“We’ve got problems,” I said as I entered the kitchen. I didn’t bother fabricating a prelude or softening my pronouncement.
Mila and Devlin were still seated at the island. During my absence, he’d gotten around to making breakfast, if the empty plates were any indication. He was finishing off a piece of barely-burnt bacon and sipping at his coffee. Mila was polishing off the remnants of what looked like a generic toaster strudel, except that there was too much frosting on the pastry to have come from a single packet. Michel stood over the sink, shirt sleeves rolled up to his elbows while he washed dishes and placed them in a waiting rack.
All three of them turned to face, confusion apparent on their faces. Devlin spoke first. “Is this a new thing or…?”
“We’ve got different problems,” I clarified.
“Bigger problems? Or even additional problems?”
I considered the best way to answer that. “I don’t know. It depends.”
“Well.” Devlin poured out another cup of coffee and nudged it in my direction. “By all means, tell us what new and exciting difficulty we’re going to have to deal with.”
He didn’t betray even an ounce of pique or irritation at my earlier outburst. If he felt any way at all about it, he was keeping those thoughts locked securely away. As far as I could tell, Devlin was perfectly willing to put aside the previous conversation without even acknowledging that we’d spoken at all.
Mila, of course, remained inscrutable. She watched me with a steady, flat gaze. Aside from the mildest possible sort of interest, no emotion appeared on her face at all. She took a bite from the toaster strudel, wiped away some frosting from one corner of her lips, and waited.
I’d have to talk to her at some point, I knew, but that conversation would have to wait until later. “So,” I said, “I was looking into the hard drives we…wait, where’s Virginia? She isn’t back yet?”
Devlin and Mila exchanged a look, but it was Michel who answered. “She just sent me a text,” he said, not looking up from the sink. “It is proving harder to find your supplies than she expected. It will be a little while longer before she is back home.”
“She texts you?” I asked. “Already? When did she even get your number?”
I put that new bit of information away for later consideration and wrenched my thoughts back to the more important topic. “Anyway. I was looking through the hard drives, just trying to get a feel for what kind of information I’ll have to sort through later, and I uncovered something…strange.”
Devlin held up a hand. “Are the technical details going to be important?”
I shook my head. “I can explain this in a way that even you’ll understand.”
He gestured for me to continue. “Carry on, then.”
“Alright. Imagine that you wanted to…eavesdrop on a conversation, okay? But you didn’t want to personally do the eavesdropping.”
“You’d hire someone to do it for you, obviously. That’s who the Texan was looking for, right? His eavesdropper?”
“More or less. I hadn’t expected it to be a digital spy working for him, but you’ve got the essential point down. There was someone ‘listening’ in on the communications coming from at least two of the executives located in the Sovereign. Unless there’s something special about those two, specifically – and I’m not ruling that out yet, because I don’t have anywhere near enough information – it seems reasonable to assume that the Texan was getting intelligence about every major employee working out of that building.”
Devlin whistled. “Do we know the businesses that work out of that location?”
“Not yet. I’ll look into it later, but that’s not what I wanted to talk about.” I took a deep breath, retracing the mental steps I’d followed to reach a conclusion. “I freely admit that I could be wrong, but it looks like the Texan’s spy also happens to be the Mouse. If he wasn’t working for the Texan the entire time, he’s at least taken over those duties sometime in the past year.”
Devlin’s eyebrows rose but, aside from that, he maintained a neutral expression. “Let’s say you’re wrong, just for argument’s sake. What other possibilities are there?”
“Someone else is trying to make it look the Mouse is an informant, for one. Also, it’s technically possible that a third party hired him to write a program, and that program is the one leaving recognizable traces. It’s unlikely, but it’s possible.”
“Why are you so sure that it’s him?”
I had my answer primed and ready. Before coming downstairs, I’d already run through the permutations multiple times, just to make absolutely certain that I wasn’t leaping to conclusions. “There’s no reason to point the finger at the Mouse for a crime no one even knows about. Anyone talented enough to locate and identify the code wouldn’t recognize it as a belonging to a member of the Community or would be a member of the Community.”
“And the other thing?”
“He doesn’t freelance like that,” I said. “Never has. He’ll do the work, but he wouldn’t trust other people to use his programs without setting off alarms and drawing attention.”
A few moments of silence stretched out while Devlin processed what I’d said. I could imagine him turning this new information around in his head, trying to translate it via metaphor into something he understood. The situation wasn’t too dissimilar to an artisan who was zealously protective of his tools, or a musician who didn’t allow anyone else to use his instruments. The Mouse was an artist, with an artist’s sensibilities. His signature was too idiosyncratic for anyone else to duplicate.
“Third option,” Mila said. She turned so that was facing me, her back against the island.
“Okay. What’s that?” I asked.
“Someone captured him and is making him do this eavesdropping thing you’re talking about. Explains why the code looks like his work, since it would be his work. Just accomplished under duress.”
She didn’t know about the message I’d received from the Mouse after we got back to the mansion. Devlin must not have found the time to fill her in on every detail. He gave me a look, clearly inquisitive, and I shook my head a fraction of an inch. I didn’t know why I wanted to keep that information to myself. I wasn’t worried about Mila’s loyalty, insomuch as her loyalty could be purchased. But a part of me – an irrational, foolish part of me – rebelled at the idea of letting her know about the Mouse’s fearful message.
Instead, I shrugged with one shoulder and took a sip of coffee, using the mug to hide my face while I lied. “That’s…a possibility, but it’s unlikely. I found something else too.”
She perked up slightly. Or, more accurately, she shifted her weight marginally off of the island and I read that as an increase in interest on her part.
I propped my tablet up on the kitchen island and, when Michel made his way over from the now-empty sink, opened the image file that I’d uncovered. “This,” I said, “is how the Mouse sent me the information we used to find out about the server at the Sovereign.”
“Is that…is that Disney World?” Mila asked.
I tilted my head, surprised and a little curious.
She shrugged and, for just an instant, displayed visible embarrassment. “I spent some time in Florida,” she said, “and I’m only human.”
“We’ll definitely be digging into that later,” Devlin said, “but let’s stay focused for right now. I’m assuming the Mouse did some sort of technological trickery to hide the information in this picture?”
“Technological trickery is the best way to describe it.” I smiled at him. “Now, when I was looking through the files I have access to, guess what I found?”
“Another copy of the picture?” Devlin suggested.
“Bingo. Except the technological trickery wasn’t hiding the same IP information we used to locate the server here.”
“What was it hiding?”
I changed a setting on the program, shifting the family photo itself to the background and replacing it with the underlying data. The tablet screen now showed an image of a newspaper’s front page. The front page article was itself was fairly boring, as front page articles went, but the headline hadn’t been responsible for grabbing my attention.
“Alright,” Devlin said, after about fifteen seconds. “I’ll be the first to admit it. I don’t get it.”
I stared at him, bothered for no reason I could easily name. “Look at the date, Devlin. Does that look familiar to you?”
Obediently, his eyes drifted from the headline over to the date. Almost immediately, they widened and he sucked in a sharp breath. “Well,” he said, “that can’t be a coincidence, can it?”
The pain in my chest vanished, as quickly as it appeared in the first place. “That’s what I said.”
“I still do not understand,” Michel said, raising his hand a little, like a confused child in school.
“That,” I said, “is the exact date when I first started working with Devlin. We met at a fundraiser. I was trying to siphon some of their wasted overhead and send it to the people who actually needed the money.”
“And I was trying to steal one of the paintings they had on display,” Devlin said. Michel gave him a look that I couldn’t read and Devlin raised his hands in surrender. “It was an original Renoir! It was worth a lot of money to the right people and, after Asher’s disappearance, I needed liquid capital. So sue me.”
Michel blew air out of his nose and shook his head, but he seemed more amused than angry. “You are sure that this is the date, Sarah?”
“Positive. It was also the exact same month when I started to work more closely with the Mouse.” That night had also commemorated a truly breathtaking argument between my sister and me, but that information wasn’t necessarily salient to the discussion at hand. “Now, I don’t know about you, but I find myself believing in coincidences less and less, as the months wear on.”
“Fair point,” Devlin said. He thought carefully about his next words. “What does this actually mean, though? Why would that information be hidden in the code or whatever?”
“I…don’t actually have an answer for that.”
“But it’s a problem,” Devlin said. He paused. “Or…is it? The Mouse is your friend, isn’t he? You’ve worked together before. It wouldn’t be unreasonable for him to know your signature, just like you know his.”
He was right, but not entirely. As soon as I’d seen the underlying image, I’d taken several long seconds to think through every innocent possibility. While the Mouse was certainly capable of digging through the history of data breaches, in search of the markers of my particular technique, it didn’t make sense for him to waste the time. It made even less sense, considering the stress he was currently under. Why would he waste time listening on mundane web traffic while fleeing for his life?
Unless…unless he thought that he could find some sort of respite in that information. Perhaps he was in pursuit of some tidbit of knowledge he could use to bargain for his own freedom? If he was working for the Texan, he was close enough to the information dealer to realize the value a name might hold.
Before I could follow that train of thought any further, the mansion’s front door banged open. I whisked the tablet off of the island, put it to sleep, and hid it underneath my arm. “Shit. I forgot to talk to you, Michel.”
He waved a hand in front of his face. “Devlin and I talked while you were…working, upstairs,” he said. “I can follow your lead.”
I nodded. “Mila?”
She finally devoured the last remaining bits of her strudel and met my gaze, not saying a word.
“Keep, uh…keep doing what you’re doing,” I said, after a moment’s pause. It felt weird to give her orders, or even suggestions, while I was consciously avoiding an apology.
If she thought it was strange, she didn’t say it. She merely nodded her assent and turned her attention to a blueberry muffin she pulled from somewhere I hadn’t quite caught.
Virginia stepped into the kitchen first. She wore a broad smile to match her floral sundress, over-sized sunglasses, and Kentucky Derby style hat. “Sarah, you’re already awake? Things have changed, haven’t they? Oh, did you already make coffee, Devlin? Aren’t you such a saint.”
I blinked, trying to switch tracks from our impromptu strategy meeting. Devlin reacted faster. “I didn’t know if you still drank coffee, but I noticed the machine, so…”
“The day I stop drinking coffee is the day I stop getting out of bed in the morning,” Virginia replied. “My doctor says it’s bad for women of a certain age, obviously, but everything fun is bad for me, in one way or another.”
As if to punctuate that thought, CJ came into the room. The reason for his delayed entrance – what seemed like nothing so much as an oversized sled, laden with all sorts of bags and supplies – followed behind him. Rivulets of sweat streamed down his cheeks, framing his face, but he labored with his burden without complaint.
I watched him for a few seconds before I realized that, in all probability, I was the reason for the massive weight he towed behind him. “Mila, can you give him a hand?”
She hadn’t reacted in the slightest a moment before, but I could almost feel the hesitation on her part before she put down the half-eaten muffin and moved to help CJ. Despite the size difference, she seemed more capable than CJ. It only took her a few more seconds to pull the sled into the center of the kitchen and, when she was finished, she wasn’t even breathing hard.
“Is there…anything…else?” CJ asked my grandmother, between gasps.
“Nothing at all,” she said, “except that you desperately need to take a shower. Go take care of that and then we can figure out what to do next, alright?”
CJ nodded. I expected him to walk in the direction of the front door, so that he could shower at his home. He walked instead toward the staircase. Obviously, he planned to shower here. Which meant that he had clothes here. Which was another reminder about the…relationship between my grandmother and the man who was barely younger than me.
Was there any correlation between her sunny disposition and the fact that she’d been out with CJ all day? Maybe, but my brain flatly refused to see what lay at the end of that garden path.
I tuned out those unwanted thoughts and focused on the bags. “Is that for me?”
“Well,” Virginia said, “I tried to find everything you had on your list, but some of it needed to be back-ordered. I put a rush on the pieces that I could. I could use the company to get a few things, if you -”
“Virginia,” I said. I didn’t snap at her, but I also made sure my tone didn’t leave any room for discussion. “You said you wouldn’t make things worse or harder for us. Getting the company involved is exactly the sort of thing that would get my friend into an even worse position.”
Until I could unravel the connection between the Mouse, the Texan, and the inner-workings of the various businesses housed at the Sovereign, using official power to accomplish anything would likely cause more problems than it solved. Someone was monitoring the traffic at the Sovereign. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume that other email accounts were spied upon. A single request for customized equipment could be the thread the Magi or the potential new player needed to pull, in order to lead them all way back up the chain to me and my team.
Probably. Maybe. But I couldn’t risk it, either way.
“I know, I know,” Virginia said. “But I just wanted you to remember that it’s a possibility. If you can get your friend out of…wherever he is, we know plenty of lawyers and cops who could help him.”
I barely suppressed a laugh. “That would be…less useful than you think, Virginia. How much do I owe you?”
Virginia shook her head. “Not a single dime,” she said immediately. “I’m helping my granddaughter. What else is my money good for, if I can’t use it for that?”
“Okay then. But you’ll have to let me make up for it later,” I said, fully aware that I had no intentions of sticking around long enough for Virginia and her boy-lover to fall into the Magi’s cross-hairs. A pang of guilt sent a single knife through my heart, but I managed to keep that temporary pain from my expression.
“Dinner?” Virginia suggested. Her voice became lighter, as though she were forcing herself to sound casual. “I’ve got plans the next few nights, but I should be free this weekend. You’ll be here this weekend, won’t you?”
The Community’s deadline was fast approaching. The Mouse was either working for the Texan, against him, or some bastardized mixture of the two. Caelum was more than likely active again, hunting down other skilled hackers and exposing them to the light. I happened to be in a position where exposure meant more than criminal charges. If the Magi found out my name and got even a hint of what I was doing, with regards to their businesses, I and my team would suffer unimaginable agony.
I looked at the rest of my team, Devlin in particular. He held my gaze for a second and then let it slip away without commenting. My grandmother, my choice to make. A change had been wrought in her since the last time I’d visited. As a result of that change, Virginia apparently wanted nothing more than to bond with her youngest granddaughter.
“I’ll be here,” I lied. “Saturday sound good?”
It was easily the smallest lie I’d told since coming to Atlanta. That didn’t make it weigh any lighter on my conscience.