I woke the following morning in a foul, pitch black mood. Despite the bone-deep exhaustion from the previous night, I’d slept in fits and spurts. Nightmares of the Magi’s agents invaded my dreams and kept me from ever truly settling in to the necessary REM cycle. When dawn broke, the sun found me staring up at the ceiling and contemplating the merits of murder.
There was an unending list of things to do, though. At the top of that list, demanding my attention before anything resembling work could possibly be attempted, was a burning need for caffeine. I stumbled, bleary-eyed and only semi-cognizant of my surroundings through the mansion, relying on muscle memory to keep me from walking out of an open window or over a bannister. Before even stepping into the kitchen, the aroma of coffee rose up to greet me, filling my nostrils and beckoning me forward.
“You’re up early,” Devlin said lightly.
I grumbled a response in his direction, foregoing even the modicum of effort it would have taken to make myself understandable. I pointed in the general direction of the coffee pot, ignored Devlin’s answering chuckle, and waited impatiently until he placed a warm – but not quite scalding – mug into my waiting grip.
“I made that pot a while ago,” he said. “Figured you wouldn’t want to start your day off with a scorched tongue.”
I took a long swallow from the mug and gave the caffeine a few seconds to work its magic before responding. “You didn’t know I was going to be awake,” I said.
“You had to wake up eventually,” Devlin said. “I just happened to get lucky with the timing.”
I grunted again. Devlin gestured to an empty seat next to him at the kitchen island. I dropped heavily into the seat, growing more awake as the seconds passed and the coffee disappeared from my mug. The events of the previous night hadn’t been able to settle into place yet, despite the hours of black, dreamless sleep I’d just roused from. Virginia knew some of what I’d been up to for the last six months, even if I’d deliberately left out virtually all of the context around those activities. CJ, her boy-toy, presumably knew as much. For the next handful of days – at least until I could find a trail that might lead me to the Mouse – she would be a constant hassle, an additional obstacle to navigate around.
It wasn’t that she’d try to stop me from doing what I needed to do, within reason. No, Virginia would get in our way by the simple fact of her desire to help. Without filling her in on everything about my past – my early forays into computer crimes, the partnership with Devlin, the Lady, and the ominous figures of the Magi casting long shadows over everything else we did – she would inevitably stumble her way into even greater trouble than I was already in.
No, she needed to be sidelined for her own good. How to sideline her, however, was a question I’d been avoiding since the encounter at the Sovereign the previous night.
Devlin and I didn’t speak until after I’d finished my second cup. As my mental faculties switched back on, one at a time, I started to take stock of the room. My tablet was upstairs, as was my laptop, and I didn’t wear a watch as a matter of personal aesthetic choices. I didn’t know exactly what time it was, except that the sun was beginning to shine its light through the plate glass windows leading to the patio outside. Devlin’s attention flickered between a newspaper on the top of the kitchen island, his cell phone, and me.
“What is it?” I asked finally.
“Hmm?” He blinked and visibly pulled his thoughts back from wherever they’d wandered to. “What’s what? I mean, what are you talking about?”
“You keep looking at me,” I said. “What, is there something on my face?”
Devlin shook his head. “No, nothing like that. I just don’t see you in the mornings all that often.”
“You see me all the time.”
“When you’ve had a chance to get dressed, put on makeup, and whatever else it is you ladies do, sure. But like this? When you’re barely even human, with your grunts and nonvocal half-sentences…”
Devlin trailed off. I gave him about fifteen seconds to finish his thoughts and, when he didn’t, I put aside the coffee and gave him an appraising look. “What? Finish your sentence.”
“It’s nothing,” Devlin said quickly. “Seriously, don’t worry about it.”
My very best appraisal was nothing against Devlin’s extreme control over microexpressions. It was like trying to read the face of a stone gargoyle. I quickly gave up and decided to focus on more tangible matters, instead of attempting to unravel the mind of my ex-husband on the spot.
“What’re you reading?” I asked.
“Local paper,” Devlin said. “It’s not too bad, as these things go, but it’s not the greatest.”
“Any mention of the servers being stolen from the building?”
Devlin smiled. “As it turns out, those particular hard drives were scheduled for a…what’s this called?” He motioned for me to come closer. When I did as he’d asked, he pointed at an acronym on the page.
“Let’s just go with…” I took the requisite few seconds to translate tech-speak into layman’s terms. “It’s a backup. Just call it that. Virginia got the guards to go with that story? They’re absolutely going to get fired by whatever rent-a-cop agency the building’s owners got them from in the first place.”
Devlin’s face gave away nothing. “However she did it, it doesn’t look like anyone’s looking for us. Although I suppose we should probably get those hard drives back in their proper place before too long.”
Before falling asleep, I’d set all of my remaining electronic devices – which amounted to a tablet and two laptops, none of which were particularly beefy – to the task of transferring data onto an overseas server. In addition to storing all of the data, several databases were being automatically populated with relevant information that would make my eventual brute-force search easier: dates, usernames, file sizes, and the like were all tabulated and organized in a way that would allow me to sort through the volumes of information in the short time I had available in the next few days.
“I’ve got it under control,” I said to Devlin. There wasn’t any reason to burden him with unnecessary technical jargon that he wouldn’t understand or particularly care about.
He nodded, turned to another page of the newspaper, and took a long sip of coffee. I did the same, without the paper. We sat at the kitchen island in comfortable silence for several minutes.
It wasn’t exactly peaceful, but there was an easy familiarity that I appreciated. Over the years of our partnership, I’d grown accustomed to Devlin’s steady presence in a way that defied explanation. If he wanted to make himself feel present, he could do that; on the other hand, he possessed the ability to withdraw into himself, erasing or concealing his very aura. I still knew that he was there, of course. But I didn’t necessarily feel him there. Or, perhaps more accurately, I didn’t feel as though his presence was an intrusion or out of place. Either way, by effectively removing himself from my consideration without withdrawing the positive feelings his presence generally came with, Devlin helped me to move out of my own head and away from the storm cloud of irritation that had been building inside me since leaving the Sovereign.
With Devlin consumed with his paper and my electronics busily churning through our stolen hard drives upstairs, I allowed my thoughts to drift away from the present, off into the realm of the theoretical and conceptual difficulties facing us. Anxiety still thrummed at the edges of my thoughts while my mind turned over any number of complicated problems, looking for solutions that refused to present themselves. In less than twenty-four hours, we’d managed to involve at least three additional people in the grand, dangerous game we were playing with the Magi. The Texan, at least, most likely had methods of protecting himself or, failing that, secrets he could use to purchase his safety, assuming that the Magi bothered to target him in the first place. I didn’t know how much information he’d managed to cobble together since London, but I could assume that he didn’t actually know much about the Magi or the Lady. If he had, either our employer or our enemies would have taken steps to neutralize him as a threat a long time ago.
But Virginia and CJ knew nothing about the battlefield they’d stepped onto. Telling them everything was the option I loathed the most. It would allow Virginia to take steps to protect herself, theoretically speaking, but the way she’d handled the few tidbits I’d given her the previous night led me to believe that she’d choose to fight, rather than flee. Even if I shared everything I knew with her, that wouldn’t necessarily give Virginia the appropriate context to understand how dangerous the Magi were. At best, she’d be nominally more informed, but not informed enough to make intelligent decisions. At worst, it would only make her another possible avenue of attack that the Magi might use against me.
Running was a possibility. That was marginally better than telling Virginia any more details about my secret life, but only marginally. I could avoid the Magi, because they didn’t actually know who they were looking for. If Virginia Ford dedicated a significant quantity of resources to the task – private eyes, international business associates, or even just people who owed the Ford family favors – it would be far more difficult to stay hidden. Maybe I’d be able to slip the tail, but I couldn’t ever really be sure of that. Maybe Virginia’s attempts to help would only draw the attention of other, more nefarious individuals who could put two and two together. Or maybe, one day, she’d get a report from a detective about the sort of people her baby granddaughter was really working with.
Too much risk, not enough potential reward.
The only real choice I had was to finish our jobs in Atlanta: find the Mouse or a trail leading to him and discover something that would buy the Texan’s silence while we went about our work. With that done, I’d have to work with Devlin, Michel, and Mila to spin a convincing lie that got us out from under my grandmother’s watchful eyes. Then, I could disappear back into the underworld for as long as necessary, until the Magi were dealt with. Or, perhaps, until they dealt with us.
Either way, it wouldn’t be a problem anymore.
Neat, precise footsteps caught my attention and pulled me back into the moment. Devlin and I looked up at the same instant, in the direction of whoever was approaching. Devlin’s brain reacted faster than mine, judging from the way his shoulders relaxed before my mind had even finished processing new visual data.
Mila strolled into the kitchen, the very picture of casual disinterest. Something about her body language set off my internal alarm bells. There wasn’t anything different about her that I could identify, but a wariness bubbled up from deep within me. I set down my coffee cup and waited for her to speak.
The previously comfortable silence between Devlin and me was gone, replaced now with a tense feeling of apprehension. Mila walked over to the coffee machine, gave the pot a critical look, and then cleared her throat. “No coffee for me?”
“I, uh…just took the last cup,” I said. My voice sounded weak to my own ears, and I had no idea why. I wasn’t scared of Mila. Well…I wasn’t scared that Mila would hurt me. Having seen the aftermath of her handiwork on a few different occasions, I was plenty scared of her, in a general sort of way.
“I’ll make some more,” Devlin said. “You’ve never been a coffee drinker before, though.”
Mila shrugged. “Seems like we’re all trying new things lately. I’m drinking coffee. Sarah’s going out in the field. The two of you are taking on dangerous jobs without waiting for backup. The sky’s the limit, apparently.”
Oh. Mila would be upset about our unsupervised activities at the Sovereign. Her professionalism likely rebelled at the very idea of allowing her charges to rush into dangerous situations without her support.
But was that really relevant anymore? Sure, she was still being paid by the Lady, as far as I knew. Mila had, however, been given an opportunity to walk away from this war at the very outset. Given that chance to leave in favor of less dangerous employment and provided with full knowledge of the loose way in which we tackled jobs, did she really have a reason to be upset with us?
The thin veneer of calm that Devlin’s presence had provided fell to ashes in an instant. Academically, I knew that Mila had every reason to be perturbed. Emotionally, her light sarcasm seemed like a prime opportunity to vent my frustration. Emotion won the brief battle handily.
“If you’ve got something you want to say,” I began, “why don’t you just come out and say it?”
Mila gave me an even, unreadable look for a long time before she responded. “It was stupid for the two of you to try that job without waiting for Michel and me to get there. There. I said it.”
“And what would you have done differently?” I asked. A little bit of scorn found its way into my words and I didn’t waste too much effort trying to wrestle it down.
“I guess we’ll never know,” Mila said. “Maybe nothing. But I know for sure that we’ve got extra problems now that we might not have had, if you hadn’t jumped the gun.”
She wasn’t even raising her voice. There didn’t seem to be any particular heat to what she said, no discernible emotion at all. Mila was just speaking the facts as she saw them, in that same flat tone. It only served to stoke my emotions higher.
“We’ve got problems? You’re not the one whose grandmother is suddenly interested in every detail of your life, Mila.”
She shook her head. “No, I’m not. What does that have to do with anything?”
“What does it have to…are you serious? Do you really not understand how this could affect my life?”
Mila gave the coffee pot another forlorn look, sighed, and crossed the room to the fridge. She spoke as she walked, when her back was turned to me. “That’s not what I meant. Yes, it’s your grandmother involved and it’s your identity on the line. But that doesn’t mean it’s not our problem. We’re a team, aren’t we?”
I opened my mouth to respond, to say anything, but any smart retort died on my tongue.
Mila continued, as inexorable as the tide. “I’ve got problems with Aiden. Those don’t affect you – at least, they don’t have to affect you – but the two of you insisted on helping me with him, even after I specifically said I didn’t want your help. Is that a one-way thing? You get to tangle yourselves up in my business, but your life is off-limits?”
“That…I’m not saying that, Mila, and you know it.”
Mila shook her head again. “I really don’t. This is the first team I’ve been on. Devlin, is this normally how it goes?”
Devlin, who had been quiet since I’d started the confrontation with Mila, coughed uncomfortably into his mug. When he realized that he wasn’t going to be able to disappear into the coffee, he sighed and looked up. “This is hardly a normal situation,” he said slowly, “but no. This isn’t how we want to do things. If one of us has a problem, then all of us do.”
“Then,” Mila said, “we should all have something to say about how we go about fixing those problems, right?”
Devlin found something interesting at the bottom of his mug. The way his shoulders were set told me that he wasn’t going to answer Mila’s question, no matter how long I waited. It was probably a smart decision, but it felt vaguely like a betrayal.
So, I spoke instead. The brief flash of anger that had motivated me into starting this fight had long since died down and only pride kept me from backing down. “This is…this is different.”
Mila considered that for a few seconds. “What’s the difference?”
The worst part about her question was how genuinely curious she sounded. Again, there was no anger or accusation in her voice; just simple curiosity. Mila could be so normal occasionally that it became perilously easy to forget about how little experience she had dealing with regular people who weren’t trying to kill her or use her to kill others.
My jaw worked open and shut several times, but no answer came to mind.
…that wasn’t entirely true, though. A number of particularly snide comments came to mind. I considered attacking her on a variety of personal levels, but I stopped myself from hurling those insults at her for a few reasons.
One: there was every possibility that Mila wouldn’t be affected by attacks of that sort. It wasn’t as though she’d ever professed any attachment to her past.
Two: if they did rattle her, I absolutely did not want to be on the receiving end of Mila’s anger. Devlin would step in, as best as he could, but he’d only be an obstacle in the way if Mila decided to forgo the terms of her contract and punch me for something I’d said.
Three: regardless of the outcome, speaking even one of the insults that came to mind would cause irreparable damage to whatever relationship existed between the two of us.
That last reason, more than the other two, shamed me into silence. Any remnant of anger evaporated instantly, leaving me standing alone trying to meet the twin gazes of Devlin and Mila. I cast wildly around for something to say and the silence stretched out for what felt like an eternity.
“I don’t have time for this,” I said finally. “Some of us have work to do.”
I spun on my heel and stalked out of the kitchen, inwardly cursing at how foolish that exit line had been. Mercifully, though, neither Devlin nor Mila followed after me.