Chapter 54

The petulant anger that had driven me out of the kitchen dried up long before I made it back to my room. I kept going anyway. Eventually, I’d have to apologize for my outburst, but I couldn’t bear to do it so soon. It wouldn’t bother Mila if I waited another few hours before making amends.

That’s what I told myself, at least. Another part of me – smaller, often overlooked, but no less insistent for its relative size – told the truth about my reluctance: her innocent question had poked a neat hole through my self-presumption and I didn’t have any answer that would satisfy her.

Appealing to her sense of family wouldn’t work, as it did with Devlin; what little she’d shared about her past, pre-Aiden, didn’t exactly paint a rosy picture. And she self-acknowledged that her experience with teams was limited. Even if she’d spent her entire professional career hopping from one group to another, the sort of team that Devlin ran was an oddity in our profession, to say nothing of our peculiar client and the unusual job we’d been saddled with. Our lives were inexorably bound together as a result of the Lady’s machinations. If we were all depending on the other for our literal survival, what room did any one or two of us have to make sweeping decisions, regardless of the personal stakes?

There were benefits to working with someone as detached and generally unemotional as Mila but, as the months wore on, I was beginning to understand that there were also several very large problems inherent in our arrangement. I tended to think about how one choice could lead to a dozen others, in order to plot a path to my goal with maximum efficiency and minimum disturbance. She looked at a problem and then drew a straight line to the solution, complications be damned. To say that we were professionally incompatible was an understatement.

As I reached the top of the staircase, I paused momentarily. In a way, Mila worked very similarly to Devlin, when he was in his ‘coldest’ configuration. Maybe that was why the two of them got along so well.

I didn’t run into Virginia and CJ as I walked through the house. I could only assume that they’d left earlier to pick up the computer supplies I’d outlined for them. Whenever they returned, assembling a system with the necessary horsepower would become my top priority. For the moment, however, their absence meant that I couldn’t use them to distract me from my own thoughts. Unfortunately.

Michel was also gone. He hadn’t been in the room when I’d woken up and, in fact, hadn’t been there much of the previous night. He obviously wasn’t with Mila or Devlin. He and I had work to do, as well. Virginia still believed that I’d married our French driver, and the details of that story needed to be finalized. Number two on the priority list, then, after building a system to use while in Atlanta. But, as he’d vanished off somewhere, that item would also have to be delayed. Of course.

I decided, ultimately, to do a little work, as opposed to stewing in my shame and wasting time I absolutely could not afford to waste. At least one or two of the hard drives, depending on the internet connection, would already have been transferred to my servers. I could sort through some of the data, rule out general groups of information, and put myself on firmer ground for when the real hunt began.

It would also serve as effective, distracting busy work, but that was only the third or fourth reason on my mind.

I left my tablet at the foot of the bed, where I’d discarded it before passing out, and opened up my laptop instead. Sure enough, I found several new folders when I logged into the server I’d dedicated to this task. I opened the first one – conveniently labeled as Soverign1 – then rummaged around in my luggage. At the bottom of an otherwise unremarkable suitcase, my fingers touched a zipper, leading into a secret compartment. Inside that compartment, sealed away with an entire layer of gel ice packs, I found my remaining treasure trove of Diet Cokes.

If I couldn’t have coffee without dealing with Mila’s questions, I could at least get my caffeine the way God intended, damn it.

With that accomplished, I took a seat at the computer and started trawling through the various files. Various programs I’d used, stolen, or reverse-engineered over the years handled most of the heavy lifting. All I needed to do was peruse the headers on each spreadsheet or the sub-folder names to get a basic idea of what was contained within, before deciding whether or not the contents were relevant to my needs. But I needed to do a lot of that and I suspected that I’d go through more than one of my contraband sodas before I finished with even this small sampling.

Surprisingly, right around the middle of Sovereign3, I landed on something interesting. In a boring email chain between two executives, wherein the two middle-aged men discussed the merits of their extramarital affairs, there was a single line in the metadata that didn’t fit with the rest. It was a simple, un-encrypted email and I probably wouldn’t have looked twice at it ordinarily, but my programs had isolated this chain because of a slight error.

Anything from a weak internet connection to a poorly configured router could have been responsible for the extra code. It was the sort of thing that happened whenever any traffic didn’t manage to make the journey from computer to open internet without difficulty. I opened the metadata anyway, scanning through the repetitive call-and-response between the two executives and the router.

When I saw the error, my eyes widened and I let out a small breath in surprise. The individual line that my programs had alighted on wasn’t just an error in transmission. Instead, it was a signature attack pattern that I recognized: someone had been spying on the two executives. In order to do that, the attacker had effectively lied to the router and pretended to be the individuals in question. Whenever either account set out an email, browsed the internet, or opened a balance sheet stored on their corporate cloud, that information had been sent instead to the attacker before being routed to its proper destination. The same process would work in reverse, as well. Effectively, all traffic would pass through the attacker’s computer, giving him or her the ability to easily read everything in real-time.

I pulled up all of the emails from those two executives and, looking more carefully through the code, found similar fingerprints that had been hidden more effectively. I’d only caught the one error because the email chain had caused a sort of echo effect; nothing that would have been noticeable to anyone who wasn’t looking specifically for traces of a malign digital presence, but still something that a more competent hacker would have taken steps to conceal.

Well,” I said out loud, “that’s one bit of good news. Maybe.”

It appeared that I’d found the first traces of the Texan’s source. When my system finished pulling and organizing the traffic logs, I’d know exactly what to look for. This thin trail wouldn’t be enough to pin down any attacker, but it might be enough to get the Texan off of our backs. If the records were accurate, the ‘man in the middle’ had been active as recently as three nights beforehand. That meant the Texan’s source hadn’t been compromised but had, instead, decided to go radio silent for some reason.

A niggling sensation at the very back of my thoughts commanded me to look deeper into the emails. Appeasing the Texan ranked lower on my list of priorities than finding the Mouse, but I didn’t exactly have any leads to follow for the latter problem. Besides, there weren’t that many emails available to peruse. I could afford to spend a few minutes confirming my suspicions and shoring up the Texan’s job while I waited.

I ordered my little helpers to sort through the documents that had already been cataloged, specifically searching for the signature the Man in the Middle had left behind. A series of messages flickered by as the programs worked, too fast for me to track each one. When a single message popped up that displayed something in addition to the telltale marker, I almost missed it.

I sent the filing program to the background and focused my attention on the lone email with the digital fingerprint of the Man in the Middle. With the aid of the programs, I could see that there was a smattering of random bits and bytes contained within the email. There were parts of the code switched off, when they should have been on, and pieces switched on, that should have been switched off. It wasn’t enough to change the sum total, but it did set my nerves and anxiety on edge.

If the email containing the secret code was accurate, I should have seen a woman in a state of undress. But, looking at the lines written behind the scenes, I saw something else entirely. It took my laptop a while to chug it way through the process of compiling scant pieces of data into a complete whole. When it was done, I leaned back in my chair and looked at the product of the system’s work.

It was a picture, as it turned out. Just not the one that should have appeared. The picture wasn’t any different, functionally speaking, than the picture it should have been. With everything piled together and organized so that it worked, the individual lines of code weren’t particularly remarkable. What stood out to me, however, was the fact that the picture was familiar.

I looked at the computer screen and the frozen image of a family at Disney World looked back at me.

What are you doing here?” I asked the image.

As far as I could tell, the picture I’d just uncovered was identical to the one I’d received from the Mouse, back in Tangiers.

I’d never bothered to track down the original source of the picture, so it might have had some other meaning I hadn’t yet uncovered. Or, maybe the Man in the Middle was attempting to disguise some other message in the picture. Hell, as far as I knew, maybe the original photograph didn’t have any nefarious meanings and multiple hackers were just taking advantage of some stock images for their own purposes.

That last one was a stretch, though, and I’d given up on coincidences even before the London job spiraled into the catastrophe it had rapidly become. I spent a minute digging up the Mouse’s original image, laid them over each other in Photoshop, and then stripped them down to their constituent bits and bytes. If there were any differences, that would be the fastest way to spot them.

My poor, belabored laptop struggled to handle my request. I rolled my eyes at its efforts and stood, stretching my legs, just as a knock came from the door.

Sarah?” Michel’s voice, tentative and uncertain. “Are you busy?”

It didn’t take any great intuition on my part to realize that Michel had probably spoken to Mila and Devlin downstairs. I didn’t feel like rehashing my childish outburst at the moment and I considered ignoring Michel’s polite knocks. I relented from that position when I decided that some time away from my glowing computer screens would do wonders for my continuing eyesight. Besides, I’d chewed through a considerable portion of the available work for the day. I’d tackle more when Virginia returned and I could take the time to set up a better system.

And, I had to admit that Michel was good company. He wasn’t quite as good at camouflaging his presence as Devlin – no matter how quiet Michel was, I was almost always aware of him – but he was sweet and genial. I could use sweet and genial.

I left my laptop working on the two pictures, crossed the room, and opened the door without warning. Michel stood alone in the hallway outside of the door, with a cardboard cup of coffee in each hand.

I brought one for Devlin,” Michel said, “but he told me that you might want it more.”

I rolled my eyes and gestured for him to enter the room. “Where’d you go last night?”

Michel closed the door behind him. He placed both coffee cups down on the far end of my workstation before answering. “When I need to think about things, I like to drive,” he said. “And I needed to think about things last night.”

You’ve got problems with how Devlin and I handled the job, too?”

He shook his head quickly. “No. Not about that. You two have been doing this for much longer than me. If you think that you made the best move, then I will believe you.”

I examined both coffee cups for a long time, eventually selecting the one with a label suggesting that ‘extra cream’ had been added. “Then what?”

Michel hesitated, but only for a heartbeat. “Mila, of course. She is…very confusing.”

He couldn’t have meant anything by it, just as he couldn’t possibly have known my own conflicted feelings about Mila at that exact moment. I swallowed down a sharper reply than he deserved and decided upon a more delicate tactic. “I’m really not the person to ask about what or how she thinks.”

I know that,” Michel said. “But…”

But what? You thought that I’d have some insight into her, just because we’re both women?”

Michel shrugged helplessly.

A smile appeared on my face, all on its own. “Even if I was some sort of woman-whisperer,” I said, “I’m pretty sure we both know that Mila isn’t going to fit neatly into any regular sort of category. What’s got you all confused now, anyway?”

He waved away the question. “It is not important.”

We’re a team,” I said. The irony of that particular phrase, in light of my argument with Mila, was astounding. “If the two of you are going to have…issues…we should definitely get that cleared up before it becomes a problem later.”

Michel shook his head. “Really, it is not even worth talking about now. Maybe after we find your friend, you and I can find some time to discuss the matter, if you actually want to.”

Next to Devlin, Michel was probably the closest thing Mila had to a friend, the oddities of their relationship notwithstanding. On the rare occasions that I found myself in need of a bodyguard, we’d always managed to pull through, but our specialties weren’t traditionally compatible. I stayed back and worked the problem from long range; Mila charged in to meet difficulties with her fists, feet, and the occasional firearm. So, I didn’t know what nuggets of wisdom Michel thought I might be capable of offering, but I still wanted to help.

Perhaps I’d get a little bit of insight into her personality in the process, though. It wasn’t likely. But the previous six months had taught me, in no uncertain terms, that stranger things could and would happen, given the opportunity.

Yeah,” I said, “maybe when we’re done with this situation with the Mouse. And the Texan, for that matter. Honestly, I think we deserve a break after this.”

Michel chuckled. “I do not think that our employer is the sort to allow vacations, Sarah.”

Well, I’ve got her credit card, figuratively speaking. If I want to go on vacation, let her try and stop me.” I smiled at Michel and he smiled back at me. “Did you need anything else?”

He shook his head. “Devlin wanted me to bring you your coffee and I wanted to speak with you for my own reasons. But I can see that you are busy right now. We will catch up later?”

I nodded, absently glancing in the direction of my laptop. It had switched off at some point during the conversation – shoddy batteries, most likely – so I pressed the power button to reactivate it. “Definitely later,” I said. “But not too much later. I’ll be done with this before too long.”

Michel nodded at that, then excused himself without wasting any more words.

As soon as he’d left the room, I remembered that I needed to speak to him about purely logistical matters. That could wait, though. There were many hours until nightfall, when that particular problem would be relevant again. Besides, I’d enjoyed the temporary reprieve into personal, relationship issues. It provided a nice contrast to the typical life-and-death decisions the team customarily found ourselves involved in.

When my computer finished rebooting, I entered a complicated password – courtesy of Avis – and logged back into the server I’d been working on before Michel’s interruption. In a stroke of good luck, my laptop had finished overlaying and cross-checking the two images before shutting itself off. I opened that file and perused the results.

There was actionable intelligence contained in the subtle differences between the two photos, or at least something in the general neighborhood. I read through the files twice, making sure that I grasped the broad strokes of the revealed information, transferred both the files and a quick write-up on their contents to my tablet, and grabbed another soda from my dwindling supply.

No matter what our personal issues, I could always trust Mila and Devlin to be professionals. Michel, in his own way, was capable of compartmentalizing his issues when working in the field required him to be objective. It was part of what made us an effective team, inasmuch as the way our personalities generally synchronized.

If I was reading this email correctly, I didn’t have to worry about their ability to work through their feelings. My own connections would prove infinitely more complicating, in the long run.

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