Chapter 115

There was a palpable tension in the air. While I’d spent time around Barrett before, there had always been other people around. If not Devlin, then Mila; if not Mila, then Virginia or my parents. It was just the two of us now, though, seated across from each other with a half-full bottle of bourbon as a chaperone.

He sensed it, just as much as I did. He was probably contributing to the vibe through force of will. Barrett was watching me, with a directness that I found equally disturbing and alluring. His gaze never drifted from my face, even though I could almost feel his attention on my body. Casually, he licked his lips before taking a sip from his drink.

What are you going to do after all of this?” I asked. The answer didn’t particularly matter to me, but the silence was quickly growing unbearable.

While he thought, I topped off my glass and glanced at the wall clock, just so that I was looking away from Barrett’s dark eyes. Some basic research had shown me that most bars in Texas closed around midnight. This particular dive, then, must have been one of the rare establishments open until two.

After drinks?” Barrett winked and affected a scandalized expression. “Why, Sarah, you should know I’m not that kind of a gentleman.”

I rolled my eyes. “You know what I mean.”

Sure, but a man can always hope, can’t he?”

I pointed at the bottle of bourbon. “If you aren’t going to answer, then…”

Just trying to pick my words carefully.” He stirred his drink idly for a few more seconds before speaking again. “It depends. I’d been hoping to trade what I stole from the Sovereign for information, but that’s apparently a nonstarter. But obviously there’s someone in Dallas who wants to take a shot at me. After I find out who that is…I don’t know what I’ll do, actually.”

What do you want to do?”

Find my old partner,” Barrett said immediately. “Put an end to all this cloak and dagger stuff.”

Seems like that’s going to be kind of difficult, considering your line of work.”

I steal things,” Barrett said. “Ideally, under the cover of night and with a certain amount of flair. I leave calling cards to taunt the police and to establish my brand, so to speak. What I don’t do is dodge bullets or try to survive hit-and-runs in broad daylight.”

He couldn’t possibly know much I related to that. Before the Lady’s intervention into our lives – back when we’d still been working together, at least – Devlin and I had specialized in a very victimless type of theft. We targeted overblown, fraudulent charities; idly rich trust fund babies with more wealth than taste; and, rarely, poorly guarded museums when the price was right. There’d only been one casualty and that hadn’t been a result of our jobs, but of Asher’s goons in Venice deciding to shoot first and ask questions never. Law enforcement, with the exception of Adlai, was aware of our activities, but we weren’t ever a priority. No one was hurt, no one was killed, and it was better for all parties to give each other wide berths.

Not so much, anymore. Now, we overthrew the premiere drug kingpin of London, changed the shape of the Underworld in that city, and installed our own friends in position of power. We robbed the Triad and the Yakuza of millions and redistributed that wealth to the people they’d stolen it from to begin with, inviting the wrath and attention of trained enforcers and killers. We rescued children from sex traffickers and warlords, no matter who had to die to keep those same children safe.

It was still…fun seemed like the wrong word, even though it was probably the closest that I could manage. But there was a raw edge to that fun that tainted the experience. A mishandled network intrusion might have set us back a week before; now, it could get us all kidnapped, tortured, or killed. I wasn’t sure if the corresponding uptick in adrenaline was worth the added risk; worse, I didn’t know how to go about looking for that answer.

I shook my head fiercely, trying to dislodge my darker thoughts and focus on the moment instead. “Understandable,” I said. “But you still didn’t answer my question.”

I want to go back to doing what I enjoy,” Barrett said. “There are very few things I’m actually good at and I’d appreciate it if I could focus on those, instead of his on-the-ground spy training that I’m going through. Is that answer good enough?”

I’ll allow it.” We drank in silence for a few seconds before I realized that I was looking at his body once more. When he sat up straighter, rolling his shoulders back and subtly accentuating his muscular torso, I coughed violently to break the moment.

Everything alright?” Barrett asked. “You seem a little distracted by something.”

My cheeks started to grow warm, despite every one of my mental instructions. “Your turn, you know,” I said.

Part of me expected him to ignore my week attempt at putting this conversation back onts proper rails. He surprised me by nodding slowly – an act which allowed him an opportunity to near-seamlessly check out everything below my neck – before actually asking a question. “Your husband,” Barrett said. My heart skipped a beat until he continued. “Or your fake husband, I guess? What’s the deal with that?”

It’s a family thing.” I weighed how much detail was necessary and decided that, honestly, none of it was particularly sensitive. The entirety of my relationship with Michel was just a fiction anyway, designed to cover for yet another lie I’d told my family instead of the truth. “I told them that I got married a while back and no one in my family really believes in divorce.”

Like people don’t believe in Santa Claus?”

More like how people don’t believe in climate change,” I corrected, smiling despite myself. “They’re all aware that it exists, but they try their hardest to pretend that it only happens to other people. It was just easier to have my friend play the role than to tell them the truth.”

Barrett nodded thoughtfully. “And what is the truth?”

I poured a shot and downed it in one smooth movement, holding eye contact with Barrett the entire time. He whistled in appreciation.

That was my second question,” he said, “so you could always have just not answered it.”

You would only have asked it later,” I countered. “Seemed like a better idea to go ahead and get that off of the table.”

Message sent and received.”

I savored the pleasant burn of the bourbon, rising up into my face to mingle with the warmth of my cheeks, as it worked its way through my bloodstream. I didn’t want to think about what the pressure of Barrett’s constant attention promised. Nor did I want to think about what my own presence meant for my own intentions. Thinking was hard and there was a high likelihood that I wouldn’t be able to avoid anything negative. I just wanted to be here, be somewhere…just for a little while. Everything else – the Mouse, the Magi, Barrett, Devlin – could wait until the morning.

What made you want to be a cat burglar?” I asked.

Well, that’s got some layers.” Barrett drained his glass and refilled it.

Peel those layers back, then.”

If you’re asking me why I specifically climb buildings and whatnot, that’s easy: because I’m good at it.”

That’s it? It’s that simple for you?”

That’s basically it,” Barrett said. “But if you’re asking why I steal things in general, it’s a little more complicated.”

Go on.”

That’s going to count as two questions, though. That means I’ll get one and a follow-up.”

I eyed the bourbon. There was still enough in the bottle that, if he asked something I didn’t want to answer, I could just drink instead. I considered the possibility that he was trying to get me to drink, but an instinct told me that he didn’t pursue women like that. Barrett was a staggeringly attractive man with an air of mystery and an abundance of swagger. Women of all stripes found that sort of thing irresistible. Adding alcohol to the mixture as a sort of chemical assistant would, I assumed, feel like cheating to him.

Besides, it wasn’t like I had to drive home. I nodded at Barrett and signaled for him to continue.

He took a deep breath before he actually said anything. “I grew up with some…I don’t know if I’d call them bad people, but they certainly weren’t good. They got worse, if that term applies, as they got older.”

And you got worse too?”

Barrett shook his head. He started to stroke the side of his emptying glass with one long, dexterous finger. “Surprisingly, no. I fell out of touch with those people when we hit our twenties, give or take. I learned later on that they tried an assortment of get-rich quick schemes and I ended up becoming a jeweler.”

I stared at him over the lip of my glass. “You aren’t serious.”

As a heart attack,” he said, laying one hand on his chest for emphasis. I couldn’t control the way my eyes traced over the outlines of his pectorals beneath his tight shirt. “Anyway, time went by and then one one of those old friends reached out to me on social media. They knew what I did and, apparently, they needed some professional advice. They phrased it as a hypothetical but, essentially, they wanted to know how much a specific gemstone was worth. I recognized it as a piece on display at a local auction, but didn’t say anything about it.”

Barrett paused, sipped from his drink, and stared into the middle distance for a few fraught seconds. I recognized the tricks of a born storyteller, but knowledge of those techniques didn’t make me less susceptible to them. I leaned in closer to listen carefully to what he said next.

He said nothing. He continued wandering through his own memories until I finally couldn’t take the tension. “And then what?” I asked.

Barrett smirked – not too much, but just enough o display a flash of even white teeth. “I was curious, sure, but mostly I was just bored. So, I got a ticket to check out the auction. But then I started thinking. I knew how much the stone was worth; I knew the sort of people who worked at auctions, on a firsthand basis; why shouldn’t I be the one to steal it?”

You hit an auction for your first job?” I asked in a hushed voice. I’d tackled a few of those during my career, but only after considerable prep work.

Correction,” Barrett said, “I hit a hotel room. The person charged with delivering the stone was staying on the third floor of a building in that city, and it wasn’t very hard to get the room next to him. Shimmying across from my window to his was a little bit harder, but nothing too complicated. And he really wasn’t taking even the most basic security procedures. For God’s sake, the man was a smoker and he actually left his window open when he went out for drinks.”

Then what?”

Well, after I had the stone in my possession, I realized that I already knew the type of people who’d be able to turn it into money. I’d worked with some shady providers professionally, so I reached out to them and…well, the rest is history. The money was great, obviously, but you know what really got me hooked?”

The thrill,” I said.

Exactly.” Barrett’s broad smile stretched from one ear to the other. “I knew you’d understand.”

It hadn’t been the thrill for me. Not at first. I’d started out on my journey as a sort of digital Robin Hood, taking money from people who claimed to be interested in the greater good, but were really more concerned with lining their CEO’s pockets. I met most of those people at various galas and balls, organized by my parents, and I knew exactly how they worked. They weren’t very subtle about it. Some even bragged about how successful their marketing campaigns were at convincing people that their hard-earned dollars would be spent on, for instance, cancer research. It was a point of pride.

I spent months researching the network of my first target. Most of what I knew about computers, at that point, had come from elective college courses and YouTube tutorials. With that scant base of knowledge and a need to do something, I had eventually worked myself into enough of a frenzy to attempt an intrusion on the rudimentary network of a local charity. While they’d proudly proclaimed that a portion of all proceeds went towards the SPCA, the CEO and CFO neglected to mention that the ‘portion’ amounted to a little over five cents to the dollar. I adjusted that to fifty percent and, after a few fraught days waiting for the police to come knocking at my door, all the way up to one hundred percent.

By the time the executives got around to actually checking their accounts, the damage had been done. Too much of their money had gone to the actual cause they claimed to support for them to walk it back. They were forced to publicly commit themselves to the arrangement I’d created. And, for my part, I was hooked. From one small charity to another, then eventually up to larger benefits and galas, I honed my talents and began seeking out larger targets. One of those targets had been the benefit when I’d met Devlin and, after that, it was off to the races.

Alright,” I said. “You get two. I recommend making them count.”

What were you doing in the Sovereign?”

Again, I thought about taking another shot to dodge the question. My mouth moved without my permission, though, to answer him. “Looking for information,” I said.

This isn’t a follow-up, I’m just curious; what kind of information?”

I really don’t know. It was an…assignment. Someone wanted us to steal information for them, but we didn’t actually know what it was they were after.”

And that was with your…I’ve got to be honest here, I’m not really sure who does what in your team.” Barrett emptied his glass again which, for some reason, prompted me to do the same. He poured more bourbon for both of us before continuing. “Your bodyguard is obvious; she made that much perfectly clear when she threatened to break various bones in my body. And then there’s your fake husband. He’s the grifter, maybe?”

Maybe,” I said. “It’s tricky.”

Sure, I’ve picked up on that much. But then there’s the guy you were with at the Sovereign. I thought he was just someone you hired for on-site expertise, but now he’s here with you in Texas, so…”

Is that your second question?”

You know what? Yes, it is. Who exactly is he?”

A specialist.”

Barrett flicked a dismissive hand at my assertion. “Right, obviously, but what is he to your whole thing? Considering how much effort you have to put in to make sure that your real identity doesn’t end up advertised throughout the Underworld, I can’t imagine you work with the same people long enough for any of them to find out the truth.”

I took another shot. The bottle’s contents were rapidly dwindling down to the dregs.

It’s that serious?” Barrett asked.

It’s more complicated than I want to get into right now,” I said.

Right now?”

Or ever. Can we talk about something else?”

Sure. It’s your turn for a question, anyway.”

I took a moment to compose myself. Barrett didn’t know the emotional complications between Devlin and me. As far as he knew, he’d only asked a question about another man in my orbit, because that man might get in the way of his ultimate goal. It wasn’t his fault. He hadn’t done it on purpose.

But now I couldn’t stop thinking about his question, answering it in a thousand different ways in my head. Who was Devlin to me? My ex-partner, of course. He was my partner now, too, since I considered us all a team. But he and I were both old hands at thievery, while Michel and Mila were relative newbies. That cast us as the experts, the experienced leaders…the mother and father?

No, that was too much. Or was it? We flirted with each other just like we once had. The familiar rhythms were so easy to fall into. Before he’d dropped back into my life six months ago, it had been years since we’d seen each other. Yet, here we were, right back where we’d been before and it felt…right? Normal? There was too much going on in my mind to nail down any one answer.

What made the whole process even more difficult was the uncertainty. I didn’t know what I thought, let alone what ideas were going through Devlin’s mind. Was he still replaying the final, brutal conversation we’d had when I’d ended our relationship? I could still remember the moments right after I’d yelled at him, immediately regretting what I’d said but not knowing how to take it back.

Other than your ex-partner,” I asked, “is there anyone else in your life? Anyone permanent, I mean.”

Barrett shook his head. “Of course not. I’m hardly ever in the same town for more than a week, present circumstances notwithstanding.”

No family?” I pressed. “No friends?”

I’ve got contacts,” Barrett said. “But, no, nothing I’m welded to. My parents and I made a mutual decision to go our separate ways a long time ago and I’m an only child. I made the mistake of working with someone else on a long-term basis once and you can see how well that worked out.”

Doesn’t that get lonely?”

Barrett’s fingers drummed out an irregular rhythm on the tabletop, seemingly on their own. When he spoke, his voice took on an almost wistful, contemplative quality. “I don’t know that I’d call it lonely. I don’t like being tied down, that’s all. And it’s not like anyone else could even begin to understand what this life is like.”

Anyone, I thought, except for someone else in the trenches.

That was three questions,” Barrett said. His tone was back to its usual playful, cocky cadences, as if that swagger had never left. “Four, if I want to be really technical.”

Ask your three questions, then.”

Actually, I’ve only got one.” He reached out, took the bottle by the neck, and emptied in a single pull. “About fifteen minutes away, there’s a delightful little place where I happen to be staying right now. Seeing as this place is just about to close, I was thinking that we could get some bourbon to go and finish this conversation in more…comfortable surroundings.”

His accompanying wink couldn’t have been less necessary. Since laying eyes on me at the Sovereign, Barrett had been perfectly clear about his desires. Our question and answer session so far had reinforced that belief. He was a deliberately untethered man, content to drift from city to city without forming any connection. What he offered, then, wasn’t anything deeper than what it looked like on the surface: mindless, meaningless distraction.

Barrett let the unasked question linger in the air. I watched his cool, confident expression for several seconds before my eyes involuntarily traveled to the muscles of his shoulders and arms. His posture exposed just a little more of his midsection, flat and defined above the waistline of his low-slung jeans. It was an elaborately staged act, a pose designed to catch the eye, and it was working. It had been so long.

So?” Barrett finally asked, when he saw something change in my eyes. He knew what I was going to say, just like I did.

I’ve got work to do in the morning,” I said. A part of me rejoiced at making the right choice while the other assorted bits howled at my stupidity. “Can’t do that if I’m hung over.”

Barrett relaxed slightly…or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that he shifted. He settled into his seat a little more, eased up on the unseen pressure he caused with his attention, and his gaze flickered momentarily towards the exit. To the untrained eye, the subtle change in readiness might have gone unnoticed. My eyes were not untrained and, for the duration of our drinks, I’d been focused on Barrett’s swagger and style.

Which he damn well knew. He wasn’t trying to be subtle; he wanted me to know that he was content to wait, even if his intentions hadn’t changed in the slightest.

Maybe we can do this again,” Barrett said.

Maybe,” I said. “Next time, don’t drink all of the bourbon yourself.”

That sounds an awful lot like a date,” he said. He kept his tone light and airy, but made no effort to disguise the very real undercurrent of heat.

Something stopped me from outright rebuking him. I got up from the table just before he did the same and allowed him to escort me outside. It only took a moment to hail a cab. When the car eased to a stop in front of the curb, Barrett stepped in front of me to open the door.

After you.”

I favored him with a polite smile. Anything more than that might have betrayed my confusion and uncertainty.

Until next time,” Barrett said. He took my hand through the window and brushed his lips lightly against it. He held my hand just a second or two longer than necessary, though, and I found that I couldn’t figure out anything to say that might stop him. He released me from his grip before I located the words, but not from his eyes. Those stayed fixed on me.

Maybe.” I knew, as he did, that I was going to see him again. I just wasn’t ready to say that out loud yet.

I gave the driver an address – not the hotel where Virginia, Devlin, and the rest of my team were staying, but somewhere close enough that I could walk the rest of the distance – and he nodded in comprehension. I waited until the taxi was entering the sparse early morning traffic before I looked back, through the rear window. Barrett just stood there, in front of the bar, with an inscrutable expression on his face. He didn’t move from that spot until we were too far away for me to see him anymore.

I slouched into the backseat and ran my hands through my hair in frustration. Or was it irritation? Confusion?

Definitely that last one. I stared down at the back of my hand, where Barrett’s lips had been, for entirely too long before I sighed and turned to stare out of the window.

Oh, Sarah,” I said to myself, “what the hell are you doing?”

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Chapter 114

I didn’t change into anything fancier before leaving the hotel. With the exception of a brief refresher on my makeup, I decided to go meet with Barrett as I was. The jeans weren’t bad and I happened to like the design on my t-shirt. I used a hair tie to gather most of my hair back into a loose ponytail, slipped some self-defense trinkets into my pocket, and made my way downstairs. The concierge happily arranged for a cab and, before too much time had passed, I stepped out of the car at my destination.

For someone who claimed to know little about the area, Barrett seemed to have an inexhaustible wealth of knowledge about Dallas’ dining and alcoholic establishments. The bar he’d selected was maybe a step or two away from being a full-on dive. Two men were engaged in what sounded like a lover’s quarrel on the curb in front of the bar, alternately pushing and pawing at each other. They glanced up at me before visibly dismissing me and returning to their fight.

I didn’t see any bouncer guarding the entrance, which I appreciated. I had identification, of course – multiple cards, in strict point of fact – but it was always a hassle remembering which ones had been used where. If I accidentally showed one that was supposed to be on the other side of the planet, for instance, I’d lose an entire identity to a simple slip-up. Under normal circumstances, that was an irritating setback. With my network locked down, and the ability to create new identities as necessary sealed away, I wanted to hold onto everything I possibly could.

Stepping through a cloud of smoke that lingered in the open doorway, I immediately spotted Barrett lounging at an empty table in the far corner of the room. He used one hand to scroll through his phone, idly pressing the screen with a thumb at random intervals; the other hand held a glass filled with dark brown liquor. I made my way through the thinning crowd of patrons. Before I reached him, Barrett happened to look up and spotted me.

Honestly,” he said, “I didn’t think you were actually going to come out.”

Why not?” There wasn’t a good place to sit that wouldn’t expose my back to the entrance, except for the seat directly next to him. I moved that chair a few inches away before I sat down. “It’s too late for me to go to the store.”

You’re a Ford,” Barrett said. He lowered his voice slightly so that the whole bar didn’t hear him, even though I doubted the bar’s patrons would connect me with my glamorous family or even care if they managed to spot the resemblance. “Someone would have opened up their store to accommodate you.”

And the hotel’s bar would likely have opened its stash as well, if I asked nicely. I just hated using my family’s name like that when it wasn’t explicitly necessary. Barrett didn’t need to know all of that, though.

Maybe I just wanted to get some fresh air,” I said.

You could’ve gone for a walk,” Barrett replied. “Or asked your driver friend to take you on a Dallas tour.”

Well, maybe I just enjoy surprising people.” There was a little heat in my voice that I hadn’t deliberately put there. I took a deep breath. “If you’re going to be weird about it, I can always go to some other bar.”

No one said that.” Barrett raised both of his hands in mock surrender. “I’m just trying to figure you out, is all.”

I’m not hard to figure out.” It was such a blatant, bold-faced lie that I couldn’t believe I managed to say it without bursting into laughter halfway through.

Barrett grinned and shook his head. “If there’s a person alive – yourself included – who fully understands everything you’re thinking, then I’ll hang up my menacing turtlenecks and go legit.”

What makes you think you’re going to be the one to decipher me, then?”

I don’t think I’ll be the one,” he said. “I’m just hoping.”

Banter was good. I’d always enjoyed a good bout of verbal fencing. Before I’d become a full-time thief, back when I was just a bored heiress and a piss-poor socialite, I’d tried in vain to draw any of my suitors into an battle of wits. The ones who weren’t stupid people born lucky were generally so convinced of their own superiority that it took hours before they realized I wasn’t fawning over them. Devlin had –

I stopped myself from following that train of thought any further. I was out for a reason and that reason was not to overanalyze my…whatever…with Devlin.

Can a girl get a drink?” I asked, vamping just a bit for fun.

Barrett pushed away from the table, stood up, and then gave me a deep mocking bow. “Whatever the lady prefers.”

I shuddered. “Don’t call me that,” I said. “You know what my name is.”

Barrett blinked, caught off-guard by how I’d reacted to his gallantry, but he recovered an instant later. “Of course, Sarah. But I still need to know what you want to drink, or else I’m going to up there trying to make an educated guess for the rest of the night.”

Whatever you’re having,” I said. “I’m not picky.”

From the coloring of the liquid, I expected whiskey. It wasn’t my favorite, but I’d had plenty of opportunity to get accustomed to that particular liquor. Barrett surprised me by ordering a bourbon from the waiter instead.

Leave the bottle,” he said, before the twenty-something could get away.

We don’t really do that,” the boy said.

Barrett held up an empty hand, performed an impressive pass between his tow hands, and produced a hundred dollar bill. “Think you might be able to make an exception? I won’t tell if you don’t.”

The boy looked around at the crowd. A few wastrels lingered at the bar, far too consumed with contemplating the secrets of their own navels to worry about what anyone else in the bar was doing. The few people who seemed somewhat alert were focused on a darts game, a card game, and something chuckle-worthy on a phone, respectively.

I’ll see what I can do,” the boy said finally. He made his escape before Barrett could produce anything else to persuade him.

Does that normally work for you?” I asked, when it was just the two of us again.

Flagrant irresponsibility with money?” Barrett shrugged. “Sometimes. I don’t often find myself having drinks with a legitimate heiress, though, so I’m on uncharted territory here.”

I’m not an heiress,” I said. “You must be thinking of my sister.”

He reclined, sprawling out in the chair in a position that raised his shirt just enough for me to see the muscles hidden beneath. I knew he’d done it on purpose, but that didn’t make it any less effective.

I cleared my throat, more for my benefit than his, and forced myself to look away from the exposed skin. “Anyway. That’s not what I meant. Does that card trick normally woo the ladies?”

Barrett feigned a wounded expression. “I can’t imagine what you’re talking about, Sarah.” He held up an empty hand, performed another trick, and a single rose appeared in his hand.

I rolled my eyes as hard as I could manage without risking permanent injury. Sleight of hands – card tricks, passes, disappearances, and reappearances – weren’t skills I possessed, but they were things I’d grown incredibly familiar with. During the downtime between jobs, I’d been more or less forced to acquaint myself with the particulars of more tricks than most people had ever heard of and to contrive ways in which those tricks might be used.

You’ll have to try harder than that,” I said, plucking the fabric flower from his fingers.

So that means there is a chance?”

My cheeks immediately grew warm. The waiter returned with a half-full bottle of bourbon, just in time to stop me from responding to Barrett’s question. While he poured drinks for the both of us, I asked myself for the millionth time why I was even at the bar. In the moment, frustrated with Devlin, a nightcap had seemed like a good idea. But now, in person, I couldn’t think of a more confusing place to have put myself.

Barrett was attractive. That much was undeniable. It wasn’t just his physique, although he was admittedly gorgeous. There was just something alluring about his confidence. He was a man who knew what he wanted, instantly, and didn’t waste any time pretending otherwise. He scaled buildings in pursuit of rare gems or baubles, after all. Dedicating the time and energy to working his way into my good graces was a far less intimidating prospect.

Where’d you go?” I asked him. “After dinner, I mean.”

Nowhere in particular. I’m staying in a lovely rental property, so I went back there to change into something comfortable. Then, I just sort of scrolled through the latest items going up for auction around the globe to pass the time.”

See anything you liked?”

He caught my eyes with his. The intensity of the gaze practically smoldered and I looked away first.

Yeah,” Barrett said. “You could say that.”

I took a slow sip from my bourbon. The dive bar realistically didn’t stock anything high end and bourbon wasn’t my drink, anyway. Nonetheless, the burning sensation in my throat wasn’t an unpleasant one. I took another one, then a third.

Everything alright?” Barrett’s concern didn’t sound entirely genuine.

Personal issues,” I said. “Don’t worry about it.”

He nodded sagely, as if I’d said something profound. “So, you get to know all about my personal drama with my ex-partner, but I don’t get to hear anything about you and yours? Seems unfair.”

I don’t have an ex-partner,” I said. The liquor was growing on me, so I took another sip. “Everyone I’m working with now are people I’ve been working with for a while.”

But not the same way,” Barrett said. “Tell me if I’m wrong, but there’s something wrong in your whole team dynamic thing, isn’t there? Otherwise, you wouldn’t be here now.”

I wasn’t about to talk to Barrett about my confusion regarding Devlin, come hell or high water. I wasn’t even tempted to discuss the matter, even if a third party might be the perspective I needed.

I don’t have any ex partners,” I repeated.

So you guys are just a team?” Barrett asked. “A bodyguard, a thief, and…whatever your fake husband is supposed to be…and you expect me to believe that you’re all thrilled about being thrown together?”

Believe whatever you want,” I said. “But it is what it is.”

I expected him to recoil slightly from that rebuke. He surprised me by accepting what I’d said with a little nod. “Fair enough,” he said. “Sorry if I said something to upset you.”

You? Sorry?”

I’m not always insouciant and charming.” Barrett winked at me. “Sometimes, I’m charming, insouciant, and apologetic.”

Fine,” I said. “Apology accepted. For now.”

I’ll take it.” Barrett sipped at his bourbon in silent thought for a few seconds. “So, trying to figure out what brought you out of the hotel tonight is off-limits. Any other other topics I should avoid, for future reference?”

Even before he’d asked the question, I’d already begun compiling a list. The Devlin situation wasn’t something I even wanted to deal with in the privacy of my own mind, let alone with a near-stranger. Obviously, I wouldn’t discuss Mila’s sexuality or lack thereof, but Barrett wasn’t likely to ask a question about that to begin with. And my family was out of bounds; not just because I didn’t want him getting any closer to my civilian life, but also because I didn’t really know much about them anymore. Virginia was dating a much younger man, Elizabeth was approaching problematic territory with her drinking, and Raymond was flirting with the idea of getting more involved with the government for business.

You’re a bright guy,” I said. “I’m pretty sure you can figure it out through context clues.”

How about this then?” Barrett refilled my glass and his, then set the bottle in the center of the table. “Let’s play a game to get to know each other.”

What game?”

I would say truth or dare, but what dare could I possibly come up with?” He gestured at the bottle with two fingers. “So, truth or drink. We take turns asking questions. If you don’t want to answer, take a drink.”

If I hadn’t left the hotel specifically for alcohol, I might have left the table right then. But something kept me from getting to my feet. I still didn’t know very much about Barrett, except for his occupation and the threat presented by his former partner, and this was an opportunity to gain information. The fact that said information would necessitate the consumption of potentially large amounts of liquor was merely an added incentive.

And if I don’t want to answer a question and I don’t want to drink?” I asked.

Then don’t.” Barrett shrugged. “No one’s forcing your hand. It’s just something to pass the time.”

And if I lie?”

Barrett’s eyes twinkled with something mischievous. “I’m pretty good at spotting lies. But if you can get away with, by all means.”

It took me less than ten seconds to decide. “What’s keeping you in town, honestly? You could leave if you wanted to.”

I could try,” Barrett corrected, “but there’s no way to know for sure if I’d be successful. If my partner’s hired hitmen are already taking shots at me on the street in broad daylight, there’s no telling what they might do in an airport.”

Worried about collateral damage?”

A bit,” he said. “But also, I’m thinking that I wouldn’t be able to spot a tail in a crowd full of people. So it’s easier for everyone if I stay in town and figure a way out from under this particular guillotine.”

What’re you hoping will happen?” I asked. “It’s not like anything we do here is going to convince your former partner to drop his vendetta.”

That,” Barrett said, “is your third question. I was willing to give you an extra one for clarification, but you’re not going to get a third without giving me a chance to pick your brain.”

I downed a healthy amount of bourbon and batted my eyelashes at Barrett.

I’ll take that as permission,” he said. “So…I need a good question that you’re actually going to answer, instead of something you’ll just drink to avoid. Hmm.”

If you’re going to take forever, I’m going to think you’re just stalling for time.”

Stalling, hesitating so that you’ll spend more time out with me instead of running back to your team…six of one, half a dozen of the other.” He smiled and, almost without thought, I smiled back. “Alright, here’s one. Why did you really come out tonight?”

Several trite answers immediately came to mind. I almost spoke them out loud, but I caught myself before I could breath to the half-truths. More than he could possibly know, Barrett had hit on the question I also wanted to answer. Had I decided to meet him out on a whim? Had it been a subconscious pursuit of answers? Or was his cavalier attitude working its way deeper under my skin than I’d previously realized.

Barrett watched me, waiting patiently for an answer. I searched myself for something to say and, eventually, one of the competing voices in my head grew louder than the others.

I looked at him over the lip of my glass, meeting his steady gaze, and tried to ignore the warmth spreading through my body that had nothing to do with the bourbon. “Curiosity,” I said.

His smile turned devilish in an instant. “Good answer,” he said. “Maybe the best answer.”

I silently agreed with that. I just wasn’t sure who it was the ‘best’ for.

Chapter 113

We had seven days to plan, more or less. I wanted to be done with this distraction quickly, rather than allow more precious time to slip away, but it would have been foolhardy to rush forward without a concrete idea of how we might manage to escape from a trap we hadn’t yet triggered. So, we left Max with Akumi and the Texan, retrieved CJ, then retreated back to the hotel for further deliberations. When we got there, CJ excused himself to find my grandmother and the rest of us headed up to my room, the de facto command center of this operation.

Mila stood by the door, more or less leaning against the wall, within reach of a nightstand where she’d placed her weapon. Michel took a chair and angled it so that he could see everyone if he turned slightly in a given direction. I sat on the bed and Devlin lounged on a couch across from me. He wasn’t quite avoiding my eyes, but I picked up a sense of hesitation from him.

I won’t bother asking if you’re sure about this,” Mila said to Devlin. She reached one hand out to the side and, a moment later, a ball of soft, white fluff leaped up and positioned himself to receive ear scratches. “But, just so you know, I can’t be in two places at once. If I’m working from the outside, that means you’ll be facing down the kidnappers by yourself.”

Not by myself,” Devlin said. “They’re already expecting Akumi, after all. She’s good at what she does, right?”

Mila hesitated. “Yes and no,” she said finally.

I’m listening.”

Akumi can play bodyguard, but that isn’t what she…I guess specialize is the best word. It isn’t what she specializes in.”

What is her specialty, then?” I asked.

She’s a fighter,” Mila said. “The protection thing is mostly incidental; left alone, she’s far better suited to be the one who’s doing the attacking, so long as she doesn’t have to worry about collateral damage. There’s some overlap between what I do and what she does, but in a dangerous situation…”

So, try not to get in a fight?” Devlin asked

If a fight breaks out, it won’t have much to do with you,” Mila said. “But yes. Try to avoid confrontation. Get out of the way or hide. If you absolutely have to, hit fast and dirty. You’ll want to be somewhere other than ground zero if Akumi decides to go to work.”

I couldn’t – or, more accurately, didn’t want to – understand the way Mila was talking about Akumi. It wasn’t as though our usual bodyguard and teammate was averse to violence.

What happens if he can’t get out of the way fast enough?” I asked.

It depends on what she takes into the aquarium with her,” Mila said. “In general, though?”

She’s not there to save my life,” Devlin guessed. “Akumi will do whatever she wants to whomever she wants if she thinks it’ll get her brother back.”

And,” Mila added, “if she thinks you’re slowing her down when we’re making our escape, she’s going to start thinking of you as an obstacle and not a useful ally.”

I’m only useful as long as I’m serving as bait,” Devlin said. “That’s…heartening.”

You’re the one who volunteered,” Mila said.

Are we sure that there is no other way?” Michel asked.

Devlin shook his head. “None that I can think of. If you’ve got an idea, though, by all means.”

I do not, but…I cannot help but think this is a bad idea.”

It’s a terrible one, obviously. But, honestly, when was the last time we made had any objectively good options?”

While the sentence was phrased bitterly, Devlin kept his tone light enough that we all knew he was being sarcastic. I preferred it when he was taking the unexpected jabs of our lifestyle with a little humor. The darker, frustrated Devlin that I’d glimpsed at the theater was distincty different than his usual personality or even the icy focused version he became when things got tough on the job. He wasn’t one I knew very well. He was not, in fact, one I knew at all.

Mila rolled her eyes at Devlin’s flippant attitude. “Doesn’t mean we can’t do something to increase the odds of success or, barring that, survival.”

Devlin groaned. “Are you saying what I think you’re saying?”

She nodded. “We’ve got some time before the exchange, so we’re going to go through some more self defense training. As much as we can fit in before the deadline without crippling you.”

Why bother trying to outwit the kidnappers if you’re just going to torture me for free?”

Mila showed him her teeth. “We both know that I get paid very well to torture you.”

He sighed, but didn’t argue the point any further. I took the opportunity to bring up a question I’d been ruminating over during the ride back to the hotel.

So,” I said, “here’s something we still have to figure out. What exactly does outwitting the kidnappers even mean? What’s our victory condition?”

The room was quiet for about a minute while we each individually thought. Our grand, overarching mission with regards to the Magi was so large that it was easy to lose sight of it in the relatively smaller jobs we undertook in pursuit of the ultimate score. That worked fine when we had distinct enemies or targets to work against, but it wasn’t a winning mindset when the field kept shifting beneath our feet.

We get Kira back from the kidnappers,” Devlin said. “If we don’t do that, then we’re going to have problems with Akumi.”

The Texan’s stolen data would be useful, too,” I added.

They will not bring that to the aquarium,” Michel said.

No, but they might have already digitized and uploaded what they stole. If it’s in some sort of shared storage, Max and I can figure out a way to access it. Even if they didn’t, Kira might have some idea where they were keeping him. The kidnappers certainly would.”

So you want me to take one of them hostage?” Mila paused, mid-scratch, and Sam meowed in protest. “That makes it harder. If I incapacitate someone and they manage to free themselves, everything would come crashing down fast.”

It’s not a top priority,” I said. “Just one worth thinking about it. Add it to the figurative board. What else?”

Devlin raised a hand. “We all think these guys are working for the Magi, right?”

A round of nods went around the room.

This does feel like their style,” I said. “Using pawns to enact their will without getting directly involved themselves. Providing viable alternatives to diffuse attention. Why?”

I don’t know,” he said. “It just feels like…like they wouldn’t want to risk someone going off-script right now. We don’t know how big they are, so we can’t do how much damage we’ve done relatively, but they can’t be taking those financial losses without feeling it somewhere. What if they’re taking a more active hand in things?”

I didn’t believe it, personally, but I couldn’t just dismiss it. There had been criminal outfits and organizations that ran more or less on their own during our travels. The Magi didn’t need to goad warlords into doing warlord things; the Yakuza and the Triad had been running high end casinos since time out of mind.

Does that change anything for us, logistically speaking?” I asked.

I guess not,” Devlin said. “It’s not like the Magi are going to be playing field commander with the hired help. But, if there’s a possibility that we might be able to find a money trail…”

It was a slim chance, and we both knew it. The Magi paid for services through an endless list of shell companies and cutouts. Underworld financiers and bankers handled their money and saw to it that the path each payment took was borderline untraceable for a mere mortal. There were probably legitimate people who’d touched the Magi’s cash, in one form or another. Although…although it was true that we’d disrupted the Magi’s bottom line more than once. It was possible that, while they were dealing with proven saboteurs such as us, they didn’t want to risk any preventable errors.

That’s an impossibly slim likelihood,” I said, “but we can add it to the list.”

I mean, we have to get lucky sooner or later, don’t we?”

Mila’s eyes flickered in Michel’s direction, but she stopped herself from fully committing to the look. I just barely noticed it in the corner of my eye, but Michel himself didn’t notice anything.

Rescue Kira,” I said, a little louder than necessary. I didn’t want Devlin to say anything about Mila’s strange look, because he’d almost certainly seen it as well. “Capture one of the kidnappers, alive, so that we can figure out where they stashed the Texan’s information. Look for some kind of a money trail that might give us something else to work with.”

Is there anything else?” Michel asked.

No one had any more suggestions to offer. Without anything else pressing to discuss, Mila said that she still had preparations to make and left the room. Michel, after a moment of confused silence, exited as well.

Something’s going on with those two,” Devlin said, as soon as the door closed in Michel’s wake. “Are you seeing it too?”

It’s a complicated situation,” I said. Mila hadn’t sworn me to secrecy, but she had asked me. I wasn’t going to break her trust.

Devlin shrugged one shoulder. “If you say so. I don’t see what’s so complicated about it, though. He’s obviously into her and she’s…into him, for whatever that means to her. Boom, not complicated. It might not be easy, but it’s not confusing.”

Sure,” I said, “okay. That’s exactly how it works for everyone, all of the time.”

I just barely kept myself from adding: “That’s not even how it works for us.”

Devlin must have plucked my stray thought from the air, because his shoulders drew together and his voice became more brittle. “No,” he said, “I guess it isn’t.”

My first instinct was to stay silent and wait for the moment to pass. That’s what we’d been doing for a while now. Something would brush up against the specifics of our relationship and the very air around us became tense. We’d been on the verge of an argument in Atlanta, when I’d been forced to fake a marriage with Michel instead of him. That near-explosion had grown more imminent when my parents assumed that Barrett was my husband. But, even though we both had to know that our silence wasn’t sustainable, a part of me really wanted to try and sustain it just a little bit longer.

But then I thought about the look Michel hadn’t noticed. Mila was struggling with her own emotions, her sexuality, and God only knew what else. She was trying to do all of that internally and, even though she was uniquely suited to draw a bright red line between her feelings and the job, it was clearly weighing on her. My relationship with Devlin was completely different from the situation between her and Michel, except that neither she nor I was being proactive.

I silenced that first instinct and took a deep breath. “Alright, Dev. We’ve got to talk about this.”

Talk about what?”

This.” I put one hand to my chest and extended the other towards his. “You know what I mean.”

He sighed. “We really don’t,” he said.

I don’t want to do this either, believe me, but…it’s a thing.” Internally, I abruptly realized that I was entirely too sober for this talk. It was too late to go to a liquor store, though, and there wasn’t anything alcoholic in the room, except for the tiny bottles in the fridge.

Look,” Devlin said. “We worked together for a long time, even before things got more…serious. And this is just reminding me of those times.”

This specific job?” I asked.

He shook his head.

I felt the same, even if I couldn’t bring myself to say it out loud. There was a familiar ease that came with working so closely with Devlin again. It wasn’t just his undeniable talent, although that certainly played a factor. It was his sense of humor and the way he effortlessly made people around him better; his genuine good heart, choice of occupation notwithstanding; and his sincerity. Time and distance had a way of dulling those memories, but we’d been working together in close quarters for months now and those old feelings had never been very far from the surface.

I still remembered what he’d done. There was still pain and hurt, but it was now mixed up with so many other emotions that I wasn’t sure what I felt. All I was certain about was that I’d been noticing him a lot more lately, both in the physical and emotional sense. And I was fairly sure that I’d noticed him noticing me.

Six months,” I said, just to break the silence. “It’s been six months.”

Devlin only nodded, instead of saying anything.

You…it isn’t…” I stopped and took another deep breath before trying again. “It isn’t just you, Dev. It’s just that…”

I trailed off, unsure of how to finish that sentence.

It’s just that what?” Devlin asked. A glimmer of something warm came to life in his eyes.

I’m not a machine,” I said. “Of course I still have…feelings…for you. And spending so much time together is just making everything more…more…”

Devlin stepped forward and took one of my hands. He squeezed it, just like I’d done to him at the theater, but there was much more in that pressure than simple affirmation. I looked down at our clasped hands. More words – conciliatory, romantic, confident, and insecure – came to mind but my throat was too dry for me to speak any of them.

I realized that I’d been looking at Devlin’s lips for several seconds. Unconsciously, I licked my own. If he tried to kiss me, I knew that I wouldn’t stop him. It was a terrible idea that would probably lead to more problems than we needed right now…but I wouldn’t stop him.

He let go of my hand, but didn’t retreat an inch. We were close enough to feel each other’s body heat. His presence didn’t overwhelm me, so much as it enveloped me. The years disappeared in an instant, wiped away by the flood of bittersweet emotion that I couldn’t control or contain.

You…” Devlin swallowed hard. “You’re right. It’s just…familiar.”

That wasn’t what I’d meant. How could he possibly have misread those signals? Devlin was a master at reading people and I couldn’t have tried to be more readable. The only reason I could think of was that he wasn’t misunderstanding my intentions by accident, but by design. Our breakup hadn’t been polite and I knew I’d said more than a few things I would’ve liked to take back. That, in addition to everything else we’d dredged up since returning to the States…it would have been a lot for any relationship to handle, least of all one dealing with other, far more serious threats than interpersonal drama.

Devlin left my personal bubble and started backpedaling towards the door. “I’m sorry, Sarah, I didn’t…I shouldn’t have said anything.”

No,” I said, “that’s not what I meant. It’s just that -”

He was gone before I could finish the sentence.

I stood there, struggling with a mixture of feelings. If he’d outright rejected me, that would’ve been one thing. I could have dealt with that. Eventually. Maybe. But Devlin had retreated without addressing the obvious tension between us, which left me without any idea how I should proceed. Did he want me to chase him down and force the confrontation? Or did he want time to himself, to sort through whatever internal turmoil he was going through?

My instincts weren’t suited for that type of work. I heaved a sigh as I walked over to the mini fridge and withdrew a few of the tiny bottles. Full-scale inebriation would be a bad idea, but a buzz to take the edge off and distract me from my problems wouldn’t be out of order.

I downed one of the mini-bottles in a single gulp and started to unscrew another, when my phone vibrated. I checked the time – 11:37 PM – before I looked at the message.

Barrett: Just realized that you didn’t get a chance to enjoy an after-dinner drink.

While that wasn’t true, the stress of the evening had long since burned through any pleasant lingering drunkenness. I was in the process of texting that back, along with a sharp rebuke for his disappearing act, when he wrote again.

Barrett: Thought you might look to join me out for one. If you’re still awake, that is.

I stopped, mid-text. Barrett hadn’t bothered with subtlety in the entire time we’d been forced together. The invitation was undoubtedly yet another attempt to get close to me. But I found that I appreciated motivations which required no decryption or struggle to understand. At least I knew what he wanted.

It didn’t take me long to come to a decision. I left the small bottle of liquor on top of the fridge and, after a brief struggle against some nameless and shapeless reluctance, wrote back to Barrett.

What did you have in mind?

Chapter 112

You did what?” Max leaped to her feet and balled one hand into a tight fist.

In response, Akumi raised an eyebrow. “What else did you think I would do? Leave them with my brother?”

Akumi,” Mila said in a low voice. “You know I’m not going to let you leave this theater with my people.”

You would try to stop me,” Akumi replied. “But I do not think you will do that.”

She was too calm. She’d phoned our enemies after hearing, explicitly, that any deal they offered was never going to be honored. And she’d revealed that betrayal without batting an eye, when it would have been far easier for her to ambush one of us before we knew anything was wrong.

Let her talk,” I said. “I think she’s got a plan.”

Akumi nodded at me. “I cannot find them on my own; you cannot find them, either. But what if we could make the kidnappers come to us?”

Didn’t you hear them?” Max asked. “They’re probably planning on taking everyone, as soon as we show up.”

I know that will be a trap,” Akumi said. “But they do not know that I know that.”

You want to deliberately spring their trap?” Devlin asked.

Akumi nodded.

Devlin took in a deep breath. “You want want us to walk, eyes wide open, into a rigged situation and hope that we can turn the tables while we’re there?”

Essentially.”

Well,” Devlin said, “that is an early frontrunner for worst idea of the night, Akumi. Here’s a tip: if you’re trying to trick someone who already knows you’re a professional trickster, things tend to go badly.”

The kidnappers will think that we will be defenseless. They will expect us to offer a trade and, when they make their move, we will be ready to counter it. That could change things.”

It could,” Devlin admitted, “but it probably won’t. I don’t know if you realize this, but most of us aren’t fighters on your level. Most of us aren’t fighters, at all. Anything the kidnappers would bring to deal with you would take us out of the picture almost immediately.”

They don’t know about me,” Mila said. “Let’s assume they know about Akumi, and have taken precautions to deal with her. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’d bring enough men to deal with a second hitter that they didn’t see coming.”

That’s a hell of an assumption to make,” Devlin pointed out. He sounded less opposed to the idea, though. “All it would take is one guard or hired thug to raise an alarm and we’d be blown.”

If they see me coming.” Mila flashed a grim smile at him. “They wouldn’t.”

Michel shifted uncomfortably in his chair. “Would they not realize if one of us was missing?”

The kidnappers don’t know who’s looking into their business here,” Devlin said. “They went after the Texan because he and Max were digging up information. And, while they aren’t completely ignorant of our activities overseas, there’s no reason to think they know specifically who we are. Or how many of us there are, for that matter.”

Is that not also an assumption?” Michel asked.

We’re in the realm of supposition and maybes,” Devlin said back. “Even the things we think are facts might still be fabrications. We’ve got to start making some educated guesses eventually.”

But a guess like that…if we are wrong, that would be the end,” Michel said.

Then we’d have to guess really well.” Devlin paused. “Sarah? Got any thoughts you’d like to add?”

Give me a second to think about it.”

I sketched out a plan in my head and critically examined it for flaws. There were so many that, after a few seconds, I switched tracks and started looking exclusively for glaring holes. I gave up on that pretty quickly, too. There were too many areas where things could fall apart that there was almost no reason to bother enumerating them.

This is a bad idea,” I said finally. “A really bad idea.”

Did you have another one?” Akumi asked.

That was the worst part. Despite the innumerable points of failure in her plan, nothing came to mind that had a better chance of success. We needed the Texan’s information. Akumi needed Kira. And we all needed to either find the kidnappers or force them out of position. They held all the cards, though. Our only hope was to hope we were better at playing this game than they were.

Alright,” I said. “Let’s think about this critically. They shot up the dock house for reasons. Either to kidnap Kira or to get their hands on a wealth of information.”

Or both,” Devin said. “Or neither.”

I waved my hand to acknowledge his point. “Fair. It ultimately doesn’t matter, though. The important thing is that they were loud about it. No subtlety, no technique. Just overwhelming force directed against an unsuspecting target.’

Meaning?” Michel asked.

Meaning that they aren’t skilled at subterfuge and delicacy. Or they prefer not to work that way,” Devlin said.

I bit down on my bottom lip. “If anything, I think they’re probably going to go with the simplest, most brute force method imaginable.”

Hired help, probably from out of town, whose sole purpose is to black-bag everyone and get out of Dallas.” Devlin paused. “Actually, no. That doesn’t make sense either. The kidnappers didn’t kill Kira because they wanted to use him as incentive for Akumi, right?”

Right…”

And they wanted Akumi, so that they could use her to grab our friendly information dealer, potentially Max, and anyone else who was showing interest in their operations, right?”

I gestured for him to wrap it up.

What if there’s someone else out there who they’d want to get their hands on?”

Oh. That was definitely a point worth considering. The Magi were playing defense, preemptively eliminating anyone who threatened to reveal their existence. Grabbing the Texan and Max would accomplish that. But we already knew about them and had been assaulting them for months in various ways. They wouldn’t want to kill us; they’d want to question us.

If they had any inkling of the Lady’s guiding hand, however, I imagined that the Magi’s questioning would be both enthusiastic and inventive.

So we definitely don’t want to get captured,” I said out loud, “but at least we can assume they won’t kill us immediately, either.”

If they’re not using lethal force,” Mila said, “that would make my job a lot easier.”

Let’s not assume they’re incapable of just shooting someone,” Devlin said. “Just that they’re unlikely to. If you start hitting them from ambush, someone could get trigger happy, no matter what the official orders are.”

Does that mean you won’t throw a fit if I have to get rough with anyone in my way?” Mila asked.

While Devlin hesitated, I cleared my throat and spoke for both of us. “After what they did at the dock house? You won’t hear any complaints from our end.”

So this is what we’re doing, then?” Devlin shook his head. “Well, actually, Akumi pretty much forced us into a corner. This is what we have to do.”

The Texan clapped his hands together twice, with enough of a space between the two claps that the sarcasm was obvious. “That was just wonderful to watch, believe me,” he said, “but did you fine people perhaps think to ask me how I felt about it?”

In the fevered rush of adrenaline, I’d forgotten that everyone in the room wasn’t necessarily going to accede to the will of the team. Max and the Texan were temporary allies in this, but they weren’t full-fledged members. They now knew more about the field of play than anyone not up to their necks in this mess and it wasn’t unreasonable to think that they might have reservations about further involvement.

You lot seem convinced that something like this is actually possible,” the Texan drawled, “like it doesn’t sound like a fools’ errand right on its face. Why exactly couldn’t we just run?”

The sense of menace radiating from Akumi went up a notch or two, without any accompanying change in her posture. “Kira was kidnapped because he was working for you. You would let him suffer in your place?”

The Texan sighed. “No, I suppose I wouldn’t. Can’t get a reputation for letting people that work for me pay the price for problems I started, after all.” He ran a finger around the rim of his hat. “And you can’t think of any other way to find out where these kidnappers are that doesn’t involve me putting my neck on the chopping block?”

Nothing comes to mind,” I said. “I’m not entirely sure – anything could happen between now and a week from now – but I don’t think we have enough data to go on. All we know is that they’re well-funded enough to afford the weaponry they used at the dock, but that could be any financier or interested party.”

In reality, that thin “lead” would lead us absolutely nowhere. I didn’t even need to do the work first. I could track down the local arms dealers, but there was no guarantee that they’d made the sales. The guns could have been smuggled from Mexico or brought in from out of state. They might have been stolen over a number of years from gun shops in the area, too. Hell, there were more than enough of those in the city. There were a dozen other ways to arm a group of hired helpers that I knew about; Mila probably knew several others that I hadn’t even considered. Trying to trace a financial transaction without a single definite point was a fruitless endeavor.

Max squeezed the Texan’s shoulder, for support and to get his attention. “Could you get some of the locals to help? There are a lot of people in town that owe you favors.”

He shook his head slowly in response. “Nah, that wouldn’t work either. I’m not about to put the people I like in harm’s way just to buy myself some time. And the people I don’t like, I can’t trust. Reaching out to them could just tell the kidnappers where I’m at.”

That was interesting. I’d suspected that the Texan didn’t have an organization in the traditional sense. But, so far, it seemed like the only two permanent employees were his daughter and himself. For his effect on the international climate, the Texan’s group was shockingly small. There were benefits to that, in theory, but he’d stripped away the most important one – mobility – by choosing to set up his base in a single city. Why had he done something so dumb?

Trust me,” Devlin said, “our options are limited.”

The Texan used his thumb to push the brim of his hat higher up on his forehead. “To what?”

Devlin locked eyes with the Texan. “A violent fight right now between Akumi and Mila over what happens to you. I don’t know who wins that one, but I’m pretty sure no one leaves happy. You’re down a bodyguard, no matter what, and you’re a sitting duck for the kidnappers when they inevitably do find you.”

Alright,” the Texan said. “What else?”

You go into this with Akumi, hoping that the kidnappers hold up their end of the bargain, which they probably won’t. So you end up in a pitched battle, on their terms, which you are going to lose. It’s not a matter of if, just when. They keep Kira, maybe they get Akumi, and they definitely get their hands on you.”

And the last choice?”

Take the offer,” I said. “Work with us to figure out a way to rig this handoff better than they do. Akumi gets her brother, you get your information back, and we get a little closer to whoever’s pulling the strings behind all of this.”

The Texan sighed, long and dramatic. But, when he spoke again, I knew what he’d say. “Alright. I’m in.”

No,” Max interjected, “you are not. Are you serious? Is this something you’re actually thinking about doing?”

Not a lot of thinking left to be done,” the Texan said. “These folks already laid it out for us. Either we do it this way, ready to deal with whatever trick the kidnappers have up their sleeves, or we wait until they catch us on the run.”

They won’t find us,” Max said.

You sure about that? Sure enough that you want to risk getting ambushed instead of at least having our guard up?”

Max didn’t immediately respond. When she did finally speak, there was an unmistakable note of legitimate fear in her voice. Not for herself, but for the Texan. “This isn’t what we do,” she said, nearly pleading. “And these kidnappers, they’re…they’re dangerous, Dad.”

I’m dangerous,” the Texan said.

Not like them, and you know it. Please, can you just take this seriously?”

I am taking it seriously!” The Texan paused, took several deep breaths to bring himself back under control, and then started over. “Max, you think I’m not taking this seriously? These people murdered a bunch of my employees just so they’d get a chance at grabbing me. They took this woman’s brother hostage as a consolation prize. And I didn’t need these two to tell me that, whatever they’ve got in mind for me, it’s sure as shit not something I’m going to like.”

Then why do this?” Max asked. “Why would you agree?”

I knew. When we’d been trying to figure out the details of the massacre at the dock house, we’d been on the wrong track. But that didn’t mean our thinking had been entirely unfounded. The Texan had figured out, in that moment, what we’d pieced together earlier: if the kidnappers couldn’t find him, they’d go after Max. By offering himself up, he might be able to negotiate for her freedom. Barring that, he could at least buy her a little time.

He had no clue about the Mouse, but we did. Even if the Texan threw himself into the gears of the Magi’s seemingly unstoppable machine, the Mouse would eventually get around to outing Max anyway unless we took him down. It could very well turn out to be a futile sacrifice, no matter how things turned out.

You don’t have to go in,” Devlin said.

My eyes snapped to him. Other heads in the room turned as well.

The kidnappers know who you are, in general,” Devlin continued. “But even if they’ve got a picture of you, they can’t know for sure what you actually look like. It’s always possible that you were just a body double hired by the real string-puller.”

Devlin…” Mila rumbled in that low, warning tone.

He raised a hand to stop her from saying anything else. “Max was right,” he said. “You two don’t do this sort of thing. We do. So if we’re going to go once more into the breach, why don’t we make sure we’re all putting our best feet forward?”

The Texan and Max exchanged a look. He was the one who asked the question. “What are you saying?”

Devlin smiled at me; I responded with a heavy sigh. He was making the smart call, all things considered, but that didn’t mean I had to like it.

He means,” I said, “that he can play your part in this. As far as the kidnappers are concerned, Devlin’s going to be you.”

Chapter 111

When everyone was as calm as they were going to be, Akumi led us all back through the theater and vestibule, up into the balcony where she’d been ambushed by Mila. There, someone had installed a very basic security system – wireless cameras one could purchase at any Best Buy or Wal-Mart, a cheap pre-built computer, and two monitors to display the images – and placed it in one corner of the space. Each screen was split into four different images and those four images rotated out every fifteen seconds or so. If my math was correct, they’d installed between twenty and twenty-four different cameras around the building in various locations. I hadn’t seen a single one on my way in.

CJ,” I said, “I know I’m asking you for a lot, but…”

You want me to watch the lobby?”

I nodded. “If you don’t mind. Mila managed to sneak in despite these cameras and I’d rather not have a repeat of that.”

He gave me a look filled with naked skepticism.

And,” I admitted, “I don’t want you hear what we’re about to talk about. Sorry for being blunt, but this is probably going to be one of those things you really don’t want to know. I don’t even want to know it.”

For a moment, it looked like he was going to put up a fight. But that moment passed soon enough. He gave me a curt nod, drew his handgun, and went back down the stairs. A second after he disappeared from sight, I heard the door to the balcony staircase click shut as well.

As soon as the rest of us were settled into chairs in front of the monitors, the Texan leaned his elbows onto his knees and narrowed his eyes. “I do my research,” he said to me. “Don’t get surprised too often. Most things in the underworld – here, London, wherever – don’t happen fast, understand? People need to get into position, bribes got to get paid, and so on.”

Alright,” I said. “Fair enough. What’s your point?”

This?” He gestured at the theater, but I understood that he meant the situation in general. “This is happening fast. It’s too fast. Everything I know I put together in bits and pieces, whispers and rumors. Soon as I get a glimpse at what might be going on behind the scene, everything changes. Hill’s entire operation in London goes ass-up, practically overnight. I don’t even know how much money just vanishes from the Chinese casinos. And so on. You get what I’m saying.”

I suspected that I knew where he was going, but I nodded and allowed him to get there on his own.

Now, I like a good whodunnit as much as the next man…so long as it doesn’t involve me and mine. That’s not the case, anymore. Someone’s coming after me, they’re coming after my people, and they’re coming after Max. That’s not going to fly, understand?”

I chose my words carefully. “All cards on the table, then? Full disclosure, all around?”

The Texan, understandably, hesitated. He turned to Max, transmitting a question to her with nothing more than his eyebrows.

Whatever’s going on, they’re neck deep in it,” Max said. “I don’t think they’re involved, but they know more than they’ve been telling anyone.”

Do you trust them?”

She shook her head. “I think she’s got skin in the game,” she said. “And I think she’ll play things straight as long as it’s in her best interest, though.”

That was surprisingly levelheaded. Insulting to my integrity, which was par for the course with Max, but she wasn’t wrong. I wasn’t on her side, so much as our sides happened to align. When the Mouse was no longer a constant, looming threat, I would love nothing so much as to never speak to Max again.

The Texan swept his eyes across the rest of my team. “And the rest of you? Got any opinion on this?”

Personally,” Devlin said, “I think that Sarah knows better than any of us what we’re going to need to deal with this. And if she thinks that we need to start sharing, then I’m going to trust that she knows what she’s doing.”

Michel nodded in solidarity. Mila said nothing but I could feel the calm reassurance coming off of her, even without words.

Akumi?” The Texan asked.

If it will get my brother back, I will tell them whatever they want to know,” she said.

I sighed. “Last chance,” I said. “What I said to my other bodyguard wasn’t a joke or something I made up. Just knowing what we’re doing here and who might have taken Kira is radioactive information.”

The Texan took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I’m already hiding out in my own city,” he said. “My people are being massacred. I’d rather know an ugly truth than live my life in the dark. What do you know?”

Each member of the team had their own version of the story; we took turns relaying what we knew about the Magi, our time in London, the running battle against Hill and Asher. By unspoken consent, we were perfectly upfront about anything relating to the Magi, their reach, and the delicate web of connections they’d established over the international criminal community; at the same time, not a single one of us breathed a word about the Lady. If it turned out that, for some utterly inexplicable reason, she had a hand in Kira’s kidnapping, I’d come clean. Until that point, we all knew that her existence was the only ace-in-the-hole left and none of us wanted to give that up.

The Texan absorbed our story, asking the occasional question when it was necessary to shore up a hole in his own knowledge. Max’s eyes grew wider and wider as we detailed some of the more complicated, dangerous heists or cons. Even Akumi sat down after a while, listening to the tale with rapt attention.

And you think,” the Texan said, when we were more or less finished, “that these Magi are responsible for what happened at the dock?”

Indirectly,” Devlin said. “But yes, essentially.”

Why me, though? Why now? I’ve been an information broker for going on three decades, in one form or another.”

You started connecting the dots,” I said. “I don’t know exactly how they do it, but there’s probably some sort of flag attached to the information you were putting together. So you must have gotten too close and they decided to just…take you out of the picture.”

My brother,” Akumi said. “He was in the wrong place, then?”

I can’t really say that for sure,” I admitted. “It’s possible that they wanted to get him, specifically so that they could use the two of you as weapons against us. We’ve figured out that’s how they work: through cat’s paws and cutouts. It’s what makes them so damn hard to deal with.”

‘But they have him now?” Akumi pressed. “And they want to trade for him?”

In my peripheral vision, Mila tensed. I pretended not to notice.

They say they want to trade,” I clarified. “But if it’s the Magi, it’s going to be a trap, guaranteed. You’ll bring them who and what they want, but they’ll twist the deal on you. Maybe they keep Kira hostage and use you as a long-term asset. Or they try to capture and brainwash both of you into their service.”

However it turns out,” Devlin said, “it isn’t going to be what you’re hoping for. Believe me. I’ve seen what they can do to someone’s mind and it isn’t pretty.”

Could they be doing that to him now?” Akumi asked. “This brainwashing that they did to your friend?”

Devlin sighed. “It wasn’t quite brainwashing. They just took the truth and…twisted it. I don’t know how to explain it. But, yes. That’s a possibility.”

Akumi stood up abruptly and paced away from the group.

The Texan cracked his knuckles and ran his hands through his hair. “How did you find out about this? Any of this? If half of what you’re saying is true, then…holy shit.”

Dumb luck,” Devlin said. “Bad luck, if you ask me. When I went after Asher, the rest of this just sort of happened. Asher led us to Hill and, by the time we realized that Hill was working for much bigger fish, it was too late to stop anything. The only thing we can do now is try to take them down first.”

Or show them that there’s more fight in you than they were expecting,” the Texan said.

The Magi weren’t just going to back down and let us go, no harm, no foul. After London, our continued existence would have been a point of pride. Now, after a string of successes on several different continents? As far as they knew, there could be six or seven teams of thieves just like us, coordinating our attacks to destabilize the Magi’s dominion. They’d never stop until they caught up, interrogated us, and found out everything we knew.

Or that,” I said. “Whichever works.”

Devlin cleared his throat dramatically. “Well,” he said, “that’s our story. Your turn. We’re still trying to put this puzzle back together and we think you might have some of the missing pieces.”

Ask,” the Texan said, leaning back in his chair in a way that allowed to keep an eye on the monitors. “I’ll answer.”

How did you know to start looking into London to begin with?” I asked.

That was me,” Max said.

The Texan shook his head. “It was both of us. After what happened with Hill, I got out of there as fast as I could. Didn’t know who else was out there that might be coming for me next. But then the other jobs you four pulled got me thinking.”

He asked me to look for any connections,” Max said. “When I couldn’t find anything solid, I started to follow the money. With some help, of course.”

If anyone in the Community specialized in financial trails, it was probably me, and even I wasn’t all that good at it. Max had never shown the slightest interest or inclination towards that field of hacking. Since I certainly hadn’t assisted her, she must have gone to…

Oh,” I said. “Oh no.”

It took her a moment to put everything together “The Mouse,” she muttered. “You weren’t online, so I went to the Mouse for help. Dammit!”

The Texan blinked in confusion. “The who? What’s happening now? Who’s that?”

A hacker,” I said. “Very skilled. He’s the best I’ve ever seen.”

Better than you, Max?” The Texan asked.

He’s as far ahead of me as I am ahead of you,” she said. “If that gives you a frame of reference.”

The Texan’s cheeks turned a shade paler. “Well. Why can’t you ask him for help, if he’s so good?”

Cat’s paws and cutouts,” I said. “As far as we know, the Mouse is working with or for the Magi in some capacity. Maybe they just have common goals.”

Or maybe they’ve got him over a barrel,” Mila said.

Or maybe they just crawled inside his head,” Devlin finished. “Whatever the reason, that explains why they decided to take a shot at you.”

Does it?” Michel asked softly. My team had grown accustomed to his long stretches of silent contemplation, so his interruption came as less of a surprise to us. The Texan looked like he’d legitimately forgotten about Michel’s presence and Max seemed a little embarassed. For what reason, I couldn’t possibly imagine.

What do you mean?” Devlin asked.

The Texan has been doing this job for thirty years,” Michel said. He paused between each word, as if he were still putting the thought together as he spoke. “But the Magi have never come after him before.”

Until Max asked their own personal pet hacker to give her a hand,” Devlin said. He tilted his head immediately after he finished speaking, though. “But…why would the Mouse give her “real information that the Magi could then use as a reason for this kidnapping? It would have been easy to just feed her false information to ensure the trail didn’t go anywhere.”

Instead of doing that,” Michel said, “the Mouse pointed her straight at us.”

You mean, at the jobs,” I said. “And strictly in past tense. They couldn’t know where we were headed because we didn’t know where we were headed.”

Maybe he was trying to use her for something?” Devlin suggested.

Michel tapped his index finger against his chair’s armrest. “Why would he not just ask?”

Ask Max for help?” I chuckled at the absurdity.

What about you? You said that the two of you were friendly, no?”

I wasn’t sure if that was the right adjective to use for our relationship, pre-revelation. Post-revelation, the Mouse’s earlier identity as Caelum complicated everything to an impossible degree. Had he ever been fond of me or was that just a cover he’d assumed to get into my good graces? And, if it had been a cover, what had he been after?

I don’t know,” I said. “That’s something we figure out later, though.”

Devlin nodded. “Fair point.” He turned back to the Texan. “If someone wanted to contract out a kidnapping, who would they go to?”

Locally?” He shook his head. “No one would take that contract locally. Not against me, at least. Everyone’s got a skeleton they want to keep buried and they wouldn’t risk it.”

Another out-of-towner like us, then. Cool. I imagine you keep records on anyone like that who comes to Dallas?”

The Texan frowned. “Normally, yes. But, ah…”

All of that information is kept offline,” Max said, “so that no one can access or alter it, except for one of us.”

Offline,” I repeated. “Meaning that it was taken, along with Kira?”

I took their silence as a yes.

And back to square one,” Devlin said. To anyone else, he might have seemed sarcastic or bitter, at the absolute worst. But I knew him well enough to spot the cracks in his facade. “We don’t know who took him. We’re not sure why. We don’t know who else might be involved. And to find out any of that information, we have to know all of it already.”

I laid my hand on top of his. “It’s going to be harder than usual, sure.”

Harder?” Mila asked from her position. “At least we’re not walking, unarmed, into a warlord’s base camp and asking him to give us his money.”

At least we knew where the base camp was,” Devlin groused. “And where the warlords were going to be. And what we needed to get them to do.”

Hey. Look at me.” I squeezed Devlin’s hand until he met my eyes. “We’ve got this, all right? This is what we do. This is our thing. Just because we’ve got some new wrinkles to contend with doesn’t mean that we’re all suddenly going to forget how to do our jobs.”

He opened his mouth to speak, but stopped himself before any words made it past his lips. When he tried again, I knew he’d changed the sentence, but I had no idea what he’d changed it from. “I know,” he said. “I know. It’s just…frustrating. It always comes down to information. Not luck, not skill, not planning. It always ends up being a matter of not knowing enough. Who they are, where they are…”

I know where they will be, however,” Akumi said, strolling back up to join the group. She slipped her phone into her pants pocket before returning to her seat.

You what now?” I asked.

I know where they will be,” she repeated. “In one week. They will be at the aquarium.”

And how do you know that?”

Because,” Akumi said, “I agreed to their terms.”

Chapter 110

We weren’t being riddled with bullets, which was a good sign. And no one had come rushing in from the wings to tackle, restrain, and drag us off into oblivion. That was even better. But, just because the spotlights hadn’t been accompanied by a hail of gunfire didn’t mean there wasn’t just such an assault planned for the new future.

Without moving the rest of my body, I looked around at the other members of my team. Appropriately, Devlin and Michel had both gone completely still, as if a statue impression might cause our host to overlook them. Devlin’s eyes, in particular, furiously darted from spot to spot. I knew, without having to voice the thought, that he was calculating escape routes and success rates. If his instincts told him that it was time to run, I’d be right on his heels. He was wary, yes, but not panicked. I drew comfort from that.

CJ was also frozen in place, but there was an anxiety about him that I could almost feel against my skin. He met my eyes and, glacially, he started to raise a hand toward his shoulder holster. I shook my head sharply and stopped him before he could make a mistake. The spotlights were blinding and, even if someone was in the balconies, there was no way that he could make an accurate shot at this distance and in the corona from those lights. Any aggressive move could be the only catalyst necessary for things to devolve.

Max was, surprisingly, nowhere to be seen. I hadn’t been paying strict attention to her in the seconds before the lights came up. She must have ducked away into the darkened pews at some point or otherwise evaded the illuminating beams. I tried to force my eyes to adjust quicker but, by the time I was able to make out more than vague shapes in the front rows, she’d either retreated further into the darkness or she’d never been there at all.

I didn’t know what her plan was. I didn’t even know if she had a plan. Her inexperience in the field was likely to cause any number of colossal mistakes and I wasn’t in a position to advise her what would or would not work in this situation. I just had to hope she didn’t railroad us into a worst case scenario through ineptitude or clumsiness.

Akumi?” I called out. “Is that you?”

The silence that answered my question was deafening. Devlin and I made eye contact for a moment before he shrugged one shoulder and motioned with his fingers for me to try again.

Your hiding place here is totally safe,” I said. “No one except us knows you’re here and we’re going to keep it that way. But you asked me for help, didn’t you?”

I asked for nothing,” Akumi’s voice responded from the darkness behind the spotlights.

Not a promising start, but it was better than nothing.

Then I offered it,” I said. “Is there really a difference?”

Akumi didn’t reply for several seconds. When she finally did say something, she ignored my question entirely. “I recognize one of your friends. Who are the others?”

The only person who she might recognize was Devlin, from the Green Light Gala. She’d been at the Speakeasy to meet Mila and she wasn’t here yet. I weighed the merits of lying about everyone’s identities and, ultimately, decided against it. The truth wouldn’t overly compromise us.

My security,” I said. “And some other members of my team. We’re all here to make sure that you get your brother back as soon as possible.”

Why?”

Why what?”

Why do you want to help me?” Akumi clarified. “You do not know him. It would be easier if you left town, so that I had to deal with this on my own.”

We don’t need him, but we do need the guy you’re practically holding hostage, I thought.

Out loud, I said, “We aren’t on the same side, necessarily, but that doesn’t mean we have to be enemies. You came to Mila and she trusts me. I’m not asking you to do that, but at least turn off the lights so that we can talk like adults.”

The spotlights, predictably, stayed on. Akumi was silent for thirty seconds before she spoke again. “What are their names?”

I’m not going to answer that,” I said. “You have your secrets. We have ours. Why does it matter?”

Because someone is working against me,” Akumi snapped. “And there are not many people who could be doing it.”

In my head, I sketched out a diagram of the potential suspects. The Texan, of course, but betraying his bodyguard would be tantamount to committing suicide, even if the kidnappers hadn’t already offered Kira in exchange for the Texan’s head. As someone who knew the Twins personally and could have guessed at how far Akumi would go to protect her brother, Mila was a potential culprit…but that was on the outermost edges of possibility. She was an upfront brawler, a street fighter by nature. If she wanted to remove the Twins from the field of play, she wouldn’t do it with subterfuge; she’d do it with her fists, her feet, and as much weaponry as she could lay her hands on.

There was also Max, I realized after a moment. Akumi would only know her as the black-haired waitress from the Speakeasy, but that assumption didn’t prohibit Akumi from leaping to other, more nefarious conclusions. Akumi recognized me from the Gala; she might easily have recognized the Texan as well. If she thought I was involved in the plot to kidnap her brother, it only made sense that she might think the Texan had a hand in the massacre, as well.

Paranoia, yes, but not unfounded paranoia. The longer I spent escaping dodging out of the Magi’s considerable reach, the more I found myself understanding paranoia. Just because I spent most of my time alternating between panic and suspicion didn’t necessarily mean there wasn’t a criminal cabal out to get me, after all.

I get where you’re coming from,” I said, “but you’re wrong. Whatever’s happening, I don’t have anything to do with it. My team doesn’t have anything to do with it.”

For a few seconds, I expected a repeat of our conversation in the ladies room at the steak house. Instead, the power to everything – the spotlights, the emergency lights casting the theater in an eerie red glow, even the dim and dying lights that I could just barely see outside of the building – went out, all at once. My eyes had been adjusting to the bright cone of light and, suddenly, they were forced to go the other way entirely.

The change was so sharp that I could only make out what happened next through personal knowledge and guesswork.

A string of sounds came from the balcony that I could just barely identify as the noises of conflict. While that was going on, a shadow moved away from the far wall of the theater. I tried, and failed, to focus on that shadow but the noises above us kept drawing my attention. Someone or something grunted in pain, then a few breaths’ worth of silence. Someone else cursed in Spanish, a chair broke in half with a sharp crack, and then more silence.

I decided to take a risk.

Mila!” I yelled out. “It’s fine! We’re fine! Stop fighting!”

At first, my order went unheeded. But then, after several pregnant moments, the conflict in the balcony slowed and stopped. It was still pitch black without the power, so I had to guess where people stood, based on their voices.

I’ll go through you,” Mila said.

You will try.”

Get between me and them and we’re going to find out, right now, which one of us is better.” Mila paused for effect. “I’m betting that you don’t want to get into that anymore than I do.”

You started this,” Akumi said. “We did not need to fight.”

You were in the way,” Mila replied.

I am doing what I have to do,” Akumi replied.

Unless you’re planning on saving him by yourself, you really aren’t,” Mila replied. “All you’re doing is pissing off the only people I think are possible of getting Kira back, and in one piece.”

No one spoke for a few moments. I almost expected the fighting to resume in the balcony, based solely on the oppressive tension in the air.

Truce?” Mila suggested finally. “Until we figure out why they decided to walk into your little stronghold here and come up with a way to handle this without bloodshed.”

A truce? From you?” The sarcasm in Akumi’s voice was palpable.

You aren’t an enemy,” Mila said. “I’d like to keep it that way, if possible. But if you’d rather finish this another way…”

Akumi sighed. “Fine. A truce. For now.”

I realized that I’d been holding my breath and slowly released it. It wasn’t that I doubted Mila’s skills in a fight. I was trying to keep Akumi from classifying us as targets or obstacles, though, and a physical confrontation like that – especially from ambush – was the sort of thing that would push her in the direction of writing us off as potential allies.

I appreciate you turning off the lights, whoever you are,” Mila called out. “But it’ll be easier to talk if we aren’t fumbling around in the darkness.”

A few seconds later, every light came on in the theater. I squinted until my eyes adjusted enough to let me make out the shapes leaving the balcony. Both Akumi and Mila entered through the vestibule doors a minute or two later. By that point, my vision had more or less acclimated and I could see them more clearly.

Both of the women appeared perfectly composed, but the signs of struggle were evident in their disheveled hair and clothing. It was less noticeable on Mila, who typically ignored things like fashion and hairstyles unless it was an essential part of some scheme. On Akumi, the disorder stood out more sharply from her usual poise. She smoothed some wayward strands back into place as she approached us.

Who else came with you?” Akumi asked, when she was about two arms’ length away from me. It was close enough to attack, but far enough away that Mila could intervene.

A friend,” I said. “Does it matter?”

Yes,” Akumi replied bluntly.

Mila took up a position by my side and slightly behind me. “Akumi agreed to a truce,” she muttered in my ear. “On her honor, she’s not going to break that. If you don’t produce whoever else came with you, she might take that as a breach of trust.”

And then?” I muttered back.

Then she’ll feel fully justified in using force,” Mila said. “Unless that’s what you actually want to happen…”

I shook my head subtly. “The person who came with us,” I said to Akumi, “isn’t really a member of my team. I can promise you that she had nothing to do with what happened at the dock, though. And she isn’t involved in your brother’s kidnapping, either.”

Akumi’s features grew tighter. “How would you know?”

A good point, even if she couldn’t possibly realize how good of a point it was. We’d been betrayed by someone in our inner circle – or more accurately, by someone in someone else’s inner circle – before. The Mouse had been someone I’d thought of as a friend before revealing his real identity. And, by and large, criminals weren’t the most trustworthy or loyal people.

Before I could come up with an answer, the vestibule door swung open once more. The Texan entered the room with a shocking amount of caution. The swagger was still there, but subdued. “Because,” he said in his familiar drawl, “they came to me asking for the same thing you’re asking for. I hope you don’t mind me saying so.”

Akumi’s posture stiffened and then, gradually, she sighed. “You were supposed to stay in the box office,” she said.

And I would have,” the Texan said, “if the power hadn’t gone off. I figured you might have left me to go get your brother back and I wasn’t about to stay there like a fool, now was I?”

Dad?”

Every eye in the room snapped, as one, in the direction of Max’s voice. She stepped out of the shadows in the very back of the theater, where she must have been hiding. A part of my mind realized that she’d slipped away to locate something that might give us a chance of escape and that part of my mind was grateful for her initiative. I might have to upgrade her in my esteem from “inexperienced and likely to get us all killed because of a bad judgment call” to just “inexperienced.”

The rest of my mind, however, fixated on the single word she’d just said. In my peripheral vision, I noticed that Devlin, Mila, and Akumi were similarly confused.

The Texan stared at Max, slackjawed and dumbfounded. “Max? What are you doing here?”

Instead of answering, Max dashed in his direction and launched herself into an attack hug as soon as she was within reach. “I thought you were dead!”

I’m not,” he said, ‘but I might be if you keep squeezing me like that.”

She seemed to remember that there were other people in the room. Slowly, she released him from her hug. “When I got to the dock, I saw…I just that you’d been…”

Max,” the Texan said. He took her by the shoulders and looked deep into her eyes. “What are you doing here? You know the protocol as well as anyone; hell, you wrote the damn thing.”

I thought you were dead,” Max said. “I thought someone had killed you. What was I supposed to do?”

Leave town! Get as far away from this as you possibly can!” The Texan passed a hand over his eyes. “I’m glad to see you’re safe, but you shouldn’t be here. Not in this theater, not in Dallas. Maybe not even in the States, for God’s sake.”

Devlin made a sound in his throat, drawing my attention away from the unfolding drama. “Sarah? Did you know about this?”

That would be a no,” I said.

The Texan was still berating Max. It was shocking to see someone as naturally opinionated and stubborn as her just bearing his criticisms without comment.

Someone is trying to kill me. You’re the one who tipped me off in the first place. And then, after you see that bloodbath at the dock house, you decided to stay here? Why on Earth would you think that was a good idea?”

I’m not a kid anymore,” Max said petulantly. “If you’re in danger, I don’t just have to hide and wait until the threat’s gone. I can help and you know it.”

I don’t think that…that’s not the point, dammit. I’m trying to keep you safe, is all.”

If we don’t know where the threat’s coming from, how is anywhere going to be safe?” Max asked. “If someone’s attacking us, and there’s no way to know for sure that leaving town is going to solve the problem, then we should fight back.”

Fight back how?” The Texan countered. “We don’t know a damn thing about the people coming after me and we don’t have a way of finding it out, either. We aren’t fighters, Max; we get into a scrap like that with people willing to do what they did and we’re liable to end up dead.”

I knew a good entrance line when I heard one. “Actually,” I said, stepping forward to draw everyone’s eyes back to me. “I think that’s where we come in.”

Chapter 109

The kidnappers want the trade to happen in a week,” Max said, while we sped across town to Akumi’s last known location.

Why wait?” Devlin asked.

I don’t know that,” Max snapped. “But that’s not really the point, is it?”

I made an uncertain noise in my throat. “I don’t know. It could be the most important thing. Think about it. If they believe they can get Akumi to turn on your boss, why would they bother waiting to get her to do it? Anything could happen between now and a week from now that might change her mind.”

He could realize what was happening,” Devlin suggested.

Or someone else – not necessarily us, but really any interested party who wants to score a favor – could rescue him,” I added. “The cops, local players, anyone in the Underworld with skin in the game.”

So, Max,” Devlin said, inflecting the word just enough to put a little verbal sting in it, “it could matter a lot.”

And the two of you know a lot about this kind of thing?” Max asked. “What experience do you have with kidnappings?”

More than I wanted, but probably less than I was going to need. “Enough,” I said. “Certainly enough to know that the stupidest thing we could start doing right now is taking everything at face value. That’s how people get killed.”

Some of the color drained from Max’s face, but her expression didn’t lose an ounce of impudence. “It’s not like it matters anyway,” she said after a moment. “As soon as we find the bitch, your bodyguard can save him and we’ll be done with this whole mess entirely.”

Devlin and I exchanged a look. Michel kept his eyes on the road and CJ – poor, poor CJ – sat in the back of the car, head snapping from side to side as he tried to take in everything and make some sense of it.

If we start a fight,” Devlin said slowly, “there’s no guarantee that we’d actually win it. Just because the Twins weren’t responsible for the massacre at the dock house, there was a good reason why we thought they were capable of it. Stray bullets don’t care who’s in the way and I’m incredibly invested in my own survival.”

You’re scared of her?” Max asked, derision dripping from her voice. “Is that it?”

You’re damn right I’m scared of her,” Devlin answered. “Are you serious? I’d be out of my mind not to be scared of her. I’ve seen what my – I mean, what Sarah’s bodyguard can do and she’s even nervous about directly crossing Akumi. What, do you think this is some kind of game?”

Max glared at him, but said nothing.

Devlin leaned closer to her and lowered his voice to a menacing tone. “You saw the aftermath of what the kidnappers did. And they did that because they didn’t want to come up against the Twins working together. With her isolated now, and off-kilter to boot, you really believe the four of us are going to be able to stop her?”

He left that question floating in the air for a long time. No one in the car seemed willing to break the silence but, eventually, Max regained enough of her attitude to respond. “Then why try this at all? If you think it’s hopeless, why not just cut ties and get out of town until everything’s finished?”

Because we need you,” I said. “And, for whatever reason you still aren’t really willing to discuss, you need the Texan. And Akumi is currently the biggest threat to that.”

Because we don’t have a choice,” Devlin summarized.

I nodded. “Believe me, I would rather work with almost anyone else, but here we are. So here we are, cheerfully driving into a potential trap helmed by someone who is already going to be looking for us. If you want to help, that’d be great. If you want to complain or make dumb suggestions, maybe consider shutting up while the grown ups work.”

I realized that I was being brusque with her and that my temper was more likely to force her into a defensive posture, but I couldn’t stop myself. Too much of my mental brainpower was dedicated to tasks more important than coddling her feelings. I was keeping a small tally of secrets I was inadvertently revealing to CJ without meaning to. He already knew that my problems were potentially lethal, so that wasn’t anything to worry about. I couldn’t quite remember if we’d directly mentioned anything about Akumi’s Yakuza ties. Probably. It as something that everyone else in the car knew, so I could easily imagine a situation in which I’d casually alluded to it without meaning to.

My familiarity with the Underworld was a new tidbit, but he wouldn’t be able to do much with that. Civilians thought of the Underworld as a fictional construct, filled with smoky rooms and dastardly masterminds, when they weren’t conflating that community with the mafia. In reality, it was an entire ecosystem that existed below ground and above; in basements and in sky-rises all across the world. There were as many different denizens of the Underworld as there were types of crime that one could engage in. Without the specific knowledge that I was a gifted and notorious hacker, CJ would probably just assume that I was referring to something slightly shady.

Probably.

The address,” Max said. She paused and swallowed before starting over. “The address that she was last at isn’t one I recognize. I thought that she might have taken him to one of his safe houses.”

He has multiple?” I asked.

Of course. So do I. Do you not?”

In strictest point of fact, I had sold most of those properties when I’d split up with Devlin. Acquiring new hiding places hadn’t ranked high on my list of priorities when we’d fallen in with the Lady. We were rarely in a single location long enough to properly establish one and, if that ever became a necessity, she’d proven herself more than capable of furnishing one in short order anyway.

Are you sure he didn’t have one that he kept to himself?” Devlin asked.

Not likely. If he had to go to ground, he would have wanted me to go with him or to meet him there.”

Does he know about the, uh…” I struggled momentarily to think of a way to describe Max’s safe house/electronics emporium. “The place you’re working out of?”

He’s aware that it exists,” Max said. “But I never told him specifically where it was and he never asked. He might still know anyway, but…”

But the only way to find out for sure would be to ask him,” I finished.

Pretty much.”

Is there anything else you can tell us? Unless Akumi decided to tie him up, she would have needed to take him somewhere where he didn’t feel threatened.”

Max considered the question in silence for almost a full minute before she spoke. “Maybe,” she said. “Let me check something.”

She pulled up a map of Dallas on her tablet and entered the coordinates she’d gotten from Akumi’s phone before it went dark. When she looked at the data in the context of its surroundings, Max noticed something that caused her to draw in a sharp breath.

What is it?” I asked.

He used to be an actor,” Max said. “Before he got into…all of this. He always says he wasn’t any good at it, but there was something that life that he just never got over.”

On the one hand, learning about the Texan’s past wouldn’t necessarily help us find him. On the other hand, it was a rare opportunity to get a glimpse into who the man actually was. I decided, after a moment, to give Max a little rope.

That’s why he does the whole exaggerated cowboy thing?” Devlin asked.

Max shook her head. “No, that’s genuine. Like I said: he’s a terrible actor. But he’s also a romantic.”

Meaning…?”

She passed the tablet to him and tapped its screen. “Meaning that he wouldn’t be able to resist the temptation.”

I leaned over to see the screen. A red dot marked the place where Akumi’s signal had disappeared. Less than a half mile away from there, in the midst of a group of otherwise unremarkable buildings and businesses, was a single large structure. I clicked on it to change the view from bird’s eye to street level and immediately recognized the telltale signs of abandonment. The sign hanging above the many-windows front portico was just barely visible: The Theatre of False Faces.

It’s an old building,” I said, mostly to myself. “Depending on when it was built, there might be enough steel and concrete in the skeleton to block a signal.”

And if he knew that he was going to use it as a hiding place,” Max added, “he could have gone so far as to have an actual Faraday cage installed.”

Would he even know to do that?”

Max preened a little. “I taught him everything he knows about radio signals. Trust me, if he had a choice at all, he’d make sure that no one could track him wirelessly.”

Except for you,” I pointed out. “You’re tracking Akumi.”

She preened even harder and actually grinned. The expression was so different from her usual scowl that I was slightly taken aback. “I didn’t teach him everything I know.”

Devlin raised his hand. “Layman’s explanation for the rest of us, please?”

Max thought that he went underground,” I said, “because that’s one surefire way to lose a trace. But if he just went into an old enough building or something he had specially prepared, it would basically accomplish the same thing. No signals in, no signals out.”

So…does that mean she couldn’t have gotten the text from the kidnappers?” Devlin asked.

I blinked. “That is exactly what it means,” I said.

We’ve still got time before she has to make a decision, then.” Devlin drew in a deep breath. “It’s not all bad news, then. Not yet, at least.”

We were only a few minutes away from the theater. While Michel drove us the rest of the way, everyone else in the car took the time to prepare themselves with whatever tools and equipment they’d brought with them. I’d only thought to bring my own tablet, my compromised burner phone, and the pen/sprayer that Mila had given me a few days back. Devlin’s toolkit contained two canisters of pepper spray and a stun gun. I already knew about Michel’s collapsible baton, so I paid attention to Max’s gear instead.

She’d packed flash drives, two tablets, a knotted mess of USB cables, miniature microphones, and at least four different button cameras that I could see from my angle. When she noticed me looking into her bag, she pulled it out of my line of sight.

You didn’t bring anything to…you know, to defend yourself?” I asked.

She seemed embarrassed by the question which, predictably, she masked with open hostility. “You’ve got all of them to protect us, don’t you?”

There wasn’t any point in responding to that, so I didn’t. Not so long ago, I wouldn’t have thought to carry self-defense gear myself. Hell, if the Mouse hadn’t crippled my ability to work remotely, odds were high that I’d be several miles away, conducting operations from the relative safety of a rented hotel room or a mobile command center.

Devlin passed Max one of his pepper spray canisters without a word. She stared down at it, clearly expecting some kind of rebuke from him. When he didn’t offer one, she accepted the canister and managed a stiff nod of acknowledgment.

How long until Mila gets here?” I asked, when Michel eased the car into a parking spot beneath a flickering street lamp.

He checked his phone. “Ten minutes? Fifteen? I do not know how fast she drives or what the traffic will be like.”

We exited the car and started towards the abandoned theater. I stopped CJ and pulled him back to speak with him without interruption. Devlin paused for an instant; then, realizing what I intended to do, he ushered the rest of the group forward.

So,” I said. “I know this is a lot to deal with and I honestly don’t know if it’s going to get any easier once we get into the theater.”

His mouth opened and closed without a sound. He swallowed nervously, tried again, and had better luck. “What are you involved in? Kidnappers? Tracking programs? The Yakuza​?”

I winced. Apparently that had slipped out.

It’s…complicated,” I said.

Puzzles are complicated,” CJ said. “This is insane. Why would you go into that building if you think – even for just a second – that there might be a killer inside?”

Because I’d rather have a killer on my team than working for the enemy,” I said.

What enemy do you have where you would need someone like this woman you’re talking about?”

CJ, I’m not deliberately keeping you in the dark.” Not at all true, but the details weren’t relevant. “But believe me when I tell you that you and Virginia are both infinitely safer not knowing anymore than you already do.”

You want me to keep quiet,” he said in a soft voice. It wasn’t a question.

I’m not going to gag you,” I replied. “Do whatever you think is best. But you’ve heard some of the trouble I’m in. I’m young, I’m good at what I do, and I’m going into this with both eyes open. Imagine what would happen if my grandmother decided she needed to get more involved in all of this.”

Mentioning Virginia had the desired effect. CJ was loyal to her and to me, but in that specific order. I didn’t doubt that he’d protect me as best he could, if push came to shove, but I also knew for a certainty that he’d tell Virginia everything as soon as he saw her again. If he thought that knowledge might put her into more danger, though…well, then he might be more likely to keep a few secrets from her.

It was shameless emotional manipulation. I knew that. It was, objectively, a pretty terrible thing to do to someone who cared about my family. I comforted myself with the reminder that nothing about my warning was wrong. The enemies I’d made, or had made for me, weren’t the type to quibble over collateral damage. It would only take one slip-up from Virginia in the wrong company for the Magi to just blow up an entire building and call it a day. That wasn’t a risk I was willing to take. To keep my family safe, I would happily lie, exaggerate, or manipulate. It wasn’t even a hard choice to make.

I won’t promise anything,” he said. “If I think she needs to know, I’ll tell her. And if I think the cops need to get involved, then I’m going to go to the cops.”

The last time the cops got involved in this mess,” I said, “someone’s car blew up in the middle of rush hour traffic.”

His eyes widened.

But,” I added, “I repeat: do whatever you feel is best. Right now, though? I need you to put your game face on. I don’t think things are going to get bad but, if they do, you need to be ready. Can you do that for me?”

His nod was slow in coming, but it did come. CJ removed a handgun from his shoulder holster, checked something on its side, and then slid it back into concealment.

I took that as a sign of readiness. The two of us hurried to catch up with the rest of the group and we reached the theater’s front door almost in unison.

So?” Max asked. There was an sudden hesitance in her voice that I recognized, belatedly, as inexperience. “Who wants to go first?”

Devlin stepped forward and opened the door. We followed him inside, with Michel bringing up the rear. There weren’t any lights inside the building, so we were blind until Devlin produced a flash light from the depths of his bag. He handed it to Michel, so that his uninjured hand would be free to draw out a weapon, and we shifted position accordingly.

The theater’s lobby was unremarkable. So was the vestibule and the short hallway leading into the auditorium. Some emergency lights were active in that room that cast the entire space in a reddish light.

This isn’t ominous or anything,” Devlin said under his breath.

We walked down one of the theater’s two aisles in silence, huddled together to stay within the bubble of illumination coming from the flashlight. At the stage, we all paused.

You know what this reminds me of?” Devlin asked.

I considered elbowing him, but thought better of it. “What?”

The Urchins,” he said. “Granted, we’re above ground, but it’s got the same sort of feeling, don’t you -”

Three blinding spotlights came to life in the balcony. All of them were pointed directly at the stage and, consequently, at our group.

Well,” I muttered back, “it does now.”

Chapter 108

Max gave up her address far too easily, considering her justified paranoia. Either something had changed on her end or she’d temporarily stopped thinking clearly after learning the Texan hadn’t been kidnapped. I wasn’t one to look gift horses in the mouths, though, so I accepted the information graciously and decided to save my questions until she and I could speak in person.

CJ, Devlin, and Michel waited for me in the hotel lobby. CJ’s loose shirt didn’t quite conceal the impression of a shoulder holster and gun which, I imagined, was probably the point. I couldn’t remember if I’d seen him carry a gun before. Michel didn’t have a gun, of course; he was fiddling with one of the collapsible batons that Mila favored for non-lethal confrontations. Hopefully, he wouldn’t have to use the tool. If things devolved to violence, I was certain that a baton would only momentarily inconvenience Akumi.

Devlin was unarmed. I took a little comfort in that. Prolonged exposure to Mila had galvanized a change in him, in terms of his demeanor and physique, but it was good to know that there were some things that remained the same. His messenger bag was open just enough for me to spot the telltale blue light of his tablet.

What are you bringing?” I asked him.

Information,” Devlin said. “Everything I know about the Yakuza is from bad movies. I figure we should have some idea about potential points of conflict before we accidentally mortally offend her or something like that.”

Good idea.”

Uh, excuse me?” CJ asked. He actually raised his hand. “The Yakuza? Like, the Japanese mafia? What do they have to do with anything?”

It was a fair question, which I completely ignored in favor of Michel. “What are we driving?”

Mila said that she will try to convince her mechanic friend to part with something inconspicuous,” he said. “But, for now, your grandmother arranged for us to have a bulletproof SUV. It will stand out, but…”

He trailed off, allowing me to finish the thought for myself. We couldn’t be sure that the assassins wouldn’t strike again, complicating matters further. Sure, we thought that they’d originally been targeting Barrett, but that didn’t mean someone wouldn’t decide to expand the parameters. Even if we weren’t attacked on the way to meet Max, it was probably a good idea to maintain some sort of shelter in case things went badly with Akumi.

Speaking of which…

Where’s Barrett?” I asked.

Devlin’s jaw tightened momentarily. “Gone,” he said. “I told him to wait downstairs while I got CJ and found Michel. By the time I made it to the lobby, he’d disappeared.”

Did he leave any messages?”

Devlin shook his head.

I swallowed a surprising lump of disappointment. Barrett wasn’t a member of the team, except in the most liberal definitions of the word ‘team,’ but he was still useful in his own ways. It made sense that he wouldn’t volunteer – any sane person would have made for the hills already – but I’d allowed myself to think that he wasn’t just going to cut and run.

That was stupid of me, though. I knew it and, judging from the lack of surprise on Devlin and Michel’s faces, they knew it too.

I kept my expression neutral. “Alright. I need to touch base with Max and figure out how she’s tracking Akumi’s phone. After that, we’ll immediately head out to find Akumi and stop her from turning over the Texan.”

And if she’s already made up her mind?” Devlin asked.

Then we’ll have to hope we can stall her until Mila can get there.”

Devlin nodded grimly. A moment later, Michel did the same. CJ stood there with his hand still raised, as an expression of ever-increasing confusion spread across his face.

I’m not going to bother swearing you to secrecy or anything like that,” I said, before CJ could do much more than wet his lips. “But I am going to ask you to keep the questions to a minimum until…well, you’ll knew when it’s okay. Right now, I’m trying to think about a lot of things and dealing with you is going to make that harder, no offense.”

None taken,” he said, on pure Southern reflex.

I’ll try to give him an outline while we’re driving,” Devlin offered. “You can use the time to read up on the intel I’ve managed to cobble together.”

Thanks. That should help.”

Without thinking, I kissed Devlin’s cheek in appreciation. Instantly, I realized that I shouldn’t have done that. Not only was it needlessly stirring up old emotions in both of us, but it also risked blowing our cover. As far as CJ knew, Devlin was purely a business partner. And I didn’t typically make a habit out of kissing my business partners.

To his credit, though, CJ raised an eyebrow at the display of affection before he visibly pressed his lips together. I’d almost certainly need to come up with some kind of explanation for that later. I’d just have to deal with that problem after navigating around the three or four more pressing issues ahead of me.

Michel drove the massive armored SUV to Max’s address while Devlin talked to CJ and I read through the files he’d put together. Much of what he’d located was anecdotal or hideously biased. At some point, he’d decided to go back to the basics and searched for the Twins’ official birth documents. Shockingly, he’d found them. It appeared that Akumi and Kira were using their real names. They had no living family left to protect, except each other. Their father, a member of Japan’s ground-based Self Defense Force, had died in an accident when they were both young. Their mother, unprepared for the financial needs of a three person family, had literally worked herself to death. They had no other siblings.

There were also articles discussing the scenes of various grisly underworld killings, when one branch of Clan A decided to eliminate the competition provided by another branch of Clan B in the most direct fashion possible. The Twins couldn’t possibly be responsible for each and every assassination but, between the two of them, it was possible that they had a hand in more than a few.

If I took everything in the folders at face value – and added another few, because I knew better than most that the darkest movers and shakers in the Underworld never allowed their machinations to reach the front page – I could put together a more accurate profile of the Twins and how they worked. From that, I could adjust what I thought about Akumi and tailor it to provide a better model in my head.

Together, they made a lethal and effective team. When they struck, they hit like lightning bolts: quick, brutal, unstoppable. They did their research and enacted their operations with exacting detail, careful to contain the violence to their intended targets. Neither of them had any official criminal records that I could find. So, despite the fact that they’d killed more than a few people in spectacularly demonstrative ways, they went out of their way not to draw the ire of law enforcement.

That careful pragmatism couldn’t have come from Akumi’s side of the partnership, though. She’d attacked me at the restaurant on the mere suspicion that I was involved in her brother’s kidnapping, when even a cursory examination of the facts would have proven otherwise. Kira was the planner of the group, then; the careful deliberation and fact-checking was his contribution. Akumi was the impulsive type, prone to making decisions now and dealing with the consequences later.

That didn’t mean she wasn’t smart. It just meant that she was harder to steer, when she’d decided to pursue a course of action. Her current goal – recovering her brother, by any means necessary – would only exacerbate that trait to dangerous levels.

Mila might be better suited to discuss violence with Akumi, as a peer, but I wasn’t sure that she’d be the best person to talk her out of acting. For that matter, neither was Devlin. She didn’t know him, for one thing. For another, his personality typically lent itself towards movement. When we had a target and needed to deal with some previously unknown obstacles, that was perfect. When we needed to wait…not so much.

We’re here,” Michel said, drawing me out of my thoughts.

I looked up from the tablet. Max’s hideout was, from the outside at least, a nondescript storefront in what seemed to be a nondescript part of the city. The sign hanging over the door had gone illegible with age. A few ancient computers – Commodores, IBMs, and an unbelievably pristine Timex Sinclair – were visible in the shop’s windows. Other than those machines, I couldn’t see anything noteworthy through the dingy glass.

Is this where you guys went with all of her data?” I asked Michel.

He shook his head. “We took that to a warehouse, far from the city itself. She did not want me to know about her safe house.”

A safe house was only safe when no one else knew about it, so I couldn’t begrudge her for following basic tradecraft. It did, however, make me wonder once more why she’d given me the address so easily.

We parked in the alley between the electronics store and the building next to it, hoping that the deep shadows would help conceal the SUV. Devlin tried to take the lead, but I grabbed his wrist and shook my head.

She doesn’t know you,” I said. “She barely knows Michel. If Max thinks someone’s coming for her, there’s no telling what she’ll do.”

He nodded and gestured. “After you, then.”

I took point and, when we reached the door, tried the handle. Locked. I tried it several more times, just in case.

Try knocking?” Michel suggested.

I rolled my eyes and then, without any other real option, knocked on the door. Nothing happened for several seconds.

‘Who’s with you?”

Max’s voice came from the door itself. I examined the frame more carefully and spotted a tiny button camera embedded into the very top of the frame. There were probably other cameras located around the building and alley, too. I’d missed them because I hadn’t been looking for them.

You know Michel,” I said. “And you’ve met Devlin. They’re here to help.”

And the other guy?”

I glanced back at CJ. There was practically smoke coming out of his ears as he tried to process whatever Devlin had told him, in addition to what he was seeing now.

He’s here to help, too,” I said. “We don’t have time to debate this, Max.”

Silence. After a few moments of that, the door clicked. When I tried it again, it swung open soundlessly.

There were more classic computers inside the shop, kept in good condition like the ones I’d seen in the window. My interest in computers had only really started in high school, crystallizing into my current “occupation” in my college years, so I was aware of the different model names but not particularly familiar with them.

It’s like walking through a museum,” Devlin muttered.

Except none of these have any value,” I said. “No one’s paying for outdated technology.”

Sentimental value?” Michel suggested. “Maybe these computers mean something to..someone?”

That was a possibility. I filed it away.

At the back of the store, there was a single door. I examined the frame for any visible cameras. When I found none, I shrugged and knocked on the door.

It’s open,” Max said from the other side. “Hurry up.”

A fleeting thought stopped me from turning the door knob. The kidnappers were planning to use Akumi’s love for her brother to turn her against the Texan. What if they’d already contacted Max, hoping to use her relationship with the Texan to convince her to work against us? I’d already walked into one trap by not properly thinking through the possibilities.

Devlin read my mind. “She knows who you are and what you do,” he said. “If she wanted to hurt us, there are easier ways to do it.”

Nonetheless, he gently pushed me to one side and turned the knob himself. When nothing exploded, he pushed the door open wider and stepped inside the back room. I followed on his heels.

The interior of the stock room put my most ambitious workstations to shame. Max had converted the room, inch by inch, into a high-tech command center. I preferred working with three monitors: enough space for me to keep an eye on all relevant information without being overloaded by extraneous details. Max was using at least fifteen screens, in rows of five, that took up the entire back wall. From those monitors, I traced the cords with my eyes until I realized that her computers, plural, weren’t hiding out of sight. She’d deconstructed her equipment and connected everything so that the room took on a distinctly organic vibe. Blue lines ran along the walls like veins, carrying cooling water to individual components as necessary. The hum of the computers filled the room, rising and falling like breaths.

This is…” Devlin began.

It’s something,” I finished for him. “It is definitely something.”

Max sat in front of the monitors, fervently finishing up a line of code that I recognized but couldn’t immediately place. She didn’t turn to face us until she completed her work, hit save, and closed the window out entirely.

What was that?” I asked.

The program I used to hack your phone,” she said. “I needed field data on what worked and didn’t work.”

And you decided to use me for that? Without my permission?”

If I’d asked, you wouldn’t have said yes. And I needed to know that it worked.”

I took a deep breath. This wasn’t the time for an argument that Max, most likely, would never concede. I’d have to get rid of the burner phone eventually, anyway. When I got a new one, I’d just need to take extra care to lock down any potential security holes.

So, you’ve got it complete now?” I asked.

No,” Max said, “but it’s better. I can remotely activate the GPS and maybe access the microphone.”

Maybe?”

Max shrugged. “It needs testing. I’d rather not test it now, but you made it clear that we don’t really have the time to wait.” She removed a flash drive from a USB port built into the desk, pocketed it, and then unplugged a cell phone from another port.

How are you going to get it onto her phone?” Devlin asked.

Max paused in the process of throwing things into a bag at her feet to give Devlin a withering stare. “Is he serious?”

She can’t,” I said, instead of answering Max. “Not remotely.”

That’s not quite true,” Max interjected. “If I’m right, I can update the program already on her phone as long as we’re using the same tower. Or if we’re on the same wireless network, but I don’t think she’s using one of those.”

That was impressive. “Correction: she can do it remotely, but not from here. She’ll need to be within…how far would you say?”

Twenty miles,” Max provided promptly. “Any farther than that and I can’t be sure the signal wouldn’t be interrupted.”

And if she can do that, then we’ll be able to track Akumi wherever she goes,” I finished.

But we have to find her first.” Devlin paused. “And she has to come with us.”

I don’t understand the program,” I admitted.

It’s not complicated,” Max said. “I can send you the code later, if you really want it.”

The Max that I knew from countless Community conversations would never have offered up any code without extracting a promise for something equally vital in exchange. My works-in-progress were, unfortunately, mostly contained within the cloud network that I couldn’t access. I couldn’t have offered her a trade if I’d wanted to.

In print,” Max clarified. “So you can fix your own security flaws in the future. But later. We need to go now, don’t we?”

I put my concerns aside, but not entirely out of mind. “Do you have everything you need?”

No, but I’ll make do. Are you bringing anything than them?” Max gestured dismissively at Devlin, Michel, and CJ.

I started to say something about her constant attitude, but one of her screens lit up. Max also noticed the alert, although no one else seemed to spot it amidst the sea of lights and shifting images. She read the alert quickly, said something vile in Spanish that I couldn’t make out, and started throwing things even faster into her bag.

What’s going on?” Devlin asked.

They wrote back with an address,” Max said without looking up.

She’s going to take the deal?” I asked.

I don’t know. But I don’t want to sit around here waiting until it’s too late to stop her.” Max zipped the bag shut with far more force than required and leaped to her feet. “So can we please stop asking stupid questions and go?”

Chapter 107

Except for Max’s unexpected tip, the rest of dinner passed by without incident. The three men at the table talked about politics, sports, and business. They were so engrossed in their various discussions that they didn’t notice the three women weren’t even bothering to care. For Elizabeth’s part, it seemed that she’d met her match in the second bottle of wine. She drank slower and took more obvious care to appear poised. Occasionally, she mustered the ability to drop a witty bon mot into the conversation and savored the chuckles and laughs her comments elicited So, even though she wasn’t actively a part of the boys’ club, she was close enough that I could cut her out of my thoughts without any fear of offending her.

I received no further messages from Max, so I could only assume that Akumi hadn’t gotten any additional texts from the unknown kidnapper. She surreptitiously checked her phone every thirty seconds or so for the first ten minutes after she’d sent out the question. After that she’d glanced down every minute. By the time we left, she’d taken to holding the phone against her stomach, concealed by her purse. If I didn’t have inside information, I might have thought it strange. But, knowing what I did, I could almost see the anxiety in her tight expression. Someone had her brother, her twin, her partner. Compared to that, what would the life of the Texan be worth?

I waited until we were in the car before I risked sending Max a text.

You bugged both of the new hires?

Your friend has excellent taste in steakhouses,” Elizabeth said to Raymond. She slurred her words just a bit; not enough to be indecent, but it was still clear that she’d overindulged. “Where did you say you met him again?”

After one of the annual shareholder meetings,” Raymond said. “I think it was last year? Maybe the year before that. Regardless, he approached me. We hit it off and he’s been trying to get me out here since then.”

And you didn’t come here more often because…?”

Didn’t have a good reason to make the trip. That’s all.”

But you do now?” Barrett asked. “Something about your mystery project with the military out here in Texas, wasn’t it?”

Raymond pressed a finger to his lips. “You’ll have to try harder than that, Barrett.”

My phone vibrated. While everyone else was distracted, I glanced down at the screen and took in the message in an eyeblink. It took me a bit longer to make sense of the image in my mind.

Unknown Number: Only their text messages. Phone calls would’ve taken longer.

What about GPS?

Unknown Number: Already tried that. Someone disabled the guy’s phone entirely. No luck there.

Not worried about her. Keep an eye on where she goes.

Sarah?”

I jerked my head up and almost dropped my phone in surprise.

What’s so interesting, sweetheart?” Barrett asked. He gave me a sweet smile. Above that smile, though, the question in his eyes couldn’t have been any clearer.

I’ll tell you later,” I said. “It’s nothing I want to bore my parents with.”

What makes you think we’d be bored?” Raymond asked.

I patted my father’s hand. “Personal experience. Trust me, I’m already interested in this stuff and, sometimes, I still think it’s going to be the death of me. I don’t want to put that on your plate if I can help it.”

Barrett snorted. He disguised the snort as a fortuitously timed sneeze, but I know what I heard.

If you insist,” Raymond said. He frowned slightly. “It seems like there’s so much going on in your life now. You used to tell me everything and now I barely know who you are.”

I cringed. This wasn’t a conversation I wanted to have while Barrett was in the car. It wasn’t a conversation I wanted to have at all, in point of fact, but I couldn’t just dodge the unspoken plea in Raymond’s voice.

I’m just…going through some things,” I said. “And it’s taking up a lot of my attention. I’d tell you about it, but I’d have to break someone’s trust to do it.”

Will you ever be able to talk about it?”

Maybe,” I lied. There was no way in hell that I’d ever tell Raymond about the underworld, the Lady, the Magi, or even the most banal things I’d done during the years I’d spent in minimal contact with him. “But, right now? I just need you to know that I love you. And I’m actually glad that you came to visit.”

Raymond rolled his eyes. “You barely ate any of your steak,” he pointed out. “Barrett had a better time than you did.”

I can’t speak for him,” I said, “but I thought dinner was delightful. I learned a lot more than I was expecting to. About the business, I mean.”

Raymond lifted an eyebrow.

I’m still not going to follow in your footsteps,” I added.

Ah well.” He sighed, adding some dramatic volume for effect. “A father can hope, can’t he?”

Raymond watched me for a moment then, after squeezing my hand tightly, took out his own phone and started to type out an email with both thumbs. I caught Barrett’s eyes long enough to convey a message – cover for me – and went back to my device. It took a few keystrokes to register Max’s number under her name. I suspected that she’d probably change phones fairly quickly, but it would at least make things easier in the short term. By the time I finished, I’d received another message.

Max: She went underground and I lost the signal.

You can’t track her when she emerges?

Max: She knows a little about security. Didn’t have the time to get past all of the defenses.

I pinched the bridge of my nose. There were several commercial products capable of stymieing the efforts of an inexperienced phone hacker and Max had never specialized in phones to begin with, but I couldn’t believe that Akumi was skilled enough to throw up an obstacle that would get in her way. Either Max was lying – a distinct possibility, since everyone else seemed to be playing things two or three different ways lately – or there was even more to Akumi than I knew.

But you can tell me where they went underground?

Max: Of course.

It wasn’t a lot to go on, but it was better than nothing. I’d have to talk to Mila about the risks before committing to any sort of action. There was a real possibility that we could walk into some sort of trap, effectively offering ourselves up to the kidnappers. Still, if we wanted to recover Kira and keep Akumi from going ballistic, it was likely a set of dice we’d have to roll.

Where are you?

Max: Close.

Not the time, Max. Where are you?

Max: I can be at your hotel in twenty minutes. Is that good enough?

I clenched my teeth and counted backwards from five in my head. In her position, I’d probably be as paranoid and circumspect. People were getting killed in large numbers. Assassins were roaming the streets and starting firefights in the full light of day. Her own mentor had –

My thoughts hiccuped. How much information did Max actually know?

You hacked our GPS and our text messages, right?

Max: Correct.

What about the microphones?

Max: Didn’t have enough time. Why?

I tried to wrap my head around her hack. With what time she’d had available, Max had gained access to my GPS and probably inserted herself as a man-in-the-middle for any text messages that went to my number. That fact concerned me, but not as much as it likely should have. None of that information would be useful to anyone who didn’t already know that I was the one in possession of the burner phone. But she hadn’t gained access to the microphone. Presumably, she could have pulled that off, given the opportunity and the time work the problem. Since she hadn’t, though, it meant that no one was able to hear my actual voice and connect me to the texts I was sending.

It also meant that she’d figured out where I was and who I was with by tracking our respective phones and putting the pieces together. That’s why she’d warned me. But, thus far, she hadn’t said a word about the Texan. Which meant he’d either changed phones – likely, considering how close he’d come to being murdered at the dock house – or she’d never bugged him at all. Both possibilities held merit. I’d have to think more on those later.

Benjamin’s still alive. He’s safe.

Max: Who?

At least I hadn’t been entirely wrong. The Texan just didn’t look like a Benjamin.

Your boss. I don’t know what you call him. The Texan?

Max didn’t send a reply for a long time. I watched my phone, trying to anticipate what message she might send, but none came. The silence stretched out long enough that I considered sending another message. The car eased to a stop, though, and our arrival interrupted my thoughts enough that I stopped paying attention to the phone for a few moments.

Thank you so much for dinner,” Barrett said. “I know they talk it up a lot but, in this case, I think the locals have got a point. That steak was amazing.”

You should have tried some wine,” Elizabeth said. She’d progressed from a poised sort of relaxation into a near-sprawl. Her dress protected her dignity, for the most part; where it failed, Raymond was there with a steadying and concealing hand.

I think you’ve sampled that enough for all of us tonight, dear,” Raymond said. “Barrett, it was a pleasure to finally meet you. I’m sorry to say that Sarah hasn’t really told us much about you.”

Barrett took hold of my hand again and squeezed. “I don’t have to tell you, but she’s always been a private person.”

Maybe you’ll be able to get her to tell you whatever it is that’s got her so interested in her phone?”

Barrett smiled. “I’ll let you know, sir.”

He and I stepped out of the car, spoke the appropriate niceties, and watched as my parent’s limousine pulled away from the hotel. I waited until they were far enough away that they couldn’t possibly see us anymore before I snatched my hand back. I just barely stopped myself from slapping him across the face; the only thing that kept my hand from lashing out was the knowledge that he hadn’t actually done anything wrong. I’d been distant during the dinner and his charm was likely the only reason my parents hadn’t asked more questions about my odd behavior.

I still wanted to, though. Knowledge couldn’t do anything about that desire.

Barrett responded to my abrupt movement by stepping away and grinning. “See? We made it through a whole dinner and nothing bad happened. Maybe now you’ll admit that you were just being paranoid for no reason.”

It only took a few moments of thought to decide that Barrett was involved enough to hear about my discussion with Akumi. He already knew about the dock house, which put him at risk all by itself. Plus, he’d demonstrated a marked lack of self-preservation in his continued desire to pop up from out of nowhere and I couldn’t risk having him do that when we were involved in something delicate.

I suspected that we’d soon be neck-deep in something delicate.

So, while I stalked up to my room to change, I gave him the Cliff’s Notes version of events. He waited on the other side of the door when I told him to, listening through the door to my story, as I changed into more comfortable clothing. I finished dressing myself around the same time as I finished relating the final details of the evening to him.

Well,” Barrett said. “Shit.”

That about sums it up.” I got on my knees and searched beneath the bed for a pair of sneakers. “You wanted to be involved. So, here we are.”

Here we are,” Barrett agreed. He hesitated. “Are you telling me everything, though?”

Of course I wasn’t. I left out the Lady and the Magi. My real, primary contribution to the team as a hacker par excellence went unmentioned. I didn’t talk about Mila’s personal life, Michel’s bisexuality, or the weird relationship between the two of them. I said nothing about my past with Devlin. In a lot of ways, I was keeping more information close to my chest than I was offering Barrett.

Everything you need to know,” I said. “If something else becomes relevant, I’ll fill you in. But I’m not just going to volunteer everything about my life.”

Not even to your husband?”

I turned a glare his way.

Fair enough,” he said, raising his hands in surrender. “You can’t blame a man for trying.”

Instead of responding, I pushed past him into the hallway and headed for Devlin’s room. He answered after the third knock, shirtless and a little sweaty. A part of my brain noted how much muscle he’d put on in the last few years and filed away an image for later consideration.

What’s up?”

The Texan is alive,” I said. “Akumi’s brother was kidnapped instead and the kidnappers want her to turn in the Texan and anyone who’s been talking to him about the overseas thing.”

Our overseas thing?”

I nodded.

Devlin swore under his breath, turned on his heel, and practically stalked back into the room. He left the door open, so I followed after.

How do you know any of that?” Devlin asked. He began rifling through an opened suitcase in search of a shirt.

I’m not sure how, but Max found a way to hack my phone. She did the same thing to the Twins when they started working for the Texan.”

Devlin paused, blinked, and then shook his head ruefully. “Why didn’t we think of that?”

I knew why. The Twins, Akumi in particular, had unsettled me. I’d allowed myself to fixate on them as possible suspects, instead of potential assets. If my parents hadn’t low-key forced me to join them at dinner, I might still have been tailoring plans to deal with them. Worse, I wouldn’t have even the slim advantage I had now: I knew that the kidnappers wanted to use Akumi as their weapon against us, and she didn’t know that I knew.

Is Mila in the gym?” I asked.

Devlin found a suitable shirt. He spent a few seconds looking at it before he shook his head. “Her mechanic friend called. Apparently, whatever you guys did to her motorcycles was…problematic.”

I winced. “How long is she going to be out?”

I didn’t ask and she didn’t say. But I’m sure she’ll rush over if we need her.”

We did need her. Or we would, at any rate. We could save Kira, reveal the kidnappers, and bring everyone that much closer to a peaceful resolution, given time. But, in order for us to do that, we needed Akumi to wait. If she decided that the best course of action was to betray the Texan and then come after us, we’d have to deal with her and our regularly scheduled rogues gallery.

I stepped closer and helped Devlin into the shirt. With his broken arm, it took more subtle maneuvering than usual, but the two of us managed it.

Thanks,” he said. “What do you want to do?”

Call Mila,” I said. “Tell her to be ready to move. We don’t have an address yet, but Max says she can put us in the general area of Akumi.”

Then what?”

We talk her down?” I said, not even bothering to hide my uncertainty. “Convince her that working with us is the better option? I managed to talk her out of beating me to death earlier, so I think she’d be open to the idea.”

Devlin stared at me for several long seconds. He opened his mouth, reconsidered whatever it was that he’d been planning to say, closed his mouth and shook his head slowly. “I hope I’m going to get a better explanation of whatever the hell happened at this dinner, at some point.”

Of course,” I said. “What I know, you’ll know. Just not right now.”

He accepted that with a slight nod. “You don’t want to wait for Mila? We’re going to need some kind of physical security, in case Akumi gets a little jumpy.”

Yes, that thought had crossed my mind.”

I sighed. There was only one real option available on such short notice, even though it would inevitably reveal even more of my secrets.

What about CJ?” I asked. “He’s still in the hotel, isn’t he?”

Devlin hesitated before answering. I saw that he’d quickly reached the same conclusion as me. “As far as I know,” he said finally. “Your grandmother told him to be available, in case we needed him for something.”

We need him for something,” I said. “Something tells that Akumi isn’t the type to change her mind once she’d made a decision.”

So we need to get there before she makes a decision,” Devlin finished for me.

Exactly. Tell him the bare minimum necessary to get him dressed, armed, and ready as soon as possible.”

We’re going to those coordinates Max gave you?”

I shook my head and took out my phone.

Where are you at? Right now?

Max: Why?

This is your fight, too. We’re coming to you.

Chapter 106

The conversation at the dinner table passed by like a thousand dinner conversations in the past. From Raymond, it was all business: discussions with the Texan about the greater Dallas area, questions about the local movers and shakers, and speculation about what the company could do here in the future. Elizabeth paid no attention to her husband’s shop talk; she did not, in fact, even bother to pretend to pay attention. She focused intently on her wine, steadily diminishing the contents of her bottle of red at an impressive – albeit, not so impressive as to be worrying – rate.

Akumi and Barrett comprised the only two differences in this particular dinner table chat. Barrett kept himself on the outside of the conversation between the Texan and my father; close enough to comment occasionally, but far enough away that neither party was surprised when he lapsed into silence. He seemed more focused on reading their body language than in anything they were talking about. And Akumi sat to my right like a statue. She only spoke when absolutely necessary, hardly ever moved a muscle except to take a drink of her whiskey, and generally exuded an aura of absolute self-control.

I found it that particular point interesting. She was in the same line of work as Mila, but I could only remember a few times when Mila had ever given off a similar feeling. For the most part, she just seemed disinterested in developing events. When violence was imminent, she grew noticeably excited but, even then, there wasn’t the sensation of control. With Mila, I was always vaguely concerned that she might be more likely to use her fists to solve a problem when words would have done. With Akumi, though, I couldn’t shake the feeling that she was only calm because she kept her own violent tendencies tightly leashed. If that was a good thing or not, I couldn’t quite say.

Instead of paying active attention to the table talk, I just went through the motions. I nodded when appropriate; smiled politely at the Texan’s slightly off-color jokes; and patted Barrett’s hand at regular intervals, lest my parents think my fake relationship wasn’t intimate enough. That only took the smallest fraction of my mental processing power, though. I’d long since learned how to act like an heiress while thinking of other things, and I took advantage of those hard-won lessons now.

We’d theorized that the kidnappers had taken the Texan from the dock house. I knew now, conclusively, that we’d been wrong on that front. According to Akumi, though, they had grabbed Kira, so we’d been wrong due to our lack of information. An understandable mistake. Did that mean we had to throw out the entire model, though? Or could it simply be fine-tuned to account for this new wrinkle?

There had been a kidnapping, in the midst of all that bloodshed. Some party had assaulted the dock with overwhelming force of arms, killed every man working inside except for Kira, and then taken the male Twin away with them for an as-yet unknown reason. Akumi might know more about the situation than she’d already told me; she might, in fact, know more than she even realized. But I didn’t think that she’d be able to pick the guilty party out of a line up or anything. We’d still have to put together the myriad puzzle pieces on our own.

I paused, rewound my thoughts, and picked out one inconsistency after only a second’s consideration. The dock had been filled with workers. Kira had been dragged away from inside the building. But could the kidnappers have known, for sure, that he was inside at that exact moment? Even if they had, why would they risk killing Kira by pouring ammunition through the walls when it would have been incredibly easy for him to stand up or step to the side at the worst possible moment?

Another question went onto my growing list. Had the kidnappers arrived to take anyone in particular at all or had they just grabbed someone at random? If it was the former, then they’d taken an insane risk with their attack strategy. They hadn’t gotten the Texan or Max. The only person they managed to get away with was a new employee, so to speak. If it was the latter, then…why grab anyone at all?

No sooner had that question popped into my mind then an answer presented itself: ransom. It should have occurred to me as a possibility earlier, considering my upbringing, but I’d been so focused on blaming the Twins that it simply hadn’t occurred to me. I just needed to check some things before I really committed to that line of thinking.

Excuse me,” I said. My father, one finger raised as if to make a point, paused before speaking. Every one at the table, Elizabeth excluded, turned to look at me. I swallowed nervously, translated what I needed to say into appropriate small talk, and turned to the Texan. “You said that you’re from here, Mister Legree?”

He shrugged. “Here and there,” he said. “I’m not particularly bound to any one city in Texas. I’m more of a statewide personality. Got homes all over the Lone Star, if that makes any sense.”

Translation: No, you’re not going to find out where I’m from. Nice try, though.

I didn’t need to know where he was born, though, just like I didn’t need to know his real name. “You wouldn’t happen to know anyone who’s good with computers in the area, would you?” I asked. “I had some difficulties with my personal laptop – spyware, keylogging, that kind of thing – and I was just wondering if you knew anyone talented who might be able to help.”

The Texan’s eyes widened slightly. “How, uh…how long you been struggling with that issue?”

A couple of days,” I said. “It’s not a huge issue, honestly. Really, it’s more irritating than anything else.”

The corners of his lips turned up slightly. “I had something like that myself,” he said. “A while back.”

How’d you get rid of it?”

I didn’t,” he said and shrugged. “But I did learn to live with it.”

I sighed, a bit more dramatically than necessary. I wasn’t exactly lying. Max was irritating and I would have to check everything she’d touched to make sure there weren’t any listening devices. “I’d rather not have to work around this kind of thing, long-term.”

Tell you what,” the Texan said. “Give me a call when you’re back with the computer. I’ll see if I can’t talk you through it.”

Works for me.”

He tried to hide his ensuing sigh of relief, but I was looking specifically for it. The Texan hadn’t known that Max was still in town. Unless he was an incredible liar – a strong possibility, and one I couldn’t discount until I got the Texan and Devlin into a room together – I could take that as an indication that he wasn’t involved in the kidnapping at all and that he hadn’t been in touch with her since the massacre.

I didn’t know you were interested in computers,” Elizabeth said. “When did that start?”

Oh, uh…college?” I offered weakly. “It’s really just a passing thing. Programming is the language of the future and all that.”

Elizabeth looked at me over the lip of her wine glass, shrugged, and returned to the task of finishing the bottle. “If you say so,” she said between mouthfuls. “I’ve never been able to make sense of them.”

So, Mister Legree…?”

Benjamin,” the Texan said. “Ben, really. A name with that many syllables is just exhausting.”

Ben,” I said, “now that I’ve got your attention, I had a few more questions about Dallas. You don’t mind, do you?”

Not at all,” he said. “Ask away.”

I don’t even know where to start,” I said. Translation: How am I supposed to ask you questions about the dock massacre if I can’t say anything that might tip off my parents?

You were curious about the people, no?” Akumi asked.

The people? What was she…

That’s kind of a complicated question,” the Texan said. “We got all types here. Big spenders, like the one your father’s interested in, but also a lot of local folk that prefer to keep all their money under their mattress. The kind that don’t trust banks, if you catch my drift.”

Oh. Thus far, we still hadn’t been able to get any sort of information about the structure of the local underworld. The Texan was a part of it, but he existed on the outskirts of those people, by design. Still, he might be able to provide us with a list of suspects. If those weren’t the culprits, we could work forward from there.

What kind of a person would do that?” I asked. It wasn’t the most elegant wording, but I couldn’t think of anything better on the spot.

The Texan spent the next ten minutes describing a group of people in the area who might have been responsible for the kidnapping, in a series of anecdotes and nominally funny stories. There was Phil Elliot, a construction baron who moonlighted in hiring out muscle for various illegal jobs; Matthew Matheson, a defense attorney who’d collected a lot of favors by not being picky about exactly who he defended; a particularly enigmatic CPA, with no consistent name, with his fingers deep inside the various gambling dens and betting rackets; and a host of others. Even as I listened, I marveled at the complexity of the Dallas underworld, with its checks and balances. It seemed like a game, wherein one party’s fortunes would be on the rise until someone else managed to bring them back down to earth. It was useful information to have, in that it allowed me to get a better grasp of the power currents taking place in the shadows.

But games have rules. And whoever had assaulted the dock house and kidnapped Kira hadn’t been playing by the rules. I’d have to check with the rest of the team to be absolutely certain, but I was ready to bet money by the end of the Texan’s list: the guilty party wasn’t local to the area. Another thing we’d been right about, even if we’d reached that conclusion by being wrong about other things first.

My theory became far more plausible. Only an outside party could hope to sweep into a city as regimented as Dallas, attack a local fixture, and then get away with the ransom without bringing down the wrath of the entire underworld on his or her head. The main question now, then, was a matter of intention: what ransom did the kidnappers want?

The Texan turned to Raymond. “What are your thoughts on expanding internationally?”

Raymond waved the question away. “We’ve discussed it internally, but it’s never been a serious possibility. Speaking honestly, we lack the infrastructure to implement that sort of thing. Why do you ask?”

I’ve been looking to diversify,” the Texan said, “and doing a lot of my own research into what goes into that type of business. Obviously, it takes a strong CEO to keep everyone on the same page when they’re in one country. But expanding overseas? That’s the kind of thing that requires…two, maybe even three, people to keep everything running smoothly?”

I just barely kept myself from jerking upright in my seat. He wasn’t talking to my father; he was talking to me. And he was talking about the Magi. Max had told us that he’d been looking into the strange events of the last six months. He must have gotten farther than even she realized. And, since he’d reached that point without the assistance of the Lady, that meant he knew different things than we did. Probably more things, hidden within the servers and files the kidnappers had taken.

That would make one hell of a ransom.

Except it still didn’t explain why they’d taken Kira. He didn’t know anything. The Twins had come to Mila for help, specifically because the machinations of the Magi had been so far above their heads as to seem otherworldly. There was still more going on. I didn’t know what it could be or even how to go about finding the right questions, but I was certain of that much.

Raymond let out one of his patented deep belly chuckles. “I’m a perfectionist,” he said. “The idea of letting someone else control any aspect of my family’s company is a non-starter, right on its face.”

There’s no one you trust to handle that kind of decision making on your behalf?”

My children aren’t interested, each for their own reasons,” Raymond said. He didn’t look at me as he spoke, as if that would somehow disguise who he was talking about. “So, no, I don’t think I’d be able to just let that responsibility go free.”

You could hire a headhunter,” Barrett suggested. “I’ve known a few who were very good at finding whatever qualifications you’re looking for.”

My blood went cold. With that sentence, I could see the silhouette of the kidnappers’ plan. There were still details I didn’t know – probably that I would never know – but those were irrelevant in the grand scheme. When the Texan realized that he’d stumbled upon information too dangerous, he’d hired the Twins to protect him. So, instead of attacking two bodyguards of Mila’s caliber directly, the kidnappers had waited patiently for the Twins to separate. Then, they’d taken Kira. Not to force the Texan’s hand; they’d done it to force Akumi’s.

What would she do to rescue her twin brother? Would she break a contract? Or worse: would she actively go rogue? She was with the Texan all of the time, now, as a consequence of their deal. If someone wanted her to bring him in, no one would be able to stop her. Even if I asked Mila to join the Texan’s detail, that might not be enough. Mila would be fighting to fulfill her contract, but she had no particular loyalty to the Texan; Akumi would be fighting to save her only family.

God, I couldn’t imagine how bad that would get.

We finished the steaks and were waiting for desserts when my phone vibrated in my purse. Barrett and the Texan were discussing the artistic merits of Harry Winston while Raymond attempted, unsuccessfully, to dissuade Elizabeth from her second bottle of wine. Akumi was looking at her own phone, so I didn’t feel guilty or rude when I fished my latest burner from my bag and checked the screen.

The message was from an unlisted number. I read through it anyway, because there were a lot of people in my life now who preferred that anonymity.

 

Unknown Number: They’re making demands. RIGHT NOW.

 

I blinked at the message, re-read it, and then typed out a quick response.

 

Who’s making demands? Of who? For what? And who is this?

 

The response came so quickly that the sender must have been working on it before I’d typed anything.

 

Unknown Number: This is Max. I bugged you and the new hires. Someone’s talking to her.

 

The fact that Max had bugged my phone came as much less of a surprise than it probably should. I’d already resolved to check everything for that specific reason, and she was just playing to type. When we had time, I could deal with her complete failure to understand boundaries. Right now, the content of the text was far more important.

 

You knew about Akumi?

Unknown number: Not until you did. That’s not the point. SHE’S TALKING TO THEM.

 

I glanced to one side, so that I could watch Akumi in my peripheral vision. Sure enough, she was fixated on the phone in her hands. She read through something on the screen and typed out a response so quickly that I was surprised the screen didn’t break.

 

You hacked her phone?

Unknown number: Of course, I hacked her phone.

What’s she saying?

 

Max didn’t respond for a few seconds. The wait was just long enough for me to overanalyze every twitch in Akumi’s flat expression. When the text came through, it was a series of images. I swiped through them at near-panic speed.

 

Anonymous: We have your brother. We’ll return him if you do what we ask.

Akumi: What do you want?

Anonymous: What we’ve always wanted. Information.

Akumi: I don’t know anything.

Anonymous: We don’t want what you know. We want what he knows.

Akumi: ???

Anonymous: Your client. Anyone who’s spoken to him about anything overseas. Bring them to us and we’ll release your brother.

 

I swallowed nervously. I started to type out a message to Max, but paused when I saw Akumi type out a short message into her phone. An instant later, that same message was delivered to me via Max’s unlisted number.

 

Akumi: When and where?