorter. There were seven days – or was it six days? – left on the clock. In that time, I had to dig through a trove of data in search of something I could use to track down the Mouse, then bring him back into the Community’s chat room to explain himself. Depending on his explanation, we might possibly find a way to defend ourselves against Caelum’s stealthy efforts and, with the full strength of the remaining Community members in our corner, hopefully make some headway in my team’s personal war with the Magi.
Before I could do any of that, though, I still needed to deal with Virginia. The story I’d told her at the Sovereign would hold up to a measure of scrutiny, as long as she didn’t devote too much time or attention to the fine details. But, as Devlin had pointed out, I would be welded to that story for the foreseeable future. I’d have to dedicate a portion of my attention to updating the lie as circumstances changed or run the risk of everything unraveling due to a dropped detail.
That was a problem that required a more permanent solution than whatever technical truths I could creatively spin under pressure. I hoped Devlin had come up with something or, failing that, that he’d at least come up with a way to take the weight of that responsibility from my shoulders.
I downloaded the Texan’s email to local storage and, after a few seconds of consideration, performed the same action for the Mouse’s terse message. Then, I disconnected from the internet, took a deep breath, and headed back downstairs to confront Virginia. Every cell in my body prepared itself to deal with some new complication, except for the ones in my brain; those cells had worked themselves to death and were only capable of the simplest possible level of thought.
Devlin met me at the top of the staircase. He’d changed out of suit into an outfit similar to mine: comfortable jeans, sneakers, and a pale blue polo shirt. There was a noticeable bulge in one pocket that I recognized as his cell phone. One hand hung loosely at the other side of his body, dangling just in easy reach of the pocket I couldn’t see.
“Please tell me that you’ve got some bright idea,” I said, as we started down the staircase.
Devlin shook his head. “Nothing yet, but I’ll let you know when I do.” He paused for a moment. “We’re going to figure something out, Sarah. You know that, right? It’s what we do; this is just another problem we haven’t come up with a solution for yet.”
He didn’t have to say what problem needed a solution.
“She already thinks I’m married to Michel,” I said, “and I have no idea how long that’s going to hold up, considering he’s taking late night drives with Mila. When that falls apart, how long do you really think we’ll have before she starts in on the hard questions?”
Devlin shrugged. “So we’ll just have to make sure she doesn’t have the chance to come up with those hard questions, won’t we?”
“And how are we supposed to do that?”
Devlin opened his mouth to respond, paused, then shook his head. “Let’s see where her head’s at before I say anything concrete. We don’t know what she told CJ or how much, but he at least knows that we were involved in the situation and that Virginia wanted to cover it up badly enough to authorize him to bribe two guards.”
“What does he have to do with anything?”
“I don’t know yet,” Devlin admitted. “But I’m not about to lose track of any of the moving pieces here if I don’t have to.”
Fair enough. My desire to dismiss CJ as a factor probably had more to do with personal feelings than logical thought. He’d moved like a cop at the Sovereign. Obviously, he’d left that line of work in favor of private employment, but there were always those men and women who couldn’t ever move fully back into civilian life. Would he run to the nearest station at the first sign of trouble? Or was his loyalty to my grandmother worth more to him?
We reached the bottom of the staircase and, after a second or two of silent consideration, decided to try the kitchen by mutual agreement. Devlin fell in step with me, matching footfall for footfall, without seeming to notice that he’d done anything at all.
“I got an email,” I said. “Two, actually.”
I told him about the Texan’s polite, yet insistent, reiteration of demands.
“You want to hear something strange?” Devlin asked. “I really want to like him. That’s weird, right?”
“I know, right?” I allowed a tiny smile to appear on my face. It was comforting to know that I wasn’t the only one affected by the Texan’s incongruous charm or his general aura of friendliness.
“I know that he’s blackmailing us, but still. Seems like the kind of guy who you almost don’t mind being blackmailed by.”
I noticed that Devlin had said us, instead of me. Devlin didn’t have any personal skin in the game, which we both knew, but he was treating the threat to my real identity as a threat to his own person.
“Besides that,” I added, “his goodwill could definitely become one of those assets we’d rather have on our side than working against us.”
“Who was the other email from?”
There had been a few precious seconds of respite, but those seconds were wiped out with Devlin’s question. I related the Mouse’s urgent message and his desire to reestablish contact with the Community’s de facto leaders.
“That’s a good thing, isn’t it?” Devlin asked.
I stopped, just short of the kitchen. From where I stood, I could hear, but not see, Virginia rattling glasses and speaking to someone – CJ, presumably – in a low, throaty whisper that I couldn’t quite make out.
If I couldn’t hear her, it stood to reason that she wouldn’t be able to hear us. Still, I lowered my voice before answering. “For a given value of ‘good thing,’ sure. But there are…technical issues to consider.”
I forced my mind to compile some of the possible problems and to translate those problems into terms Devlin would understand. “Three problems. One: if he’s being chased by some other hacker, that means his signatures have been identified. If someone got those, they could theoretically have access to his servers, all of his email addresses, any bank accounts he uses to handle money. So, the Mouse might not be able to reach out, without compromising all of us.”
“He emailed you, though.”
“He emailed me from the same account as last time,” I said, “which doesn’t make me feel great about how his other accounts are doing. There are a dozen legitimate reasons for him to stay with a familiar address, and only one illegitimate reason, but the threat of that one reason would be more than enough to keep him from rolling the dice.”
Devlin eyes glazed over slightly. He processed what I’d said, translated it through some internal process into a metaphor he understood, and then nodded. “Alright. What does that mean for us?”
“If I want to get him in contact with the Community,” I said, “I’ll either have to arrange for him to get entirely new equipment that cannot possibly have been compromised yet or I’ll have to physically locate him and let him use my own computer to connect. Neither of which is particularly likely in the time frame I’ve got available to me, which is problem number two.”
“Problem number three,” I began, and then stopped before finishing the thought.
The volume of the conversation inside the kitchen went up a bit. I strained my ears to catch what strains I could.
“…seems like the kind of thing I ought to know, don’t you think?” Virginia asked. Even without the benefit of seeing her expression, I knew that she would have raised her eyebrows to the ceiling with that one.
Michel, not CJ, responded after a moment. “It was not my story to tell,” he said. “I was…only trying to do what Sarah thought was best.”
“Sarah,” Virginia said, “does not always make the best decisions, and you ought to know that by now. Now, if she’s got herself in trouble with these…whoever they are…she needs to get herself out of trouble. And if she can’t do it herself, I certainly can.”
“No!” Michel snapped. He didn’t sound angry, but the speed of his response and his accent combined to give the syllable more immediacy than it might otherwise have had.
“No?” Virginia repeated. “No, you think I should let my baby granddaughter deal with this problem all on her own?”
I looked at Devlin. He nodded, in answer to a question I hadn’t quite worded in my own mind, and motioned for me to enter the kitchen ahead of him.
“No,” I said, stepping into the room and raising my voice enough to forestall any cross-talk, “you should have trusted me when I said that the police cannot get involved. Not unless you want my friend to die in the process.”
Virginia looked up sharply at my entrance, focusing her gaze on me while Devlin slipped by in my wake. I used the beat of silence to examine the lay of the land. Michel sat at the kitchen table with an untouched mug in front of him, clearly uncomfortable as the sole focus of my grandmother’s attention. Mila leaned against a wall behind him, arms crossed under her breasts, and seeming utterly bored with everything. I’d seen her in action often enough to recognize that her disinterested posture was just an act. In reality, she was probably calculating the distance between where she stood, where CJ hovered to one side of Virginia, and wondering exactly how much damage she’d need to do to incapacitate the man without causing permanent harm.
Sam, for some reason, was lounging on a counter top just to her left. He wore the customary lazy awareness of most cats, even as he stretched out his claws in an extravagant yawn. Somehow, the appearance of the fluffy white cat did nothing to detract from the very real sense of imminent danger radiating off of Mila’s body.
“How much did you tell him?” I asked Virginia, indicating CJ with a bob of my head. While I had the conversational momentum, it seemed prudent to follow Devlin’s earlier suggestion: if there were going to be more players in the game, it was better that I know about them now than later.
Virginia exchanged a look with CJ. “He knows what I know,” she said finally. “Which isn’t all that much, by the way.”
“That’s because I can’t tell you that much,” I said. “Do you understand why I didn’t want to get you involved to begin with? Really understand?”
“No,” Virginia said, “but that doesn’t mean I don’t want to help you, Sarah.”
“By bringing in the cops, even after I specifically said that wasn’t an option?”
Virginia shook her head. “Who said anything about the cops?”
“I’ve been working in the city for a long time,” Virginia continued, “and the company has all sorts of contracts.”
“Are you…” I paused, swallowed, started again. “Are you saying that you’d just hire someone to take care of this whole thing for us?”
“Not for you, plural,” Virginia said. “No offense to you, Michel.”
Michel graciously waved her concern away.
“But for you, Sarah? If the people who are after your friend are as bad as you say they are, then absolutely. No police officers, since you’re so convinced that would end badly, but what’s wrong with hiring some…outside experts?”
I allowed myself a few seconds to consider the possibilities. Mila and I had discussed her mercenary friends occasionally over the last few months. Where I was steeped in hacker culture and Devlin had numerous thieving contacts, Mila had spent her career surrounded by hard men with anger management issues. Using the Lady’s seemingly bottomless coffers, it wouldn’t have been too difficult to get a team or two in motion. They didn’t even have to be thieves, in the customary sense. If all the hired guns did was stir up trouble, they could have diverted resources from our true targets.
But, after a moment, I reached the same conclusion with my grandmother’s proposal that Mila had offered in response to my own suggestions. Eventually, even a mercenary with no curiosity or imagination would ultimately begin to wonder why dramatic heists were consistently pulled off while they were dealing with insurgents or whatever. When they figured out that they were being used as decoys, they’d inevitably want more money for their work. Which was fine, in and of itself. But, with that money, they would also start asking questions and there was no telling where those questions would lead them.
And, even if that hadn’t been enough of a reason to keep the team as small as possible, we couldn’t forget that the Magi had people everywhere. Any team we reached out to could be in their employ – either directly or through a string of subordinate groups – and the first transfer of fund could be all the Magi needed to zero in on our little group of intrepid lawbreakers. The potential rewards – distraction, extra firepower, maybe even a little bit of a smokescreen to disguise our true goals – had been vastly outweighed by the risks.
With my grandmother, the equation was weighted even more heavily. I, at least, knew about the Magi and was gaining an appreciation for exactly how far their criminal network spread. If Virginia treated them like some small-time smugglers, blackmailers, or extorters, they would inevitably put her in their cross hairs. I might be able to slip the noose, given enough warning, but Virginia Ford was too firmly rooted in the local ecosystem to do the same.
I couldn’t tell her all of that, though. So, after a second or two of struggling to form coherent thoughts and plans, I decided to take the conversation in another direction. “That’s not the kind of thing that could help him anyway,” I said. “And it certainly wouldn’t help me. Mila already handles the sort of thing.”
“Was that a compliment?” Mila asked. She didn’t move a muscle from her position, except to raise her eyebrow and tilt her head slightly.
“For whatever a compliment is worth in this situation,” I said.
Mila gave me a tight smile. “Since the two of you decided to go rogue tonight, I think I’ll take that compliment and use it against you the next time a wild hare crawls up your ass.”
I returned the smile, with as much expression and warmth.
“What would, then?” Virginia asked, dragging my attention back to her. “You don’t want the police involved, fine. You don’t want any…other help, which doesn’t make any sense to me, but let’s say I take you at your word. You don’t expect me to just sit by and let you go back into danger for your friend, do you?”
I shook my head. “You’re covering with us at the Sovereign,” I said. “That’s worth a lot more than I can even begin to explain.”
“And it isn’t enough, Sarah. If even half of what you told me was true, then you need a lot more help than that.”
What I’d told her didn’t measure up to even a third or fourth of the danger presented by the Magi, but that was information Virginia wasn’t in a position to handle. Besides, I’d been hoping that she’d ask that exact question anyway.
“I’ve been working with substandard equipment,” I said, “and that’s not going to cut it anymore. I don’t have the time to hit the store and wait for computer parts to be shipped, but…”
Virginia cut me off. “Write me a list of what you need. I’ll have it delivered in the morning.”
“You don’t even know what I -”
“If you need something so that you can be done with whatever you got yourself into, or so that you can help your friend, then I want to help you get it,” Virginia said.
I feigned reluctance as I nodded. Then, I turned to Devlin.
“Really?” Devlin asked. “Now is when you wanted to deal with that?”
I shrugged in response. “Only two problems, then.”